32 players to watch, June 2010

Player To Watch #3: Kaká

Number 3: Kaka

Country: Brazil

Position: Central Midfield

Club Team: Real Madrid

American-Based Professional Athlete “Soulmate”: Joe Mauer, C, Minnesota Twins

What is a superstar? Traditionally, the narrative goes like this: glamour position, great talent. Media-savvy if not personable. Almost always (not always), but almost always a leader and a household name—sometimes to the point where you simply say his first name, or his nickname. Not often, but occasionally, they obtain the status by being the captain or playing the most important position for a flagship team (quarterback usually, but shortstop still pulls weight). His (or her, but we’re not quite there yet- that’s the truth) press conferences get airtime on Sportscenter or the other daily sports shows. Has a role with the sportswriters—hero, diva, villain. There’s always one writer whose personal obsession seems to be tearing him down, and usually one on the other end of the spectrum, the one who is convinced he walks on water. He’s adored by his team’s fans; reviled, mostly due to jealousy, by other fan bases. There are four mainstream professional sports in America, plus two with large-scale national followings: college football and golf. That’s a total of six. In all of them, you probably reach a total of twelve-fifteen superstars. You could perhaps get to a higher number if you spent an hour or two thinking about it, but then you get into the debate about whether they are really a superstar. And that’s the litmus test too: it’s an eyeball test, at bottom. You know a superstar when you see one.

Aside: If you are confused and trying to name twelve in your head, put sixty seconds on a stopwatch or your computer timer and your list will look about like this: Lebron, Kobe, Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Whomever is currently playing quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, Brett Favre, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Tim Tebow (now Mark Ingram), Tiger Woods and to a lesser extent, Phil Mickelson and Adrian Peterson.

Even a brief glance at the above list reveals a great dilemma. At times, the “superstars” aren’t the best players. To be sure, some are absolutely the elite. Others, once between the lines, play second-fiddle to the subset of great athletes who are simply “stars.” The problem is not completely unique to America. Take club and international footy. Brand names include, but aren’t limited to, Christiano Ronaldo, Leo Messi, Wayne Rooney, Didier Drogba, Gigi Buffon, Thierry Henry, and to a lesser extent, Steven Gerrard and Cesc Fabregas. Those players are bona fide superstars—the ones that collect the largest endorsement checks, have the most swelled Paparazzi followings and dominate the news headlines. They’re all great players, and most fall into one or more subsets of the “how to be a superstar” narrative above. On the pitch, however, there’s an argument that none are the greatest player in the world. The argument might not be correct, but there’s a discussion nonetheless. That discussion revolves around our number three player to watch, Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite—or, as he’s more well known, Kaka.

Kaka is the consummate star who is not really a superstar. In his home country of Brazil, he’s beloved and followed closely, to be sure, but still not fully trusted after a disappointing 2006 World Cup. The 2009 Confederations Cup Golden Ball winner was winning championships at AC Milan, just like the above superstars were in their own leagues, but his clubs Champions League failings (defeat to Liverpool in 2005 on penalties, defeat to Man U in 2006 semifinals) and his quiet World Cup kept him a shade below others in the media love-affair pecking order despite mammoth performances in those tournaments individually that saw him named Champions League midfielder of the tournament in 05 and 06. In 2007, it all came together. Kaka was named FIFA Footballer of the Year, won the Champions League with the Rossoneri, and captured the Ballon d’Or by 444 votes over Portuguese rival Christiano Ronaldo, one of the most decisive victory margins in history. In 2008, Kaka was memorialized by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential persons in the world for his ability on the pitch and his contributions off of it, contributions that include work with Goal 4 Africa, a charity promoting football and schooling in rural African communities, as well as work with various faith-based organizations, as Kaka, who survived tragic injury to play at the highest level as a boy, is a devout Christian who considers every match a blessing from God. These achievements and accolades all smell and look like a superstar, no? After all, one could theorize that anyone who commands the second highest transfer fee in the history of European club football (56 million pounds) is without question a superstar. Yet the story is different. The man who none other than Pele has said is “the best player in the world, because he is the most complete player. I see him a notch above Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo,” has always lurked in the shadows of other superstars—whether it be Leo Messi or Christiano Ronaldo.

