The golden boy of a golden team

Rivaldo gave the world a warning four years ago - Kaka can be the one to sprinkle magic dust this time

Andy Mitten
Sunday 04 June 2006 00:00

"There's a young guy who plays for Sao Paulo called Kaka who plays just behind the front two. You don't know anything about him in Europe, but watch him if he is chosen for the World Cup."

"But kaka means 'shit' in Spanish."

"I know, but he's definitely not." Rivaldo, then Barcelona's and Brazil's main man, laughed. "He has the qualities to be a big star."

Rivaldo's recommendation, made in 2002, came as a surprise. Kaka was in many ways his antithesis, and Rivaldo had just spoken passionately about discrimination in Brazil and the gulf in living standards between his impoverished upbringing in the north-east of the country and the lives enjoyed by the metropolitan set of Sao Paulo. Rivaldo was from a background so poor that he walked a 15-mile round trip to training as a youngster.

In contrast, Kaka (pronounced Ka-kah), the son of an engineer father and a mother who taught maths, was raised in Sao Paulo among the opulent Paulista villas of the middle classes. And Kaka was a potential rival, playing in the same position. Indeed, when Kaka made his World Cup debut it was at Rivaldo's expense for the final 18 minutes of a group game against Costa Rica. Brazil were leading 5-2, and while he took no further part in their 2002 success, Kaka enjoyed the experience, watching and learning from his exalted peers.

By 2003, Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite - the "Kaka" nickname comes courtesy of his baby brother Rodrigo, who couldn't pronounce "Ricardo" properly - had played in five Confederations Cup games for Brazil. He had replaced Rivaldo for his country, and would do the same for his club. Unselfishly, Rivaldo had also recommended that his then club, Milan, buy Kaka. Though Chelsea also made a bid, Kaka moved to the San Siro for £6 million, after three seasons in Sao Paulo's first team.

Granted, Kaka was expected to spend the season among Milan's reserves, which might have prompted Rivaldo's generosity. But the slight 6ft 1in newcomer elbowed both him and the sublime Rui Costa to the sidelines and weighed in with 10 goals as the Rossoneri won Serie A in his first season.

"He is simply extraordinary," shrugged Rui Costa. Rivaldo? He became Kaka's manager. Brother Rodrigo, meanwhile, followed Kaka to Milan, although he struggled to make the same impact and is currently on loan with Rimini in Serie B.

In 2004, Kaka came joint 10th with Wayne Rooney for the Fifa World Player of the Year award, a position which he improved to eighth last season. Rooney didn't make the top 10.

At Milan, he was an integral part of the 2004-05 team. "Brazilians said that Kaka played like greats such as Rai, Zico or Rivaldo," said Milan's coach, Carlo Ance-lotti, "but Kaka reminds me of Platini." Pele opined that Kaka was the new Johan Cruyff, while Zico said he reminded him of Socrates.

Although comfortable playing anywhere in midfield and either side of a main striker, Kaka usually led Milan's five-man midfield, positioned behind Andriy Shevchenko. Milan may have lost to Liverpool in the final of the Champions' League, but at least Kaka could find consolation in being named the best midfielder in the tournament, ahead even of Steven Gerrard.

"I don't know whether he's the best player Milan have had in my time here," remarked the club president, Silvio Berlusconi, "but I've never seen a player so young do the things he does for us." His Brazil team-mate Ronaldinho added to the plaudits, claiming: "Kaka is a magical footballer who creates moments of inspiration. As well as being a superb passer of the ball with excellent positioning, he can run past players, shoot and score."

The pair are key to Brazil lifting a sixth World Cup, and while Ronaldinho advertises washing powder and Kaka models Armani, they both point to the sky after scoring. A deeply religious figure, like several of his Brazil team-mates, who famously dropped to their knees to pray after their last World Cup win in Yokohama, Kaka's customised boots bear the legend: "I Belong to Jesus". His faith was strengthened after a full recovery from a broken vertebra sustained in a freak accident at a water park in Sao Paulo in 2000.

Kaka returned to South America's largest city last December in happier circumstances to marry the socialite Caroline Celico. Twice voted his home country's sexiest footballer, the Brazilian Beckham isn't short of admirers, although he prefers his bible to babes.

With 37 caps and 12 goals for his country, Kaka has the experience to excel in Germany playing alongside Ronaldinho behind the likely pairing of Adriano and Ronaldo. Using a probable 4-2-2-2 formation, Brazil start their tournament against Croatia in Berlin on 13 June. The expectations are great, especially for Kaka's precocious talents.

The hot shots: But who will wear the Golden Boot?

Luca Toni Italy

The 29-year-old is already a Golden Boot winner, of sorts: 31 goals in Serie A - it is 47 years since anyone scored more than 30 - made him Europe's Golden Shoe winner. The big centre-forward has been nurtured by Marcello Lippi and will lead the attack.

Lukas Podolski Germany

In his debut season in 2003 he scored 10 goals in 19 games, the best by an 18-year-old in Bundesliga history. Now 21, he has scored 46 league goals in 81 games, better than one every two matches. His international record is similar: 12 goals in 24 games.

Thierry Henry France

After a disappointing 2002 World Cup and losing in the Champions' League final, the 28-year-old is not only in prime condition, he is in a determined mood too. The Premiership's leading scorer again this season, he is considered the second-best player in the world.

Ruud van Nistelrooy Holland

Despite his fall-out with Manchester United, he remains the focus of Marco van Basten's attack. The 29-year-old will be required to do only one thing, score, with Arjen Robben and Dirk Kuyt supplying crosses, through-balls and one-twos.

Matt Denver

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