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By ESPN Staff

Milan's superstar remains grounded

SAO PAULO, Brazil - He is arguably the best football player in the world, his brother plays in the Serie B and is as religious as he is, his father is still friends with his son's old teammates and his mother makes exceedingly good cakes.

Those are just some of the things that help explain the phenomenon that is Kaka.

I watched Kaka come through the ranks at Sao Paulo. I watched him establish himself with Milan and Brazil. And I've watched him grow, both physically and mentally, to become one of the best in the world today.

During that time I've spoken to his friends, his family, his teammates and his coaches and no one has a bad word to say about the Milan midfielder.

Sometimes people don't want to criticise other players because they are afraid to stick their necks out or because they don't want to sound nasty. But the people who speak about Kaka do so with a real earnestness. Everyone seems to think the world of him.

That includes the youngsters who were with him when they came through the ranks at Sao Paulo. Kaka was different from most of the youngsters trying to make it into Sao Paulo's professional ranks. Many, if not most, were poor, dark skinned, came from broken families and lived far from the club's training ground in the impoverished suburbs of South America's biggest city.

Kaka was white, well off, had a stable family life and lived in the same Morumbi district where the club has its home. And as such he and his family were adopted as surrogates for many of Kaka's less fortunate teammates.

'Their family helped people who didn't have the money or time to go home,' Juan Maldonado Jaimes, one of Kaka's former colleagues, told me a while back. 'They took them to their house, to help them pass time. We'd play video games, play football, eat. Some players went there even when Kaka wasn't there. It was quite a close relationship between the players and the family. They are lovely people. His mother would make sweets or bake cakes.'

That stable family life is evident in the comportment of Kaka's father and brother Digao, who plays for Rimini in Italy's Serie B. They both look like Kaka, especially Digao, who is tall, pale and has the same toothy smile. (Digao is currently training at Sao Paulo while recovering from a ligament injury.)

Most noticeably, however, they are both impeccably mannered. As the saying in Brazil goes, the son of a fish is a fish. It means like father like son and Kaka is indeed like his father.

Engineer Bosco Izecson brought up his son to be a good Christian who values honesty and hard work. Although much attention is paid to the fact that Kaka is one of Brazil's few middle class footballers - and Kaka freely admits he does not fit the established stereotype - his father played down the wealth disparities and said he has tried to instill universal values in his son.

'What is important is their honesty and their character,' he said in discussing his outlook on life. 'Everyone wants to get on and better themselves. We lived our lives that way and Kaka has too. People helped us and we try and help people.'

That is not to say that Kaka has not had his problems to overcome. He suffered from a bone deficiency as a child that made him small for his age. He was two years behind his peers in terms of development and it was only his skill on the ball and his quick thinking that enabled him to play competitively with boys his own age.

'I saw him play as a kid and he was so small and thin but I could tell he had talent so I picked him out to play,' his former coach Milton Cruz told me. 'But he wasn't strong enough at first, the ball was bigger than his legs! One time he wanted to take a penalty and I wondered if he would have the strength to kick it all the way to the goal! He caught my attention, though, and he has shot up since then.'

Once he did cement his place in the Sao Paulo junior side he suffered another potentially crippling setback that helped shape who he is today. At age 18, Kaka jumped into a swimming pool while on holiday and fractured his spine. He didn't know how bad the damage was at the time. A local doctor told him he would be OK and he was back playing football three days later.

Kaka told his coaches about the incident but assured them he was fine and it was only after a couple of days training they realised all was not well. They could see he was holding back and sent him for more detailed tests. They showed he had fractured his spine. Every move he took during those days since the accident - including heading the ball - could have rendered him tetraplegic. And yet he survived.

Kaka puts that down to his religious beliefs - he is an Evangelical Protestant in a country that is overwhelmingly Catholic - and friends and family say his quick recovery from the accident helped him affirm his faith in God. It is not for nothing he celebrates every goal by pointing to the sky and thanking the Lord.

However, Kaka and his family are well-balanced enough to know that life is a lottery. Players need talent but the ones that do well in life, not just on the field, usually know they are very lucky to be doing what they do - and to be paid huge sums for doing so.

Scottish football writer Hugh McIlvanney once wrote that Jock Stein was a living negation of all those arrogant young men who persuaded themselves 'their largely fortuitous ability to kick a football or volley a tennis ball or belt out a pop song or tell a few jokes more acceptably than the next man is actually evidence of his own splendid mastery of his fate.'

I thought of McIlvanney's quote last week when talking to people who know Kaka. It seemed particularly apt bearing in mind the words of Milton Cruz, his former trainer.

'He's centred,' Cruz said of his best-known pupil. 'He doesn't think he's better than other people, he doesn't think he's special. He's humble and polite.He simply has a broader vision of the world. Kaka is the young man any father would love to have as a son.'

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