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Toward the Goal: The Kaká Story
By Jeremy V. Jones Janna Jones
Copyright © 2010 Jeremy V. Jones and Janna Jones
All right reserved.
Chapter One A Champion among Champions
It was the biggest game of the year. The winner would be the champion of all of Europe's mighty professional leagues and teams. Soccer clubs across the continent had played each other all season long in the ongoing UEFA Champions League tournament. Now, on May 23, 2007, in approximately ninety minutes of soccer, Italy's A.C. Milan or England's Liverpool would be crowned the best of the best.
Police in riot gear ringed the outside of Olympic Stadium in Athens, Greece. At one point fans without tickets tried to break down a closed gate to storm their way, and the police fired tear gas to repel them.
But the true battle was taking place on the brilliant green grass rectangle at the center of the stadium. Seventy thousand cheering, chanting fans watched as the action unfolded in red and white before them. Milan wore white; Liverpool red.
Liverpool took control of the action early, and the Reds' Jermaine Pennant got the first shot on goal eight minutes in. But Milan's goalkeeper, Dida, made the diving save.
Once Milan settled down the game was evenly matched, and neither side could break through the other's tough defense. It seemed as if the two coaches had prepared their teams so well that the defenses could anticipate every attack.
The Milan team was filled with veteran World Cup winners and European Champions such as Paolo Maldini and Clarence Seedorf, but its superstar was young number twenty-two: Kaká. It was his heroic play in the semifinal game that had secured the victory over Manchester United and propelled the Rossoneri (Milan's nickname, referring to their red and black uniforms) to this final game.
Liverpool was well aware of the threat Kaká posed, and used its defensive midfielder Javier Mascherano to dog Milan's most creative playmaker and pressure him constantly. The tactic seemed to work. Kaká and his whole team mustered only one shot on goal during the first half, and it was easily saved by Liverpool's keeper Pepe Reina.
A minute before halftime, Kaká was fouled just outside of Liverpool's penalty area, giving a free kick to Milan. Their free kick specialist Andrea Pirlo placed the silver and blue-starred game ball on the turf twenty-three yards from the goal in the center of the field. Ten yards back, Liverpool lined up eight men in a wall to create a barrier. Anticipation grew as the fans knew that set plays like this were always dangerous opportunities for a team to score a goal. Would this one put Milan ahead at halftime? Would the Milan shooter go straight for the goal, looking for a way around Liverpool's wall? Or would he pass to a teammate who could take a quick shot from another angle?
Milan's striker Filippo Inzaghi had lined up on the edge of Liverpool's wall. As soon as Pirlo struck the ball, he turned and sprinted toward the goal. The shot bent around the inside edge of the wall, curling toward the left side of the goal. Goalkeeper Reina dove to his left and looked like he would cover the shot. But as Inzaghi turned to look back, the ball struck him on the shoulder and deflected back toward the other side of the goal, behind Reina. Goal Milan!
The goal gave Milan momentum that they carried into the second half, pressing their attack as Liverpool's defense began to weaken. The score remained 1–0, however, until the final ten minutes.
In an effort to come from behind as the end of the game approached, Liverpool substituted in another attacker to try to come up with an equalizing goal. Liverpool's Mascherano went out, and Kaká quickly made the most of the opportunity. Shaking Mascherano's shadow, Kaká quickly found some freedom and space on the field. Right away he chipped a pass to Inzaghi in front of the open goal, but the striker couldn't get the shot on goal.
A few minutes later, Kaká received a pass and dribbled the ball with lots of open space toward Liverpool's goal box, shuffled subtly as if he might shoot, then sent a crisp through-ball between three defenders. Inzaghi rushed through from across the center and had only the goalie between him and the net. With one touch he pushed the ball toward the baseline to avoid the charging Reina. Then, from a difficult angle, he sent the ball rolling beneath the goalie's dive, across the goal mouth, and into the opposite side net. Goal!
Inzaghi ran to the corner and grabbed the corner flag. He fell to his knees pumping his fists and shouting, then lowered his face to the ground. Kaká was the first teammate to run and embrace him. Milan had a 2–0 lead.
Liverpool attacked desperately and received a corner kick in the eighty-ninth minute. The ball sailed in to the near corner of the goal box. It was headed across the goal toward Dirk Kuyt near the far post, and Kuyt headed the ball into the back of the net to cut the lead in half.
