Importance of being Kaka

If Brazil were to go the full distance in Germany, it would be a vindication of the role of Carlos Alberto Parreira's most down-to-earth superstar in the manager's scheme of things, writes N. U. Abilash.

More than a year ago, when Robinho was dazzling the Brazilian league with his step-overs, dribbles and dummies, an open-mouthed British journalist asked the Santos striker whether he had developed his own style of dribbling. Almost shocked at the brazen individualism on which the question was built, Robinho answered: "You cannot invent a new dribble. In Brazil, everything is a copy of something else, every event is a continuation of some other event."

In the 2002 World Cup, in the 72nd minute of Brazil's one-sided group match against Costa Rica, attacking midfielder Rivaldo, whose combination with Ronaldo later led the South American powerhouse to their fifth World Cup title, was substituted with a scrawny 20-year-old called Kaka who, on the basis of his exploits for Sao Paolo club, was being spoken of as the future hope in the position once excelled in by the legendary Zico. Four years later, in Germany, a considerably beefier Kaka has emerged the best player of his team filled with superstars in the group stages. Kaka's magical left-footed strike from 30 yards gave his country a hard-fought 1-0 win against Croatia in their Group F opener. His performance in that match as well as in Brazil's 2-0 win against Australia would have convinced football fans, who played Rip van Winkle in the four years between the World Cups, that against Costa Rica in Korea the world had witnessed a vital selection of the `continuity principle' that drives football in Brazil.

If Kaka has already proved that he is a worthy replacement for Rivaldo, the small matter of finding the heir to the other hero of the 2002 campaign, striker Ronaldo, came full circle against Australia in Munich. Lyon striker Fred substituted Adriano in the 88th minute, and almost immediately he combined with fellow striker Robinho to score his first World Cup goal. This is at a time when Ronaldo has been found wanting in pace and mobility though he did produce a couple of moments of magic against Australia. Fred created an impression this season, his first in Europe, scoring 14 goals and taking his team to the French league title and he was the Brazilian league top-scorer in 2005 playing, interestingly, for Ronaldo's old club Cruzeiro.

Manager Carlos Alberto Parreira might realise during the course of Germany 2006 that Fred and Robinho constitute the `present' of Brazilian options up front along with the out-of-form Adriano, not just `the future'. If Parreira and Brazilian fans have to come to terms with the decline of Ronaldo in `normal' celebratory mode rather than after suffering a jolt, Kaka and his high-profile partner Ronaldinho — Brazil's main creative men in Germany who, fitness permitting, will continue to be so in South Africa in 2010 — have to play major roles.

Perhaps, in Germany, we are now witnessing the trajectory of post-Ronaldo trends in Brazilian football. The main reason that the country won the World Cups in 1994 and 2002 was because its strikers, Romario and Bebeto in the USA and Ronaldo in Japan and Korea, were either more dominant than the creative men playing behind them (Romario and Bebeto above Rai or Zinho in 1994) or shared the responsibilities (Ronaldo along with Rivaldo and Ronaldinho in 2002). Unless Ronaldo and Adriano elevate their form to play similar roles, Germany could well be a throwback to 1982, when the Brazilians, coached by the late Tele Santana, had a fantastic creative team of Zico, Socrates and Falcao but no strong centre forward, which cost them the World Cup. The best player upfront in the 1982 team was not a classical centre forward but Eder, whose strengths as a winger matched those of Robinho from the current team.

It looks likely that it will take a combination of Fred and Adriano to replicate all the best attributes of Ronaldo at his peak — the Lyon man has the silken touch and the positional sense while the Inter Milan striker has the pace and power. But, Kaka, by himself, is an improvement on Rivaldo.

The AC Milan midfielder's goal against Croatia illustrated that he has a decent left foot to match his strong right foot. His measured passes, sound positional sense and vision of the game are as good as that of Rivaldo. Kaka, like Rivaldo, may not have Ronaldinho's scorching acceleration and high-speed dribble, but he is as classy, comfortable and elegant with the ball as the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year and his control is second to none.

Like Rivaldo, and unlike Juan Roman Riquelme of Argentina and Zinedine Zidane of France, Kaka does not believe in streamlining the tempo of his side's attack to his own personal rhythm; he is quick enough to fit into the Brazilian pattern and all his other attributes, namely vision, control and precision, are built into the demanding speed. Like Rivaldo, Kaka brings an earthy dimension to magical skill that is in stark contrast to the spectacular attribute brought to football by Ronaldinho, who is two years older than the AC Milan star.

Importantly, unlike Rivaldo, Kaka is a manager's dream. He is flexible enough to be incorporated into any formation and into a tactical system that believes in interchangeable positions within a given formation to catch markers off guard. In the matches against Croatia and Australia, he and Ronaldinho dug deep to help out their team's defensive midfielders, Emerson and Ze Roberto, which hindered the duo combining in attacking roles.

Unlike Rivaldo, Kaka does not attract the attention of the huge global media contingent that follows the Brazilian team. Part of this is because of the serene and stable persona that comes from his middle-class upbringing, which contrasts with the much-publicised night outs and carnival spirit of the `favela boys'. Kaka, like 1982 midfielder Socrates and his brother Rai who won the 1994 tournament, was a fully paid-up member of the aristocratic Sao Paolo club in his formative years. In comparison, Ronaldo could not make it in the first team of Flamengo, the biggest club of Rio, in his formative years because he could not afford the bus fares. Being middle-class in Brazil, a country of much greater economic inequality than India, virtually means access to a European style of living. Kaka's world-view as a born-again-Christian, especially his conservative position to pre-marital sex, is an anachronistic divergence from those of his less-privileged teammates however much religious they are.

But, getting Kaka to entirely duplicate his image of solidity and stability would spell disaster for Brazil in Germany. With Ronaldo and Adriano struggling for form and Ronaldinho deployed in a position and role very different from that for Barcelona, Parreira's recipe for success will be in getting Kaka to perform his attacking AC Milan role for the entire 90 minutes. Another way to achieve success would be to restore Ronaldinho to his club position as an attacker on the inside left as a replacement for Ronaldo and introduce either a third defensive midfielder in Gilberto Silva, which will liberate Kaka to perform attacking duties, or a fellow creative midfielder in Fred's clubmate Juninho Pernambucano, who can link up with Kaka beside him and with Ronaldinho and Adriano or Fred in front.

Though there are some areas of concern for Parreira, experts feel that Brazil's slow beginning is as much because of lack of match practice as because of any other reason; unlike the traditional European powers and archrivals Argentina, the world champions played only one friendly match in the days between the end of the club season and the beginning of the World Cup and that was against lowly New Zealand. Parreira believed that the greatest challenge before him was to get a bunch of players, each a superstar in their clubs, get used to the idea of playing for each other and taking responsibility of each other.

If Brazil were to go the full distance in Germany, it would be a vindication of the importance of Kaka, Parreira's most down-to-earth superstar, in the manager's scheme of things. The young master emphasised after the win against Croatia that it would be wrong to see Brazil of 2006 as the `Harlem Globetrotters of football'. "We are a set of responsible adults, and it would be wrong to expect carnival stuff from us all the time," he said.

That responsibility came in for praise from Francisco Maturana, former captain of Colombia and member of FIFA's technical committee after the win against Australia. "Everyone expects a gala display when Brazil steps out — the Brazil you see in the adverts," wrote Maturana. "But this Brazil team is packed with ability. None of their opponents will make it easy for them, and the players are aware of the heavy burden on their shoulders. They were outstanding in living up to that responsibility today."

Fans of Brazil need not worry as Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, or simply Kaka, will be the bulwark of the national team for quite some time to come.