The image of a sulky Kaka leaving the Santiago Bernabéu pitch during Real Madrid's inglorious exit from last season's Champions League at the hands of Lyon said far more than a thousand words. Apart from one. Understandable only to Portuguese speakers, and said almost straight into a television camera, it was a swear word.
Though nothing that would make elderly ladies blush, it was still a surprising sign of distress from a player whose public attitudes are dream material for sponsors. The Bernabéu expletive, however, offered a glimpse into Kaka's season in hell. And the fires are still burning: if club affairs have been put on hold, there is still the small matter of a World Cup in which, for the first time since he joined the Brazil team, questions are being asked about Kaka.
"Will he be ready?'' has been heard frequently in Brazil in recent months, not only because of the nagging injuries that kept him out of the Real side for the last part of the season, but also because of the psychological effects of the barrage of criticism directed at the player since his £56m move from Milan.
Suddenly, Brazilians fear for the state of mind of a player who, in the current squad, is seen as the man who has the quality to steer the country towards a sixth world title. The rumours that Kaka almost came to blows with teammate Felipe Melo during a training session closed to the media in Johannesburg did not help.
Responsibility not a burden
"I do not panic when I think of my role in the current side,'' Kaka, 28, tells Observer Sport. "It is quite natural that my experience in two World Cups leads to people seeing me in a more prominent position, especially now that a lot of guys from the 2002 and 2006 teams are not with us any more. But I am not the only guy around who can be a reference for the younger guys and the team as a whole. We have a group that has been working together for four years and shown that the collective effort is more important than one player or another. But the responsibility has never been a burden for me. It's a consequence of what I have achieved with the national team. It spurs me on."
Yes, there are three other players who were part of the Brazilian squad that lifted the trophy in Yokohama eight years ago and spent much more time on the pitch than the 19 minutes played by Kaka as a substitute against Costa Rica in the group stages.
Nowadays, however, Lúcio, Gilberto Silva and, above all, Kléberson, are names that follow his in a series of pecking orders. None of them has the same responsibilities. None has the nation holding its breath every time doubtful information about their match fitness comes up.
"We have a team that has been playing together for a long time, that has gelled and shown pretty much the strength of a group of players," Kaka adds. "I didn't play in the 2007 Copa America and Júlio Baptista replaced me quite well, even scoring in the final. It sounds like a cliché, but without a strong group you win nothing in football.''
Worries over Kaka's fitness will not go away. At the beginning of the year, there was the groin injury that resulted in six weeks on the sidelines and triggered a war of words between Real and Milan. The Italians were accused of hiding the problem while negotiating over the midfielder.
"I had problems with the groin injury but then there were muscle problems, something natural when a player spends more than a month out of the game," says Kaka. "I am getting better every day and there is enough time for me to start the World Cup in good condition. There is no reason for panic."
With problems piling up at Real Madrid, the Spanish media accused the player of saving his energy for national duty. The allegations were disputed vehemently by a distraught Kaka. It was also a surprising change of scenario in relation to Milan, where the Brazilian was treated like a prince even after the Manchester City affair. But that was before Real made their huge financial commitment for the new galactico era.
'"Expectations got really high after the summer signings," Kaka says. "At the same time the players knew that the media and the supporters were waiting for great things to happen, but it wouldn't be possible for things to happen overnight. OK, Real ended the season empty-handed, but with the squad we have got I am certain things can only get better for next season,'' he adds with a nod towards life under Real's new manager, José Mourinho, who has openly praised the Brazilian's quality.
Rai a legend
Kaka has gone from one pressured situation to another. The Selecao arrived in South Africa not as favourites, as was the case in 2006, but ranked behind Spain in people's opinion and bookies' odds. Brazilians, however, fear the pragmatic style imposed by the coach, Dunga, puts too much emphasis on Kaka's form. It is similar to the problem that afflicted the 1994 squad, in which Rai was brought in to be the brains in the midfield but struggled from the first game. (Brazil did, though, go on to win the World Cup.)
