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By ESPN Staff

Brazil soccer fans wary of Kaka church donation

SAO PAULO, Feb 21 (Reuters) - AC Milan's Kaka has inspired and disappointed Brazilian soccer fans in equal measure by donating his FIFA player of the year trophy to a controversial evangelical church as an emblem of his Christian faith.

The gold-plated trophy is on display in the entrance of a Sao Paulo branch of the Apostolic Reborn in Christ (Renascer) church of which Kaka is a devoted member.

'I deliver this up joyfully to God, because he is the reason behind every victory,' reads the inscription on the trophy, penned by the player who celebrates victories by gesturing to the heavens and revealing an undershirt with the slogan: 'I belong to Jesus.'

Curious fans and regular churchgoers have flocked to see the trophy since it was put on display in early February.

'There is a great deal of curiosity. People come in, some of them take photos, and their admiration is plain to see,' said a preacher at the church, who requested anonymity.

A constant stream of visitors have been lining up to photograph the trophy, one of whom, Marelo Lima, a 49-year-old commercial representative, said: 'This is a beautiful gesture, just wonderful. I am not a member of this church, but this is fair tribute.'

The trophy is displayed against a backdrop of posters and videos of the 25-year old player in action.

However, some of Kaka's fans are unhappy with his continued association with a church whose founders have been the target of criminal prosecution in the United States.

Brazilian couple Estevam Hernandes and Sonia Haddad Moraes Hernandes were sentenced to nearly five months in jail last year after smuggling more than $56,000 into the U.S.

At one point, Brazilian police sought explanations of Kaka's own links with the couple, who have built up a rich portfolio of properties in Brazil and the U.S.

'What is shocking to public opinion is not the (donation of the trophy) but is the fact the (it) has taken place at the very moment that the Renascer Church is at the heart of this storm,' said Father Gabriele Cipriani, deputy secretary of the National Council of Christian Churches of Brazil (Conic).

Kaka remains popular in Brazil, with a huge following among teenage girls. He has also won the admiration of anxious parents for advocating and professedly practicing sexual abstinence before marriage.

Brazilian magazines have carried interviews with Kaka talking about his dedication to the church, stretching back to his childhood and his plans to become a preacher after retiring from soccer.

'I am against this because football should be kept apart from politics, religion and race,' said Gustavo D'Acol, a 34-year old lawyer who has followed Kaka's career since he was a young player at Sao Paulo.

'At the same time, we have to start from the premise that he is entitled to do what he want with his trophy.'

The player, whose real name is Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, suffered a spinal fracture in a swimming pool accident when he was 18. He attributed his recovery to faith in God.

Kaka has since tithed part of his income to the Renascer church and was appointed a UN World Food Programme Ambassador against Hunger in 2004.

Kaka announced his decision to donate the Player of the Year trophy at a December church service attended by 5,000 people.

'This achievement is the work of our apostolic brethren and the trophy is going to stay here,' he proclaimed at the time.