Connect to share and comment

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.

Dunga took over the team following the 2006 World Cup when, after having reached three straight finals, Brazil went out to France in the quarters. Kaka hardly shined, scoring his lone goal in Brazil’s opening 1-0 win over Croatia. Still, he wasn’t saddled with much of the blame for what fans regarded as a debacle. That was reserved for the others — Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Adriano — in what was a ballyhooed offensive quartet. Kaka is the only one of the four who, with Dunga’s more democratic team concepts, survived to claim a spot on the 2010 Cup squad.

Certainly Brazil seemed back on track a year ago when the team won the Confederations Cup in South Africa. Fans could quibble about one-goal victories over teams from Egypt, South Africa and the United States. But Brazil was no longer into style points, rather playing — just like most of the soccer world — the results game. The Confederations Cup seemed the perfect launch, too, for Kaka, as he headed toward a new home in Spain.

Real Madrid had paid more than $90 million to pair him with the Portuguese striker Cristiano Ronaldo, who had just come over from Manchester United with a pricetag of more than $130 million. Madrid was to be the host city for the 2010 European Champions League final and the team figured a $220 million investment in its attack would pay dividends when Real Madrid hoisted the coveted trophy on home turf.

Kaka and Real Madrid, however, did not prove a match made in heaven. The team not only failed to win the European crown, going out in the quarterfinals to underdog Lyon, but for the second straight year finished behind Barcelona in La Liga. Through much of the season, Kaka was slowed by injuries and off his game. While Ronaldo tallied 33 goals in 35 contests, Kaka scored just eight times and seemed unable — not unwilling — to find his stride as second fiddle. The two games against Barcelona wound up deciding the title; Real Madrid not only lost both, but failed to score a single goal.

Real Madrid fans are notoriously prickly and this time Kaka didn’t escape blame for the failure. Fans began to resent his commercial commitments and even his faith — anything Kaka did that, they believed, lessened his focus on team pursuits. Ironically, while Argentina and Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi was sometimes criticized back home for caring, above all, about his club, Madrid fans fretted that Kaka’s performance was diminished as a result of his leadership obligations to the Brazilian team.

World Cup 2010 won’t resolve that thorny question. But it offers Kaka a chance for resurrection and redemption — in the soccer sense, of course. Does he still warrant a place on the highest perch in the game’s pantheon? Can he still be the man in the middle that galvanizes a team? His faith assures him that redemption awaits regardless. And that, of course, remains most important of all — except perhaps now in Brazil where World Cup dreams are paramount.

The stars:

England's Wayne Rooney: He looks like Shrek but he scores

Argentina's Lionel Messi: The brightest star at the start of the World Cup

United States' Landon Donovan: Will he lead the US to victory?

Ivory Coast's Didier Drogba: Africa's shining hope suffers last minute injury

The stories:

South Africa's soccer comes a long way from apartheid

North Koreans arrive in South Africa with no fans

Who's the better host: Johannesburg or Beijing?

Video: Soweto rocks World Cup with calabash stadium

Slide show: South Africa readies for World Cup 2010

Africa's first high speed train