"There's a young guy who plays for Sao Paulo called Kaka who plays just behind the front two. You don't know anything about him in Europe, but watch him if he is chosen for the World Cup." "But kaka means 's***' in Spanish." "I know, but he's definitely not." Rivaldo, then Barcelona and Brazil's main man, laughed. "He has the qualities to be a big star."
Rivaldo's recommendation, made in 2002, came as a surprise. Kaka was in many ways his antithesis and Rivaldo had just spoken passionately about discrimination in Brazil and the gulf in living standards between his impoverished upbringing in the north east of the country and the lives enjoyed by the metropolitan set of Sao Paulo. Rivaldo was from a background so poor that he walked a 15-mile round trip to training sessions as a youngster. In contrast Kaka (pronounced Ka-kah), the son of an engineer father and a mother who taught mathematics, was raised in Sao Paulo among the opulent villas of the middle classes. And Kaka was a potential rival, playing in the same position. Indeed, when Kaka made his World Cup debut it was at Rivaldo's expense.
By 2003, Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite - the "Kaka" nickname comes courtesy of his baby brother Rodrigo - had replaced Rivaldo for his country, and would do the same for his club. Unselfishly, Rivaldo had also recommended that his then club, Milan, buy Kaka and the youngster moved to the San Siro, after three seasons at Sao Paulo. Granted, Kaka was expected to spend the season among Milan's reserves which might have prompted Rivaldo's generosity. But the slight 6ft 1ins newcomer elbowed both him and the sublime Rui Costa to the sidelines.
"He is simply extraordinary," shrugged Costa. "Brazilians said that Kaka played like greats such as Rai, Zico or Rivaldo," added Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti, "but Kaka reminds me of Platini." Pele opined that Kaka was the new Johan Cruyff while Zico said he reminded him of Socrates. Although comfortable playing anywhere in midfield and either side of a main striker, Kaka usually led Milan's five man midfield.
"I don't know whether he's the best player Milan have had in my time here," remarked club president Silvio Berlusconi, "but I've never seen a player so young do the things he does for us." Brazil teammate Ronaldinho added to the plaudits, claiming: "Kaka is a magical footballer who creates moments of inspiration. As well as being a superb passer of the ball with excellent positioning, he can run past players, shoot and score."
Ronaldinho now plays for Kaka's former club, while Kaka, who won everything he could at Milan, became the first of Real Madrid's massive 2009 signings this summer. A deeply religious figure, Kaka's customised boots bear the legend 'I Belong to Jesus'. His faith was strengthened after a full recovery from a broken vertebra sustained in a freak accident at a Sao Paulo water park in 2000, he is happily married to socialite Caroline Celico.
As with Cristiano Ronaldo, the expectations for Kaka's precocious talents are great in Madrid. He has the talent to realise them.