Lying in bed for two months with a broken neck, 18-year-old Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite made a list of 10 goals. Nevermind the fact that he was uncertain to ever play football again after fracturing his sixth vertebra at the bottom of a waterslide.
And forget cautious optimism. These were remarkable dreams even for a boy raised on the football mania of Brazil — especially one who had needed a medical program and who had yet to make the starting lineup of the junior squad of São Paulo Football Club. The list began with “Return to football” and continued upward to finish with “Compete in the World Cup” and “Transfer to a big club in Italy or Germany.”
About two weeks after returning to football, he was called up to São Paulo’s professional team. With 10 minutes remaining, he was subbed into the finals of the prestigious Rio-São Paulo Tournament. São Paulo trailed Botafogo 1-0 when the midfielder received a high, looping pass, flipped it behind the back of a defender and fired a low shot beneath the diving goalkeeper. Two minutes later he netted another low rocket to clinch the championship as TV announcers shouted “Goooooooooooooooal!”
Brazil had met Kaká. (The nickname, pronounced Ka-kah’, came when his older brother couldn’t pronounce his name.) He claimed his starting spot for São Paulo and within two years could cross off the entire list of goals, including playing for Brazil’s World Cup champions. Soon, Kaká stood at the top of world football, sweeping its highest individual honors: the Ballon d’Or for best in the world and the FIFA World Player of the Year.
“I have been very blessed with success … It may seem that I have everything. Due to my wealth and fame, some people ask why or if I still need Jesus,” he said. “The answer is simple: I need Jesus every day of my life. His Word, the Bible, tells me that without Him, I can’t do anything. I really believe that. The ability I have to play football and all that has resulted from it are gifts from God.”
Kaká’s popularity continued higher and higher in football-mad Brazil following his breakout game. The press loved reporting on him, and he was an instant hero. After the initial shock, Kaká developed a warm accessibility with the press and fans, but he avoided the limelight and temptations of the nightclubs and paparazzi scene. As had always been the case, his family and faith were his anchor.
“Many people think that I became a follower of Christ after the [waterslide] accident, but that is not true,” Kaká says. “My parents always taught me the Bible and its values, and also about Jesus Christ and faith.”
Being baptized at 12 was an important milestone for Kaká and one that had a profound effect on his young spiritual life. “Little by little, I stopped simply hearing people talk about the Jesus my parents taught me,” he says. “There came a time when I wanted to live my own experiences with God.”
Kaká’s accomplishments on the field obviously brought him worldwide prominence but his personal reputation has also drawn widespread attention as a novelty among international sports stars. Pick a professional athlete stereotype and Kaká contradicts it.
For example, Kaká and his wife, Caroline, famously married as virgins and have talked about it openly in the press.
“It was one of the greatest challenges in my life because we made a choice which wasn’t easy,” Kaká says. “We spent a lot of time praying and walking closely with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It was a great challenge, but it was really good to have waited. Sex is a great blessing from God for the pleasure of both husband and wife after marriage, and it is not the trivial or casual thing it has become nowadays.”
After playing in four elite professional leagues and 92 appearances with the Brazilian national team, Kaká leaves little doubt that he is all about Jesus.