The curious case of Digao: Kaka’s considerably less talented brother
Lesser known, lesser talented footballing siblings are nothing new – just ask the likes of Rodney Sneijder, Joel Drogba or Felix Kroos. But Digao was a little bit different.
The younger brother of AC Milan legend Kaka, Digao carved out an entire career living in the shadow of his older sibling as a footballer who rarely, if ever, played actual football.
In the years since, Digao’s name has become a byword for nepotism with fans ensconced in their belief that the Brazilian was never actually any good in the first place.
It’s not hard to see why. He played 48 games over the course of his often nomadic eight-year professional career, at a rate of just six games a season. Yet those numbers don’t tell the whole sorry story of Kaka’s considerably less talented brother.
Born Rodrigo Izecson dos Santos Leite, Digao followed his brother through the ranks at Sao Paulo. By the time Kaka had begun making waves with the senior team, Digao was just breaking though in the youth ranks as a promising defender.
Significantly taller, the wiry, 6ft 4in stopper impressed enough to represent Sao Paulo at the 2003 edition of the prestigious Copinha youth tournament. The stomping ground for many a Brazilian starlet, players like Fred, Diego and more recently Neymar and Gabriel Jesus had made their name at the tournament.
Digao didn’t exactly pull up any trees – Sao Paulo were narrowly eliminated in the group phase – but he did catch the eye of AC Milan. By the summer of 2004, the Rossoneri were willing to take a gamble on Digao, who had yet to make a single first-team appearance for Sao Paulo.
Much of that was undoubtedly down to the success of Kaka, who had arrived for €8.5million the previous summer and hit the ground running in Serie A.
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It may also have had something to do with his father, Bosco Leite. A retired engineer and businessman, Leite was already serving as Kaka’s agent at the time and would have had no qualms about touting his other son to the Milan club.
From Milan’s perspective, the deal seemed like a no brainer. Digao was signed for a paltry £450,000. If he turned out to be good, then great. If he didn’t, then at least they had won favour with Leite and, in turn, Kaka.
Any hopes of Digao making an immediate impact were soon scuppered, however, when the Rossoneri realised they had exceeded their maximum number of non-EU players.
Loaned out to Sampdoria, Digao turned out for their Primavera team, with a view to returning to Milan in good time. He did exactly that a year later, joining the under-19 team managed by Franco Baresi.
The decision to bring Digao back to work under one of Milan’s greatest ever defenders was the clearest sign yet that the club wanted to make good on its investment.
Unfortunately, his route into the first team looked nigh on impossible to traverse. The same summer Digao returning from his Sampdoria sojourn, Jaap Stam arrived to compete as part of a squad featuring Paolo Maldini, Alessandro Nesta, Kakha Kaladze and Alessandro Costacurta.
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It had proved too much for fellow prospect Fabio Coloccini who left for Deportivo La Coruna. What chance did Kaka’s unproven brother have?
A plan was hatched. One that would become increasingly familiar as the years rolled by: Digao was going out on loan to Serie B side Rimini. He didn’t know it at the time, but what followed was arguably the best two years of his career.
In truth, the Brazilian could not have picked a better destination than Rimini. Located in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy, close to the Adriatic Sea, Rimini as one of Italy’s most popular seaside resorts. It also boasted a football team on the rise.
Under seasoned Italian coach Leonardo Acori, the Biancorossi had enjoyed two promotions in the space of three seasons to reach Serie B.
But Digao didn’t get off to a great start. Handed his debut in the Coppa Italia against Fiorentina, the Brazilian gave away a penalty and was red carded in a disastrous display of Jonathan Woodgate proportions. It would be a month before Digao would even feature in a matchday squad again.
Despite featuring sparingly for Remini, the Brazilian did eventually adjust to the rigours of Serie B and the loan deal was renewed for another season.
The 2006-07 campaign ended up being not only the best of Digao’s career but also the best in the history of Rimini, who finished fifth and might have fared even better had newly-relegated Juventus not been competing for promotion. In most other seasons Rimini would have qualified for the promotion play-offs.
Bolstered by canny signings like Samir Handanovic on loan from Udinese and future Serie A title winner Alessandro Matri, Digao also played his part in Rimini’s success, featuring 18 times and producing a series of assured performances.
But fourth-placed Piacenza’s 1-1 final day draw with Triestina saw them finish 10 points behind Genoa. Under Serie B rules, a gap of 10 points or more between third and fourth meant no play-offs, with Genoa promoted automatically instead.
That was as good as it got for Rimini and Digao. Acori left that summer to take over at Livorno while the Brazilian returned to the San Siro for one last shot at Rossoneri glory.
Digao returned to an AC Milan team that had just lifted the European Cup, with Kaka the hero.
With his sibling’s stock at an all-time high, it’s little wonder that the club decided to take another look at Digao, who had fared well at Rimini and, at 21, had time on his side.
