While most Canadian fans appreciate The Beautiful Game, the strong majority of them haven’t been acquainted with its central personalities. Better Know a Footballer, The ODC’s new weekly feature, hopes to rectify this by means of juxtaposing soccer’s biggest names with North American sports notables we are more familiar with.
Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, better known simply as Kaka, is the best soccer player from Brazil, the best player in Serie A, and perhaps the best footballer on Earth. What is my basis for suggesting this?
The 26-year-old Brazilian attacking-mid was the recipient of both the Ballon d’Or (European Footballer of the Year) and FIFA World Player of the Year last year. As far as credentials for greatness go, those two trophies are as weighty as they come. North Americans likely are only familiar with Kaka’s play thanks to Milan’s run to last year’s Champions League title, but if they dig just a bit deeper and examine the evidence it becomes clear that we already know him by a different name: Dwyane Wade.
Unlikely Megastars: Though it may now seem difficult to fathom, Wade was not always a surefire prospect. A mere three schools recruited him as a High School Senior and, though he eventually landed at Marquette, he missed his entire freshman year because of academic failing. He entered the league as only the fifth pick overall and though he had a successful rookie season in Miami, he was greatly overshadowed by Carmelo Anthony and LeBron James.
Despite this, Wade has become one of the more accomplished young players in the NBA and is now a Finals MVP and a four-time All-Star. Kaka was seven when his family moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil. There his houseleague local youth club qualified for the finals in a local tournament, where his unexpected play won him assignment from Sao Paulo FC. Sao Paulo FC is Brazil’s third most popular team, but it does not have a history of national club dominance.
Unlike his countrymen Ronaldo or Ronaldino, Kaka was not a guaranteed star when he was brought aboard by AC Milan in 2003 for a mere $8.5 million transfer fee at age 21 (by comparison, Ronaldo drew $6 for his move from Brazil to PSV, but that was a decade earlier and he was only 17).
Early Returns with Aging Allies: Every basketball fan remembers Wade’s remarkable performance in the 2006 Playoffs, which saw him literally drag the seemingly lifeless-and-decaying corpses he called teammates to an NBA title. He became the fifth youngest player ever to be named NBA Finals MVP and recorded the third highest scoring average by a player in his first Finals, which was made all the more impressive considering his supporting cast included Shaq (34), Gary Payton (37), Alonzo Mourning (36), Antoine Walker (the oldest 29 ever), and Jason Williams (30).
After the win, the Heat seemed to age ten years in the span of one. Its veterans instantly turned into dead-weight and they were forced to rebuild. Meanwhile on the pitch, Kaka soared as he lifted Milan over Liverpool and to its seventh European Cup in club history (second most ever). During Champions League play Kaka scored 10 goals, nearly double the next closest player.
While the Rossoneri were victorious, the core of its roster was also staggeringly old (key players included Inzaghi, then 33; Nesta, then 31; Cafu, then 36; and Dida, then 33). This season their advancing years and lack of speed caught up with them as they made an early exit in Champions League and a dreadfully mediocre Serie A showing.
Selling Sensations: Dwyane is the face of T-Mobile, Converse, Gatorade, Sean Jean, Lincoln, and Topps. Though he may still trail LeBron in terms of marketing potential and overall appeal, he was named in the People 50 Most Beautiful list and had the top selling jersey in the league for two years. Kaka is no slouch salesman himself.
He is the international face of Adidas football (which, given the brand’s dominance in the world’s most played sport, is considerably substantial) as well having being a pitchman for TIM phones and having a modeling contract with Giorgio Armani (after all, he plays in Milan). For a gauge of his importance and fame internationally, consider this: he was the only footballer named in the 2008 Time 100 Most Influential list. Forget Face of the Franchise, Kaka may be the face of the game.
Faithfully Yours: Though he is getting divorced, Wade is a devout Christian (though this would seem difficult given the lure of South Beach) and chose the number three to represent his faith in the Holy Trinity. He tithes 10% of his salary to a church in Chicago and recently purchased a church outright for his mother (he also named his kids "Zaire Blessing" and "Zion" respectfully).
Not to be outdone, Kaka is a devout evangelical Christian and he removed his jersey after his Champions League triumph to show a shirt that read: “I Belong to Jesus.” He also stitched “God is Faithful” in his shoes for the 2002 World Cup final and tithes his salary to his church in Brazil. This all relates back to when he was 18 when he suffered a career-threatening spinal injury in a swimming pool accident only to recovery and attribute it to God.
Fat Friends: Flash seems to have an affinity for girth: he was Shaq’s sidekick in Miami, he has finally been allowed into Barkley’s Fav 5, and internet rumours have him shacking up with formerly-meaty Star Jones. Kaka? For both Milan and the Brazilian national team he plays with… Ronaldo. Enough said, me thinks.
So there you have it. Both men are among the highest superstars in their own sport and beyond that have become global icons. Though it is difficult to compare stats between sports, it can be said with certainty that both men are also wizards of offensive excellence (Kaka has 109 goals in 309 club appearances; Wade has a career scoring average of 23.9 a game).
If you look close enough, you see in DWade the same ingenious mix of flash, substance and creativity that Kaka brings to every match. Now… GET ME THEM SOCKS!