The morning of March 8, 2001, Kaká left his home to go grocery shopping with his mother.
All his life, they blended in easily with other shoppers. He soon would realize, however, that his reality had changed forever.
The previous night in front of 71,668 people in the Estádio Cícero Pompeu de Toledo — the famed home of São Paulo Football Club, better known as Morumbi — an 18-year-old Kaká scored two goals in a 2-1 win over Botafogo in the Rio-São Paulo championship.
By that next morning, as he shopped at a supermarket alongside his mother, Kaká’s life began to pivot. People approached the teen in the store asking for autographs and pictures.
“It was the biggest surprise of my life because, literally, my life changed overnight,” Orlando City captain Kaká recalled during a wide-ranging interview with the Orlando Sentinel. “… I was just living a completely different situation from what I was used to. I went [shopping] with my mom in the morning, I trained in the afternoon, and when I came back home, my house was full of journalists, full of people, my mother showing photos, my father being interviewed. And there began a new situation for me and my family.”
The 2007 FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or winner has tried to find normalcy in his life since that moment. He tussles with that burden daily, especially during the past year when he faced difficult changes off the field.
Kaká, one of the world’s most public figures, posts snapshots of his life to 63.6 million social-media followers and yet is a profoundly private person. He is a household name and fantastically wealthy, while also unbelievably down to earth and deeply religious. Kaká’s upbringing inspires him to remain grounded, but the noise around him pulls in the opposite direction.
In the midst of this dichotomous existence, Kaká strives to maintain the balance that has produced one of the most successful careers in the history of soccer. It is a harmony founded on the principle that his life before that trip to the supermarket afforded everything that happened after it.
The most famous photograph of Kaká shows him on his knees in the middle of Olympic Stadium in Athens with his arms raised, his white A.C. Milan jersey removed in favor of a white cut-off shirt that reads in black, bold lettering: “I BELONG TO JESUS.”
A.C. Milan had just won the 2007 UEFA Champions League, one of the top moments in Kaká’s career, and his actions after the final whistle circulated around the globe. At a time when some athletes shied away from sharing their religious beliefs because of its potential negative impact on endorsements, Kaká, like former Florida quarterback Tim Tebow, has been outspoken about his Christianity.
“I just decided: This is who I really am,” Kaká said. “When I do an interview, when I appear on camera, I want to be the same person as the one you meet personally and say: ‘He is really the same person I saw on television.’
“So it’s something that is part of my life. I’m not just about being an ambassador of Christ. I’m here also, talking with friends, being the same person that I always am. It was natural, and was not a decision like, ‘From now on, I want to do this.’ … But I am always respecting and always taking advantage of the opportunities I have to really be an ambassador of Jesus Christ.”
It is a principle Kaká learned not far from the stadium where he would make his debut for São Paulo.
Kaká moved to the Morumbi neighborhood when he was 8 years old, and soon after was playing for São Paulo in its youth system. Unlike many of the top Brazilian players, the vast majority of whom come from “favelas,” the poor shantytowns in Brazilian cities, Kaká was raised in a middle-class home. His father, Bosco, was an engineer, and his mother, Simone, a math teacher. They welcomed Kaká’s São Paulo teammates into their home.
Kaká credits his parents for teaching him the values that guide him still: spirituality, family, education and an insistence on staying grounded.
“Having a family that gave me such a structure, both educational and spiritual, too, that, to me, I can say is the most important thing I’ve had in my life,” Kaká said.
His deep-rooted faith was reinforced by a moment in 2000 that nearly derailed his career. During a visit to his grandparents’ home in Caldas Novas, Brazil, his family took a trip to a nearby hot-springs resort. Kaká was horsing around with his brother, Digão, going headfirst down a water slide and hitting his head on the bottom of the pool.
Kaká felt pain in his neck, and his brother saw blood flowing from Kaká’s head. The family went to the hospital to have Kaká examined, but he was sent home. After returning to São Paulo and training for two days, however, Kaká was in pain and went back to the hospital. There, X-rays revealed a fracture in the sixth cervical vertebra. He saw three doctors and asked each when they thought he could return to play.
“And they all answered the same thing: ‘Right now, you should be thankful that you are walking. Later we’ll see if you’ll be able to and in which situation you will play,'” Kaká recalled. “I stayed two months with a neck brace.”
The accident happened in October, and Kaká made his debut for São Paulo in January. Two months later, he scored the life-changing goals against Botafogo.
“Those are things that happened, and I couldn’t not relate to God’s purpose for my life,” he said.
It is easy to lose sight of the fact that there is more to a player than a jersey, or a goal, or the answers and smiles at a press conference.
