Star Power

Yeah, we’re still pinching ourselves—but Kaká really has arrived to lead Orlando City into the big leagues.

There was a time when Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite could walk the streets of Orlando and its theme parks in relative obscurity. Imagine that. Now imagine LeBron James doing that. Or Tiger Woods. Or Aaron Rodgers. Now imagine this: Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite has nearly as many Twitter followers as those three sports icons combined.

If you’re unaware of Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, perhaps you’re familiar with the one-word handle that the international soccer superstar goes by—Kaká. If not, get ready. Kakámania is about to take off in the United States, and the launch pad is Orlando—specifically Orlando City, the fledgling MLS franchise that graduates this year from the minor leagues to the big time with one of soccer’s all-time biggest names.

 Kaká (pronounced kuh-KAH) has been called the Brazilian Beckham, a reference to another international soccer superstar—Britain’s David Beckham. “He’s perhaps the greatest player of his generation,” Orlando City Head Coach Adrian Heath says of his star. Although the window on Kaká’s generation is beginning to close—he’ll turn 33 in April—there is still plenty of game left. 

And there were plenty of international teams that wanted Kaká, an attacking midfielder, playing for them this year. He was, after all, the 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year. In 2008, Time magazine named Kaká one of its 100 most influential people, and not just for his soccer prowess. At the time, the 26-year-old star was the U.N. World Food Program’s youngest ambassador. An Evangelical Christian whose wife, Caroline Celico Leite, is a former Evangelical pastor, Kaká has often said he’d like to start a ministry after his soccer days are over.

But he is not there yet. Instead, he signed a 3½-year contract with Orlando City at just under $7.2 million per season, which is roughly $700,000 more per season than Beckham’s record MLS contract with the Los Angeles Galaxy in 2007. Not that Kaká needs the money. He’s coming off a six-year, $94 million contract, playing for two iconic international clubs —AC Milan and Real Madrid. In other words, Kaká, who speaks four languages—Portuguese, Spanish, Italian and English—is taking a pay cut to play in the MLS, and specifically for Orlando City. And he’s thrilled to do it. His dream, he says, has always been to showcase his game in the United States. “In five, 10 years, the MLS will be one of the biggest leagues in the world,” Kaká says. He wants to be a part of that. “Physically, I’m good, so I can play three, four, five years, and hopefully it can be here in America. I hope to be the face of Orlando for many years.”

If his game has changed at all, as Kaká creeps into his 30s, it’s that he has become more of a facilitator, a player with a heightened awareness of the ebb and flow of the game rather than approaching the pitch with the single-minded intent of putting the ball in the goal. Like his play, Kaká’s maturation as a player has been smooth, almost imperceptible, seamless.

Kaká bonds with his teammates during the team’s first MLS practice. Many of them grew up watching the legendary player in action.

“He’s amazing; that guy is amazing,” says Orlando City’s Tally Hall, 29, a veteran MLS goalkeeper, most recently of the Houston Dynamo. “You dream of playing with a player like him; you just never think that it’s going to happen. You’re talking about the former best player in the world. Think about that. The best player in the world. And he chose to come play here while he’s still considered one of the best. He’ll be worth the price of admission.”

Orlando City is a youthful team, with many of its players having grown up watching Kaká work his magic internationally. As a veteran player, Kaká says he hopes to convey to the team’s younger members just how much he still respects the game. “I can show them that even though I’ve won a lot of things in my career, I still have the motivation to win,” he says. “Every day, I will show them that I will be there training, and that I want to win and be successful.”

Tony Cascio, a 24-year-old midfielder from Arizona, can’t believe he’s on the same roster as Kaká, much less learning from him. “If you had asked me 10 years ago if I ever thought I’d be playing with him, I’d have said, ‘Heck, no,’”  he says. “Kaká is big. What’s he have, something like 22 million Twitter followers?”

Actually, 21.9 million. In comparison, LeBron James, Tiger Woods, and Aaron Rodgers have a combined 23.8 million Twitter fans. The only individual athlete worldwide who has more is Kaká’s fellow countryman, the retired Brazilian soccer superstar Ronaldo, who has 32.9 million.

The Brazilian following is strong, and the Brazilian population in Central Florida continues to grow, as does the number of tourists from the South American country. According to state tourism officials and a CNN report, as recently as 2011, visitors from Brazil outnumbered all other international travelers to Florida, with Orlando and its attractions a special target destination. It’s no coincidence that Orlando City’s majority owner is Flávio Augusto da Silva—a Brazilian.

Used to be, Kaká was one of those Brazilian tourists who regularly visited Orlando, bringing his wife and kids, often doing so mostly unnoticed. “Now, it’s starting that Americans are stopping me,” he says, flashing a smile. “Before, it was Brazilians and Latins. But now, the people of Orlando are stopping me and telling me that they are very happy that I came and how they want to help me enjoy Orlando. I’m so happy. I’m very happy for that. Thank you for that. Thank you to the people who live here in Orlando.”

Categories: Features, Sports & Fitness