Rai was the player Kaka always wanted to be when at the Sao Paulo academy. "He was a legendary player who got a lot of stick unfairly. But the pressure will always be there with Brazil, even when things have been going well, which is the case now," he says. "We [the players] just have to be able to focus on our mission and let the rest be."
The Brazilian FA ditched the open approach that marked the build-up for Germany 2006, when players trained in Switzerland in a carnival atmosphere. This time there was a secluded pre-tournament camp in southern Brazil, which was a blessing for the former world player of the year, who has turned down request after request for interviews in the last few months.
Unlike at previous tournaments, Brazil have been drawn in a tough group: alongside the unknown quantity of North Korea are Ivory Coast and Portugal. Kaka's previous experience of playing an African side ended with a 3-0 win over Ghana in Germany 2006, but also with a bruised knee as a result of the heavy attention from his markers. And although Brazil hammered Portugal 6-2 in November 2008, Kaka expects a different game from the former colonial power and from his famous club teammate.
Messi, Ronaldo best bets
"Cristiano [Ronaldo] is certainly a bet for player of the tournament. He's been in amazing form," says Kaka. "Another obvious choice is Lionel Messi, although we are talking about a short competition open to surprises. In terms of teams, however, there are a lot of favourites. You have to talk about Spain, Brazil, Argentina and England, but traditional teams like Italy and Germany can never be discarded."
His inclusion of England is not at all a matter of mere politeness. Kaka is a fan of the Capello modus operandi and still believes that the Italian manager brought a change of attitude and mentality to a group of players who already deserved individual compliments.
"England have had some strong players in the last few years, like [Steven] Gerrard and Wayne Rooney, but they look so much sharper collectively under Capello that you have to believe they could win it. Whether they will is another story, the same with Brazil. In 2006 we also arrived with strong results but didn't make it when it mattered."
He also makes time to pay a quick tribute to a former Milan teammate: "I felt really sad for David [Beckham]. He was working so hard to play in this World Cup and it was heartbreaking to see him out. He is a top professional and we really got on well at Milan."
Brazil's quarterfinal exit against a France side led by Zinedine Zidane triggered a witch-hunt in Brazil that was more intense than the recriminations after another famous defeat to the French, in the 1998 final. Dunga, the 1994 World Cup-winning captain, was appointed in August 2006 as a means to emulate the Jürgen Klinsmann experience in the German team and to impose a militaristic approach to the job after what was perceived as a lenient attitude by his predecessor, Carlos Alberto Parreira.
Dunga's first act was to say publicly that no player was bigger than the famous yellow shirt and to lambast what he saw as the effect of inflated egos on the fortunes of the team. Then he left Kaka and Ronaldinho on the bench for a friendly against Argentina in London.
Kaka took up the gauntlet laid down by the coach by coming on to score in a 3-0 win over the South American rivals, a sensational goal after slaloming through the Argentina defence. "I ran 70 metres with Lionel Messi on my heels and then rounded the keeper. That is a goal to remember," he jokes.
A few months later the trio bickered again over the request by Kaka and Ronaldinho to be left out of the Copa America. Ronaldinho never clicked under Dunga and is not in South Africa.
Kaka, however, is now on much better terms with the coach: "Dunga captained Brazil in two World Cups and was always one of those players who loved playing for his country. He has always stressed an idea of equality in the group and that was important for confidence. The results are there to show that Dunga is on the right path."
Kaka will be 32 in 2014, when the World Cup will be held in Brazil. Theoretically, the midfielder will be young enough to claim a place in the squad, maybe even wearing the captain's armband. It is far down the road, but he is already entertaining such thoughts.
"Every player would love to play a tournament like the World Cup at home," says Kaka. "What an experience it could be, especially when Brazilian players these days are most of the time playing far away from their fans. I sincerely want to be there, on merit.''
Before that, every Brazilian hopes to see him in rude health in South Africa.
© Guardian News and Media 2010