'Everyone wanted Beckham, we got Kaka'

Milan believe their Brazilian playmaker will become the best player in the world.
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He is the embodiment of footballers' dreams, and those of a few footballers' wives too, no doubt. Good-looking, ridiculously gifted and already a millionaire. Only one thing spoils the new David Beckham: his name. Kaka.

He is the embodiment of footballers' dreams, and those of a few footballers' wives too, no doubt. Good-looking, ridiculously gifted and already a millionaire. Only one thing spoils the new David Beckham: his name. Kaka.

In his native Brazil, it did not raise a snigger. But in Italy, Kaka is crap. Not literally, you understand. Far from it. The new idol of Serie A has so impressed Milan that the club have extended his contract until 2009. The 22-year-old, who was christened Ricardo Izecson Dos Santos Leite, makes everyone swoon. He is on the billboards in Italy as the model for Armani jeans, while adidas are marketing him as their football face in South America in the way that Beckham is in Europe.

The irony of Kaka's name will not be lost on Celtic. They once had a Brazilian called Rafael Scheidt. The club put the name Rafael on his shirt but he played like his surname. One of the first things Martin O'Neill did when he took over at Celtic four years ago was to ship Rafael back to Brazil, where Celtic still pay the misfit's wages to this day.

It will not be lost on the 8,000 Celtic fans at the San Siro on Wednesday for the vital Champions' League Group F encounter that the £5m John Barnes squandered on Rafael is almost what Milan forked out for Kaka.

Kaka arrived in the summer of 2003, barely weeks after the European Cup had been placed in the Milan trophy cabinet for the sixth time. His artistry and breathtaking collection of goals secured the Scudetto in his first season. Now the Brazilian prodigy carries the burden of Milan-ese expectation that this season will bring yet another Champions' League final.

"We have an unbelievable squad," states Kaka. "We want to win the Champions' League. I signed for this club because I wanted to win trophies. I remember watching them as a boy playing against Sao Paulo on television in Tokyo [in the World Club Championship] but I never thought I would achieve the dream of pulling on this shirt."

Milan, though, with their remarkable scouting network, kept an equally impressive watch on Kaka. They saw him play for Brazil Under-17s at the World Championships, and by the time the 2002 World Cup came around, his talent was so obvious that he was in the full Brazil squad.

"We followed him for two years and got to know his quality," said Ariedo Braida, Milan's sporting director. Adriano Galliani, the Milan vice-president, is rather more bullish. "Everyone wanted Beckham a year ago but not us," said Galliani.

"It not in our genes to have an Englishman here. It is in our DNA to have a great No 10 playing behind two forwards. Kaka will become the best player in the world."

Indeed, there is an affinity at Milan for Brazilians. It was a former star, Leonardo, who recommended Kaka, and he has other compatriots, notably Cafu, the energetic full-back, and Dida, the goalkeeper.

However, Group F has a rich Brazilian blend running right through it. Every team have them. Barcelona, of course, have Ronaldinho, Silvinho and Edmilson, while Shakthar Donetsk bought two, Matuzalem and Brandao, from Serie A. Even Celtic have dipped a toe back into the Brazilian waters by signing Juninho.

There is a connection between Kaka and the man who left his native Sao Paulo behind nine years ago to confront the cold of Middles- brough to cash in on his football gift. Juninho honed his skills on the same pitches at Sao Paulo's celebrated academy - and even played in that World Club Championship game against Milan that Kaka recalled.

However, while Juninho was, like most urban children in Sao Paulo, undernourished, Kaka came from an affluent background. He did not have to bunk up with the poor kids in the dormitory, but he quickly fitted in there, just as he has at Milan. "I never thought I would win the affect-ions of the public so soon," he says of his remarkable rise since that £7m transfer.

Certainly O'Neill was taken with the Brazilian when he watched Milan in midweek. However, Milan's 2-1 defeat at home to newly promoted Messina has given the Celtic manager some hope. "Mes-sina only played with one striker and scored from their only two attacks," he said. "But we cannot just go and soak up pressure; we have to have a go and I'm confident we'll score."