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Cafu’s Crazy Last-Minute AC Milan Legacy (2003-08)

  • Dev Bajwa 
Cafu at AC Milan

As far as right-backs go, few can claim to have brought the position as far into the modern era as Cafu. He was a simple for where the world was going from the flanks at the back.

Brazil’s Full-Back Tradition

Loyal Ultra UTD patrons will remember our article on Carlos Alberto.

A player some might argue was an early sign for what was to come from Brazil as one of the most progressive nations in playing football ‘in the most beautiful way possible.’

Though in the time since his glory days with Pele, pragmatism set in.

This need to preserve in lead (perhaps continuously in search of that famous fifth World Cup win) was prioritised in favour of any brash forward-thinking ‘purism’.

That is, until Cafu came in – one of the best ever finds in the Campeonato de Brasília.

The Growth of Cafu in Europe

Having worked his way through the domestic ranks, Cafu soon set his sights abroad.

There, he found some of his best football coming in the maroon and orange strip of AS Roma, under the defence-less principles of Zdenek Zeman. Whose early ‘think forward, then think back’ instructions bore into the young Brazilian’s mind.

He would succeed his coach and stay in Rome for the best part of six seasons, helping them win a game-changing Scudetto in 2001 among some other great names like the evergreen Francesco Totti, and the soon-greying Gabriel Batistuta.

Once this happened, it was believed that a 33-year-old Cafu was intent on winding down the clock once his AS Roma contract reached its use-by date in the summer of 2003.

It’s a move we’ve seen hundreds of ageing players make thanks to the Bosman rule.

Nowadays, the game is littered with examples of maturing stars running out of fuel, and wanting to park the rest of their career in the most lavish space available.

David Beckham traded the tougher world of European football to see what could be done with Major League Soccer in the United States in the mid-2000s.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic famously moved to that same club (LA Galaxy) to see if the way of living in the US was what he wanted to put something of a full stop to an otherwise incredible career. A place of relative serenity to an otherwise tough, competitive and all-conveying lifestyle.

At this point in his career, Japan seemed to be that place for Cafu.

Cafu ‘signs’ for Yokohama Marinos

One of the most desirable and mysterious football cultures in the world.

We’ve written previously about how much Gary Lineker enjoyed his time when he moved there to see out the twilight in his career, but if anyone’s going to tell you what an amazing place this is, it’s probably going to be ex-Nagoya Grampus Eight coach, Arsene Wenger!

The fastidious manager was plying his trade over in Nagoya around the time when the great David Dein signalled his interest in steering his Arsenal train into a new era.

Arsene loved his time in Japan and took a lot of his learnings to his new club.

They became great, as did he – and the rest is history.

Now, it was supposed to be Cafu’s turn. He was offered a lucrative deal to sign with Yokohama Marinos, which he duly signed in January on pre-contract terms.

But as Brian Clough would say, the deal was only 99% done.

How did Carlo Ancelotti sign Cafu?

All of a sudden, a few teams appeared on the scene to scupper the negotiations.

A few stories from the time suggested that maybe Chelsea were in for him (this was before Abramovich, after all), but the most concrete tale derived from Italy once more.

Until none other than Carlo Ancelotti’s AC Milan came calling.

By his own account, Cafu was ready and willing to whole-heartedly join Yokohama that summer – this wasn’t like his ‘last resort’ or the last of many potential opportunities. He was actually looking forward to ending his career in this way, “but then Milan came calling.”

“15 days before my presentation in Japan was due to take place. I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself if I’d refused a club like Milan. I called Yokohama, explained what had happened and asked how I could send that money back. They were very understanding; they even sent me a letter to thank me for reimbursing them. I told them that Milan would pay me less money, but that the experience is unparalleled.”

Cafu on why he signed for Milan in 2003

At Milan, Cafu had everything he needed to succeed.

Most important though, he knew exactly what his role would be.

Success at AC Milan

Cafu was one of many elder statesmen in the Milan dressing room.

Particularly as part of one of the best defences they’ve ever created.

Paolo Maldini (arguably the greatest defender of all time) patrolled the opposite flank, Jaap Stam was installed as a relatively new centre-back following a troubled stint with Lazio, meanwhile another ex-Laziali was the stalwart that needed a partner.

A flowy-haired maestro by the name of Alessandro Nesta.

Together with Cafu, they were the epitome of what was needed to succeed in Serie A at the time as well as on the continental front with the UEFA Champions League.

The 2005 edition is one they’d like to forget, but he remained in the background as the club rallied to defeat their former foes in Athens in 2007.

So, after thinking it was all over with a proposed move to Japan all but final, Cafu was able to extend his career for a further five years from 2003-2008 under the great Carlo Ancelotti at AC Milan, whose unerring qualities as a man-manager proved pivotal to maintaining his physical attributes for as long as was necessary.

Together, they spent five magnificent years in the proud colours of AC Milan, and I’d be surprised if he didn’t make the lion’s share of Milanisti all-time XI’s for years to come.

How do you best remember Cafu as an AC Milan player, and how different could things have been had he chosen to move to Japan?

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