Kaka’s star has risen


SAO PAULO, Brazil (AP) – Buried deep on the bench, Kaka had little chance to show his ability in his first World Cup appearance for Brazil. Now he’s ready to make a big impact.

Kaka was a member of the squad that won the 2002 World Cup. But as a 20-year-old, he was more spectator than competitor.

Kaka was the 23rd man on Brazil’s roster, summoned by coach Luiz Felipe Scolari mostly to gain experience. He played only 18 minutes in Brazil’s seven matches.

Four years later, he’s a star.

Kaka has turned into an indisputable starter for coach Carlos Alberto Parreira – and one of Brazil’s biggest weapons for the 2006 World Cup in Germany.

“It was very important to have participated in 2002, I learned a lot just by being there,” Kaka said. “I’ve matured since then, and today I’m more prepared to play for Brazil.”

The 24-year-old, a standout with Italy’s AC Milan, is one of the reasons Brazil is heavily favored to win its second consecutive world title and sixth overall.

Kaka was chosen the best midfielder in last year’s Champions League, and the best player in the Italian league in 2004, when he helped lead Milan to the title. He will play in the World Cup alongside two-time FIFA player of the year Ronaldinho, forming a dangerous 1-2 punch.

“Kaka has the potential to be the World Cup’s most valuable player,” Brazilian teammate Juninho said.

In 2002, Kaka’s only appearance came at the end of Brazil’s 5-2 rout of Costa Rica in the last opening-round match. He replaced Rivaldo in the 72nd minute, when the game was all but over and Brazil had already qualified for the next round.

Kaka was on the sideline preparing to enter the final match in which Brazil beat Germany 2-0 to capture its fifth championship, but the whistle blew before he could get in.

Since then, he has been a constant presence on the national team. Twenty-nine of his 33 appearances with Brazil have come after the 2002 World Cup. He’s been touted a crucial part of Parreira’s “magic quartet” scheme, along with Ronaldinho, Ronaldo and Adriano, and is considered one of the leaders of Brazil’s latest generation of stars. With the increased role, Kaka knows his responsibilities also have increased.

“I’m ready for that. I have been criticized before, but I know how things work in soccer,” he said. “I’m prepared; I’m actually happy that I have more responsibility now. I’m ready to face it.”

Kaka, whose full name is Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, has netted nine goals since making his debut with Brazil in January 2002 in a friendly against Bolivia. He previously played for the country’s Olympic and Under-20 squad, including at FIFA’s 2001 World Youth Championship.

Kaka’s first professional soccer appearance came as an 18-year-old with Sao Paulo in 2001. He was voted Brazil’s best player in 2002, and less than a year later transferred to Milan in a deal worth about $8 million.

Kaka made the headlines in Brazil last December when he wed an 18-year-old Brazilian student in a ceremony attended by 600 guests, including teammates Ronaldo, Cafu and Roberto Carlos, and coach Parreira.

Deeply religious, Kaka is a member of the evangelical Reborn in Christ Church and recently said he is against Parreira’s decision to allow players to have sex during the World Cup.

“We should be focusing only on the games,” he said.

Kaka believes he has the potential to become the World Cup’s best player or top scorer, but that’s not his goal.

“My focus will be to help the team,” he said. “If we win it, it will be a perfect World Cup for me no matter what.”

AP-ES-05-10-06 1437EDT