BOSTON — Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, more commonly known to his legion of soccer fans as Kaka, knows a great deal about redemption.
But almost all that the 28-year-old Brazilian superstar knows stems from a faith that has cast him as the most prominent face in his country’s burgeoning evangelical Christian movement.
It is an unusual role in a nation where soccer superstars — and Brazil’s have numbered among the most storied in the history of the game — have tended toward lifestyles that were every bit as flashy as their game. Kaka is, above all, devout — on and off the field. He celebrates victories with prayer and wears T-shirts and soccer shoes that are branded in his faith: “I Believe in Jesus” or “God is Faithful.” He extols the virtues of “The Book,” has revealed publicly that he and his wife were virgins when they married in 2005 and rocks to gospel music. (His favorite band is Resgate — “Redemption” in Portuguese.)
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Kaka was always destined to be a star with a difference. Unlike most of Brazil’s soccer standouts who learned the game on the streets in urban slums, Kaka was a middle-class kid — his father was an engineer — who showed promise at tennis too. Education was a family priority and he didn’t sign his first club contract to play soccer until he was, at 15 years old, well post-prodigy.
Still, he ascended the Brazilian ranks swiftly and, at age 20, had a cameo role on the team that won the 2002 World Cup. For a young superstar athlete, he had a rare sophistication, embracing a personal mission that transcended the game. At 22, he had already become the youngest-ever international ambassador against hunger for the United Nation’s World Food Program.
All this virtue and selflessness has made him the perfect team leader for national coach Dunga. When Dunga was captain of Brazil’s 1994 World Cup champions, he patrolled the midfield with unstinting effort and, when necessary, ferocity. And he has been recasting the Brazilian team in his own image. That means burying the remnants of its “beautiful game” while extolling a more tenacious and tactical, defensive-minded approach.
Kaka is capable of breathless and exquisite runs that once were the lifeblood of Brazilian soccer. In Italy he scored 90 goals in six standout seasons as the offensive sparkplug in the A.C. Milan midfield. But he has also proved willing to make the sacrifices — sharing the ball and the glory — and to do the dirty work — chasing back on defense — that Dunga commanded.
Dunga took over the team following the 2006 World Cup when, after having reached three straight finals, Brazil went out to France in the quarters. Kaka hardly shined, scoring his lone goal in Brazil’s opening 1-0 win over Croatia. Still, he wasn’t saddled with much of the blame for what fans regarded as a debacle. That was reserved for the others — Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Adriano — in what was a ballyhooed offensive quartet. Kaka is the only one of the four who, with Dunga’s more democratic team concepts, survived to claim a spot on the 2010 Cup squad.
Certainly Brazil seemed back on track a year ago when the team won the Confederations Cup in South Africa. Fans could quibble about one-goal victories over teams from Egypt, South Africa and the United States. But Brazil was no longer into style points, rather playing — just like most of the soccer world — the results game. The Confederations Cup seemed the perfect launch, too, for Kaka, as he headed toward a new home in Spain.
Real Madrid had paid more than $90 million to pair him with the Portuguese striker Cristiano Ronaldo, who had just come over from Manchester United with a pricetag of more than $130 million. Madrid was to be the host city for the 2010 European Champions League final and the team figured a $220 million investment in its attack would pay dividends when Real Madrid hoisted the coveted trophy on home turf.
Kaka and Real Madrid, however, did not prove a match made in heaven. The team not only failed to win the European crown, going out in the quarterfinals to underdog Lyon, but for the second straight year finished behind Barcelona in La Liga. Through much of the season, Kaka was slowed by injuries and off his game. While Ronaldo tallied 33 goals in 35 contests, Kaka scored just eight times and seemed unable — not unwilling — to find his stride as second fiddle. The two games against Barcelona wound up deciding the title; Real Madrid not only lost both, but failed to score a single goal.
Real Madrid fans are notoriously prickly and this time Kaka didn’t escape blame for the failure. Fans began to resent his commercial commitments and even his faith — anything Kaka did that, they believed, lessened his focus on team pursuits. Ironically, while Argentina and Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi was sometimes criticized back home for caring, above all, about his club, Madrid fans fretted that Kaka’s performance was diminished as a result of his leadership obligations to the Brazilian team.
World Cup 2010 won’t resolve that thorny question. But it offers Kaka a chance for resurrection and redemption — in the soccer sense, of course. Does he still warrant a place on the highest perch in the game’s pantheon? Can he still be the man in the middle that galvanizes a team? His faith assures him that redemption awaits regardless. And that, of course, remains most important of all — except perhaps now in Brazil where World Cup dreams are paramount.