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Can Kaka kick it for Brazil in the World Cup?

Devout mid-fielder has had a dull patch but may still shine in South Africa.

Kaka, Brazil soccer player
Brazil's Kaka reacts on the field in Madrid, March 10, 2010. (Juan Medina/Reuters)

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.

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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.