In many ways, Kaka is everything Ronaldo isn’t, except that he isn’t a literary “Anti-Ronaldo.” That label applies to Leo Messi, the adjectives-do-no-good attacker who conjures up images of Diego Maradona and Argentinean glory. For a marvelous take on the binary opposition that makes Messi and Ronaldo the most discussed and antagonistic stars in the game of football, take time to read this piece by Fredorraci, Bullets Have Eyes.” The increasingly globalized nature of soccer lends itself to these sorts of oppositions: the flamboyant playboy with the illegal spot kicks and brilliant stopovers against the quiet, my play does my talking, magical heir to Maradona. Like global capitalism, the remainder, the not-as-spoken-of excess, exists too. It is here we find Kaka—the complete player—sound defensively, a superb passer, effective finisher. Nothing singular stands out, yet there is no apparent weakness to Kaka’s game, save a few (ridiculous, really) claims about his quiet demeanor translating to a lack of fire, or an inability to lead. Kaka’s specter looms around the binaries, Messi and Ronaldo, but he doesn’t seem to mind not being central to the conversation. He lurks in the shadows, confident in himself and confident in his team, ready to take center stage between the lines this summer.

It is true that his inaugural season in Madrid wasn’t as brilliant as we’d expected. Yet it wasn’t nearly as poor as some Madridistas make out. Indeed, some of it is due to what he was asked to do at Madrid by former manager Manuel Pellegrini. Kaka is not nearly as devastating player when he is pushed back towards the center of the midfield, and asked to be continuously involved in the flow of the game. Xavi and midfield mate Xabi Alonso are far more suited to this role. Kaka is better when he is given license to get forward, or positioned behind a striker. He’s best when given the chance to utilize space. In fact, he’s likely the best in the world in this capacity. That’s the role he’s asked to play for the superstar-leery Dunga, his Brazilian manager, and that’s the question he’ll be asked to answer resoundingly this summer as the Selecao seek another world championship. Dunga, a hard-tackling midfielder who led Selecao to the 1994 World Championship, has built a championship team in his own image, choosing players for their tactical discipline and work rate, rather than their prototypical Brazilian flair and skill.

This helps and hurts Kaka. While it is rare for a member of the soccer aristocracy to be injured in terms of repute simply because he plays for Brazil—this to some extent is the fate of Kaka, often forgotten as “just another Brazilian star.” The lack of flair on this edition of the national side can magnify this amnesia. Yet, Dunga’s style also means that Kaka will have plenty of team mates to do the dirty work for him, leaving him free to play a creative role. With Brazil now playing a counter-attacking game, he may be the one shining example of why the five-time champions tend to be everyone’s favorite team.

His soulmate understands being the engine behind a great team. He understands, for different reasons, being the forgotten figure in the discussion of great players. After all, Joe Mauer is the reigning American League MVP. Unlike Kaka, who is hurt somewhat by being yet another great Brazilian—Mauer would be immensely more famous and discussed if he wore pinstripes or Red Sox. Instead, the do-everything catcher who just last year became the first catcher in the history of baseball to lead the league in batting average, on base percentage, and slugging percentage in a single year will have to settle for being the highest-paid catcher in the history of the game, at 184 million over eight years. Like Kaka, Mauer isn’t completely overlooked. He’s a star (whose appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice), just not a superstar. Like Kaka, he’s completely capable of taking a team to a completely different level.

Take last September. With his Twins trailing the Tigers by seven games on the first of September, all the most valuable player did was win player-of-the-month honors, leading the Twins to seventeen victories in their final 21, and capturing the division in a one game playoff. His numbers that month were high-school numbers, and they helped him capture his third batting title, which oh by the way equals the number of batting titles captured by every other catcher in the history of professional baseball, combined. In addition, he has two gold gloves. Yep—like Kaka, he can defend too. It’s safe to say if he played soccer, he’d wear number ten.

Kaka wears number ten for Brazil, and like his soulmate Mauer, he can carry a team to a championship on his back. Just don’t be that surprised if they’ve already won before anyone starts talking about it.

Neil W. Blackmon is a senior writer for The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at neil@yanksarecoming.com.

Neil W. Blackmon