Kaká arrived in Orlando to much fanfare, and his first year in MLS will be remembered by certain soccer-related snapshots. Spreading his arms on stage in front of thousands of fans in downtown Orlando during a World Cup watch party. Scoring the tying goal during the Lions’ MLS opener in front of an announced crowd of 62,358 people at the Citrus Bowl. Flashing his trademark grin a few months later as he accepted the MLS All-Star Game MVP award.
But the move to the United States was a massive change for Kaká, and his first year in Orlando became one of the most challenging in his life.
In July 2015, Kaká’s wife, Caroline Celico, announced their divorce in an Instagram post. It was a clash of Kaká’s two worlds, the personal melting into the very public. It was especially difficult because his children, Luca, 7, and Isabella, 4, moved back to Brazil with their mother.
For Kaká, who lights up when he talks about his two children, it was a trying time. It was something he would not show the fans and cameras that followed him at every game. The weight of what he was dealing with off the field brings new perspective to what he accomplished on it for Orlando City. Kaká started 28 of 34 games for the Lions and scored nine goals with a team-high seven assists.
“It was a very difficult time in my life because it was unexpected. It really took me by surprise,” Kaká said. “And that changed everything. Changes the relationship I’ll have with my children. They will live far away. How will that be? All these doubts about how things will be is the worst in this case.
“But gradually things are happening, falling into place. For me, it was a mental training, really, to separate things. I had my commitment with the club. I had to remain professional, to keep my responsibilities and have to deal with a personal problem. This helped me to understand many things, to be a little stronger mentally.
“Many times, I came to training driven by a sense of obligation to have to be committed, because there were days when I didn’t want [to be there], what I wanted was to be with my children. You deal with a series of situations that you have to go through, even not wanting to. It was a difficult experience, but it made me mature a lot.”
Fatherhood provided new perspective for Kaká.
“It is a very different love from all others,” he said.
The change last year emphasized the importance of family.
Kaká was raised in São Paulo as part of a close-knit family, and the lessons his parents taught him are the ones he tries to impart on his kids. Living on a different continent as them strengthens his belief in those values.
“This relationship with my children, and now, with the distance, I’m learning other things, to have a relationship of much more quality than quantity,” he said. “Every time I can be with them, I really dedicate that time to be with them, be with them not only physically but be with them really at that moment, mentally. I am with them enjoying every moment, I turn off the phone, I get to stay only with them, enjoying, living in their world, because I learn a lot from them too.
“So the challenge for me is to be able to convey to them the values that I believe are correct, and enjoy every moment of their lives that I spend with them.”
An unassuming star
A formula exists for reaching Kaká today, but it gets you only within an arm’s length of the Orlando City star.
The distance is necessary to maintain some level of “normal.” Kaká, a veteran of three of the biggest clubs in the world — São Paulo, A.C. Milan and Real Madrid — has a training routine with hours of work carved out beyond Orlando City practices. He has a media schedule packed full 30 days in advance, though interviews often are limited to short windows or group sessions. Friends and family prefer not to speak with the media out of respect for Kaká’s privacy.
Somewhere in there, Kaká finds some time for himself. He uses social media to post select images of his new life in Orlando — playing golf, visiting theme parks with this kids, going to Magic games or eating at restaurants with friends.
To the outsiders — including some fans and media members — Kaká appears too insulated. To those inside the tight circle of family and friends, Kaká is protected so he can be himself. That, beyond all the trophies and the accolades, the fame and the Twitter followers, is what makes Kaká so unique — and what those around him said makes him so special.
This level of stardom never had been the plan. Kaká’s dreams were more reasonable. A professional career with São Paulo. One game wearing the yellow and green of Brazil’s national team. Somewhere along the way, the dreams changed, but there was an effort to make sure Kaká did not.
“What amazes me about Kaká is he is still that guy I met in 2001,” said Diogo Kotscho, who first met Kaká 15 years ago and now works for Orlando City in communications. “And for sure, it’s not easy. He is a multimillionaire now, and money changes people. Fame changes people. Everything he is able to have now has changed many people. And he didn’t change.”
Kaká never has lost sight of that balance, nor the tenets he learned as a kid in São Paulo. It is why in the locker room at Orlando City, his teammates call him Ricky and he is known as just one of the guys, establishing close connections with even the youngest players on the team.
“These young players here, they look at me in a different way,” he said. “I want to take some of that away, show them I’m normal and I want to help them, too.”
This is at the base of what Kaká aimed to keep in his life and his career. He wanted to be more of the anonymous person who went grocery shopping on a Thursday morning 15 years ago than the one who came home a superstar.
As his career nears its final stages, it’s apparent why that balance was so important to him.
“I’m very happy with where I arrived, both personally and professionally,” he said. “I can say more so personally, because my career will have to end eventually. I do not know how long it will be, but eventually it will end and the personal will continue.”
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