Two years ago these very same teams had faced off in the 2005 Champions League final. A.C. Milan took a 3–0 lead into halftime, only to see Liverpool unbelievably fight back to send the game into a shootout tiebreaker, then win on penalty kicks. Could the Reds find another miracle comeback?
But time was on Milan's side in this game, and the referee blew his final whistle three minutes later. The Rossoneri were the champions of Europe and arguably of the whole world.
The Italian fans went wild, and Liverpool fans cried. Kaká and his teammates celebrated joyously, and fans cheered and sang in the stands as confetti rained onto the field. Kaká stripped off his jersey to reveal a white T-shirt with big black lettering that said "I belong to Jesus" in English. The Brazilian star ran a victory lap around the field cheering and waving both arms to the fans as a cluster of cameramen and photographers tried to keep up. Finally, Milan was presented with the huge silver cup.
The victory completed an amazing year for Kaká, but there were even more accolades to come. Many sports magazines had been calling Kaká the best player in the world. In October he was officially named the Federation Internationale des Associations de Footballers Professionels (FIFPro) 2007 World Player of the Year, voted on by more than forty-five thousand soccer professionals around the world.
In December he received the prestigious Ballon d'Or, or Golden Ball, for the best player in world by France Football magazine. And later that month, Kaká was voted the FIFA World Player of the Year by the world's national team coaches and captains.
"It's really special for me—it was a dream for me just to play for São Paulo and one game for Brazil," Kaká said when he accepted the golden trophy. "But the Bible says God can give you more than you even ask for and that is what has happened in my life."
Kaká had been dreaming big since he was a boy, and his faith had carried him even when the odds seemed long that he would ever become a soccer player. But with hard work, determination, and humility he had reached great heights. This is the story of how it all happened.
Chapter Two A Boy in Brazil
Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite was known as Ricardinho, which means "Little Richard," for the earliest years of his life. But when his younger brother, Digão, began learning to speak, he couldn't pronounce his brother's name. Kaká (pronounced ka-KA) was the best he could do, and the name stuck.
The boys were both born in Brasilia, the capital of Brazil. The city had only been built in 1960, when President Juscelino Kubitschek ordered the capital to be moved from the Atlantic coast to the country's interior savanna region. The nation's constitution had called for the capital to be moved closer to the nation's center as early as 1891. But the world-famous city Rio de Janeiro had remained the seat of the government. City planners laid out Brasilia carefully, and from high up in the sky the center of the metropolis looks like an airplane or a bird.
Kaká and Digão knew the place simply as home. Their father, Bosca Izecson Pereira Leite, was a civil engineer, and their mother, Simone Cristina Santos Leite, a teacher. Both parents loved them very much and took good care of their sons.
Mr. Leite's job brought a move to Cuiabá, a city about six hundred miles west of Brasilia, when Kaká was four. The family moved to São Paulo when Kaká was seven years old, and this city became their permanent home.
Kaká began attending school at the Colegio Baptista Brasileiro, or Brazilian Baptist School. He was a calm, shy kid in school. He was an excellent student who earned good grades, and his teachers hoped that he might grow up one day to be a doctor or engineer.
Like most boys his age, he also enjoyed sports. For a while tennis was his favorite, and he dreamed of winning professional tennis tournaments one day. That was before he got serious about soccer, or futebol as it's called in Brazil.
Kaká's first memory of soccer is of going with his father to watch São Paulo play when he was eight. At school he began playing futsal, a Brazilian version of indoor soccer played with a smaller ball. That same year a P.E. teacher named Enio told Mr. and Mrs. Leite that they should enroll their son in a special soccer academy. They took his advice and signed Kaká up for a soccer club. In a Brazilian TV story years later, Enio remembered him being better at handling a soccer ball than most of the kids, but still being patient with those who weren't as talented as he was.
Mr. Leite also paid for a membership to train at the São Paulo Football Club's facilities. Like teams in Europe, professional soccer teams in Brazil have their own academies. They even have youth teams so they can coach and develop children's soccer talents. As competition gets tougher as age groups rise, the clubs watch for special talent and hope to find their future professional players.
Founded in 1935, São Paulo FC had a long, rich history. It is the most successful club in Brazil, according to the number of championship titles they've received, and is considered the third most popular club behind Flamengo and Corinthians.