Handed the No.31 jersey, he had to wait until December for his chance to impress manager Carlo Ancelotti. It didn’t go well.
Picked to start the first-leg of Milan’s Coppa Italia round of 16 clash with Catania, Digao was directly at fault for both goals in a 2-1 home defeat, enduring David Luiz-esque calamity for the first and teeing up the second with a weak clearance. Debuts clearly weren’t his thing.
Selected for the return leg in early January of 2008, another nervous display in a 1-1 draw all but condemned the Brazilian to the scrapheap and an extended stay in the reserves.
He appeared just once more for the Rossoneri’s first team, coming on for 45 minutes against Lazio in what would prove to be his only taste of Serie A football.
That summer, Digao was on the move again, joining Standard Liege in yet another season-long loan.
Digao approached the move with renewed optimism, having been called up by Dunga as one of 74 players picked as part of Brazil’s 2008 Olympics squad. He didn’t make the cut, but it was boost nonetheless.
A significant step down from Serie A, the hope was that the Brazilian could enjoy more regular game time, regaining the composure that was wanting during those ill-fated Coppa Italia matches.
An impressive campaign in Belgium would also boost his resale value, something those behind the scenes at Milan were only too aware of with Kaka’s exit looming.
Those plans soon went out the window, however, when Digao suffered a serious ankle ligament injury before the campaign had even kicked off.
Sidelined for much of the season, he went on to play just two minutes of first-team football with Standard who, to quite literally add insult to injury, won the league in his absence.
Digao returned to the San Siro to find a very different AC Milan to the one he had left a year earlier.
With Kaka now at Real Madrid and Los Blancos unlikely to come calling for Digao anytime, the Brazilian found himself loaned out to a series of clubs that either didn’t want him to begin with, or were wholly unimpressed by what they saw from a defender still recovering after such a long lay-off.
He lasted just half a season at Lecce, playing just twice before the deal was cancelled, returning to Milan only to be loaned out to Crotone, where he failed to make a single appearance.
Evidently eager to simply play and regain some semblance of match fitness/sanity, Digao’s final loan move away from Milan proved a leftfield choice – Portuguese second division side Penafiel.
But, by the Brazilian’s increasingly low standards, it proved something approaching a success. While injuries limited Digao to just 12 appearances there was one notable highlight – Digao scored an actual goal. His one and only as a professional.
What is more surprising, perhaps, is that it was a good one, with the Brazilian deftly flicking the ball past the goalkeeper from a free-kick on the left-hand side during a League Cup clash with Vitoria Setubal. It wasn’t quite up there with Kaka versus Manchester United in the Champions League, but he celebrated it like a madman nonetheless.
New York, old Digao
That summer he returned to AC Milan and agreed, at last, to have his contract rescinded. What followed next went some way to defining the lasting memory of Digao.
Having rode the Rossoneri gravy train this far, the Brazilian might have been tempted to seek out an opportunity at a lower level where he could play regularly and attempt to resurrect his career. But Digao had other ideas, heading to America and a trial with New York Red Bulls.
Eventually handed a one-year contract with the MLS franchise in 2012, general manager and sporting director Erik Soler insisted the deal was for purely footballing reasons.
“He has earned a solid amount of experience for a number of European sides and we are glad to add him to our roster,” Soler said.
Few people were buying it though.
With Kaka an increasingly peripheral figure at Madrid, speculation was growing that the Brazilian was weighing up a potentially lucrative move to the MLS. Recruiting his brother seemed the perfect way to ensure he picked the Red Bulls.
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Digao seemed only too happy to play up to this perception too, teasing the press with hints about his brother’s potential arrival.
“We played together in 2007-2008 at Milan. And obviously it’s depending more on my brother than on me,” he told the New York Post.
“Yes, I’d like to play with my brother again, definitely. Will that influence my brother to come here? I don’t know; it’s very hard to know.”
The suspicion that Digao was being used to draw in his brother was hardly helped by the fact the defender failed to make a single first-team appearance for the MLS franchise. Not that the Brazilian seemed overly fussed.
The end of the road
By the summer of 2013, the game was up. Kaka rejoined AC Milan, eventually heading to America and Orlando City a few years later.
Digao, meanwhile, announced his immediate retirement from the game aged 27, citing injuries as the chief motivator for hanging up his boots.
Other factors were undoubtedly at play. After eight years spent on benches and in reserve team games, Digao must have felt a sense of disillusionment with the game.
Every footballer needs a bit of luck. The Brazilian may have been fortunate to end up on the books at AC Milan, but every opportunity, every new beginning, ended in disappointment or disaster, set against the backdrop of his brother’s successes.
Digao may have rode on the coattails of his sibling’s success, but he deserves enormous credit for hanging on as long as he did. And he’ll always have Rimini and that Penafiel goal.