The club takes its name from the city where it's located. São Paulo is Brazil's largest metropolis. In fact, it has one of the largest populations in the entire world, with about 20 million people in its metropolitan area. The differences between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro have been compared to the rivalry between American cities Los Angeles and New York City. Like Los Angeles, Rio is set in a beautiful coastal and natural setting; it is famous for its flamboyant Carnaval celebrations, big glitzy parties, and parades. São Paulo is more like New York, and is known for its art, culture, and sophistication. It is often described as having a European flavor.
Brazil itself is the fifth-largest nation in the world, with nearly 200 million people. Like many South American countries there is a great deal of poverty. Living conditions for working class citizens are considered impoverished by Western standards. Most people fall into either the poor or wealthy classes, with a very small middle class in between.
São Paulo is a wealthier city in general, and São Paulo F.C. was traditionally known as the team of the upper classes. By comparison, Corinthians was founded by members of São Paulo's working class and has maintained strong support from that sector of the population.
Kaká's family was financially comfortable because both of his parents were well-educated professionals. They were able to pay for Kaká's soccer academy tuition and provide him with good opportunities to sharpen his skills, but he would still have to prove himself on the field if he wanted to progress.
At the time, Kaká was unaware of the social structures around him. He was simply a young boy playing a fun game.
One Name Wonders
Kaká, Ronaldo, Pelé, Ronaldinho, Dida, Lucio, Fred ... the list of Brazilian players who go by only one name goes on and on. So what's with the one name? It's not only a tradition of Brazilian soccer players; many people in Brazil go by only one name. It's so common that some phone books in Brazil even list them that way rather than by their full names. The one name can be the person's first name, last name, a contraction of the two, or a completely unrelated nickname. Referring to someone by their first name or nickname is a sign of close friendship. In Brazil, calling someone by his nickname shows both care and respect for the person.
There is no definitive answer for where the tradition began. Some say it could have roots in a high illiteracy rate—people went by one shorter name to avoid spelling and writing the full name. Others say the tradition may date back to the time of slavery, when slaves were often recorded and called by only one name. What's certain is that the tradition today is all about personality and individuality. And Brazil's fans love the closeness they feel with players they call by one name.
While Brazil is best known for the tradition, other countries with a large number of one-name players include Portugal, Spain, and Angola.
Brazil, or Brasil as it's spelled in Portuguese, is the largest country in South America, covering nearly half of the continent and bordering all South American countries except Chile and Ecuador. Its neighbors to the north are Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. It's bordered to the northeast, east and southeast by the Atlantic Ocean. To the south is Uruguay, and to the southwest are Argentina and Paraguay. It borders Bolivia and Peru on the west, and Columbia to the northwest. It's the fifth-largest country in the world after Russia, Canada, China, and the United States (when Hawaii, Alaska, and the territories are included.)
Prior to the arrival of European explorers, the area that is now Brazil was populated by indigenous groups. Explorers from Portugal arrived in the 1500s and named their new land Brazil after the "pau-brasil" wood from which they made red dye. Brazil was settled by the Portuguese and remains the only Portuguese-speaking country in South America as a result of its colonial history.
The majority of Brazil's 190 million people live in Brazil's capital city of Brasília or in its largest cities, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. São Paulo is the world's second-most populous city with a population of over 20 million people. But while most of the population is concentrated near the coast, the land of Brazil is incredibly diverse. Brazil is framed by two of the world's largest river systems: the Amazon in the north, and the Paraná River in the south. It has the world's largest rain forest but also includes savannah, wetlands, highlands, and the coastal areas.
And Brazil is rich with natural resources. It has the world's largest reserves of fresh water, tropical forest, and biodiversity. In fact, enough water flows out of the Amazon each day to keep New York City supplied for 10 years! Historically much of the land has been exploited, but there have been increased efforts in recent years to preserve and utilize the country's natural resources. While the country still struggles with high crime in areas and unequal distribution of wealth, it is progressing as a nation. By utilizing its vast natural resources and a large labor pool, it has become a regional economic power and leader in South America.
Excerpted from Toward the Goal: The Kaká Story by Jeremy V. Jones Janna Jones Copyright © 2010 by Jeremy V. Jones and Janna Jones. Excerpted by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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