THE PICK OF THE MORE AMUSING football anecdotes to emerge in recent times was that relayed by ex-Brazil forward Pato around the time boyhood team Internacional marked the 10th anniversary of its unlikely 2006 World Club Cup victory over then-Champions League holders Barcelona, led by arch-rivals Grêmio’s finest ever academy product, one Ronaldinho Gaúcho.
The following summer, with AC Milan having been crowned European kings as Kaká ruled the planet and succeeded Ronaldinho as its greatest player, Pato would be landed for a €22 million fee and talked up as the next big thing to come out of Brazil, a 17-year-old prodigy who had shown great promise.
Upon arrival, akin to a fish-out-of-water new blood in state prison accosted by a seasoned con and offered protection, he was swiftly taken to one side by Ronaldo – a recent recruit in the previous January transfer window in what would be his final season in Europe – and forced to pledge his allegiance to one of two groups by choosing either one of two sacred texts. Did he want to take the latest issue of Playboy, and join Ronaldo’s clan? Or the Bible and link up with Kaká’s religious congregation?
Judging by what followed for Pato, we can safely assume which gang he was sworn into. Admittedly injury-plagued, his time in Italy, save for sparks of genius including a brace at the Bernabéu in a thrilling Champions League group phase victory over Real Madrid in 2009, didn’t go as planned and was blighted by off-field incidents including an ill-advised affair with Silvio Berlusconi’s daughter.
Coming back to Brazil, there couldn’t have been a worse fit for a reputed pretty boy than gritty working-class outfit Corinthians. Disgusting Corinthianos with his lack of dedication, the move was such a disaster that he was allowed to head to cross-city inimigos São Paulo on loan until almost remaining without a club before a strange experience at Chelsea, half a season at Villarreal and a current, unmotivating yet highly self-profitable move to the doldrums of the Chinese Super League.
Yet things could have been very different. After an abrupt injury sent Ronaldo on an identical prodigal son return to Brazil, directly from Milan to Corinthians, any plans Pato may have had to clean up and keep his head down were no doubt promptly halted by the entrance of famed hedonist and womaniser Ronaldinho. Indeed, it was apparently the bad influence of he and fellow party-loving Deco on the rest of the team that forced Pep Guardiola’s hand in selling the pair in 2008 after assuming the mantle at the Camp Nou.
Read | Ronaldinho and the eternal journey to joy
But, easier said than done for a teenage star on professional money at one of the world’s biggest clubs, Pato should have known better. The difference being that, by their mid-20s, both Ronaldo and Ronaldinho, with the exception of the former perhaps being the best player to never claim a Champions League title, had won everything the game had to offer. Their legendary status was already cemented; they had nothing left to prove, which is why they could afford take their foot off the pedal.
Pato, though, faced a common dilemma that many hot prospect Brazilians on the road to greatness have thrust upon them – to knuckle down and steer clear of temptation, which usually goes hand-in-hand with an entombing in one’s faith, or make the most of being young and rich by living the life of Riley and worrying about the detriment to a blossoming career later on.
Some have the God-given talent to do both. Scolded for the 2015 donning of an ‘I love Jesus’ headband after his goal sealed victory in Juventus’ previous fall at the last hurdle to Spanish opposition in Europe’s premier club competition, after a similar public display of faith from Kaká in the 2009 Confederations Cup saw FIFA warn the Brazilian CBF to get its religious players in check, Neymar’s identity crisis on whether to model himself as a do-gooder religioso or Ibiza-frequenting party boy has been well-documented.
Although reports surfaced from Spain at the end of this season that Barcelona chiefs have concerns over their winger’s lifestyle, his success thus far and continued ascent to the top as potentially the first player since Kaká to dethrone teammate Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo by being awarded the Ballon d’Or leaves it doubtful that a long-resisted sale to Manchester United is likely to be confirmed anytime soon.
Proclaiming that he doesn’t “pretend to be a saint”, the fact remains that Neymar has regularly donated to his church since his adolescence and his first measly paycheck of 450 reais (£106). It must be remembered too that at just four months old, he was almost killed in a car crash that severely injured his father, which made the family ever more grateful for their survival and Neymar’s ability to fulfil his potential.
The constant on-field crossing of the chest coupled with the fact that Latin America’s most populous nation has the highest percentage of Vatican-worshippers found anywhere in the world – the Pope’s 2013 audience of three million on Copacabana beach doubling what the Rolling Stones achieved at the same venue for a free New Year’s Eve concert – would lead one to believe that Brazil’s jogadors are likewise predominantly Roman Catholic.
Over the past 20 years, however, the Evangelist church has increased its numbers of believers at a relentless rate with its unique, US-inspired brand of Protestantism now the second-biggest religion in the country. Still, with just over a quarter of the Roman Catholic church’s 160 million strong numbers, experts predict that, should it keep up its pace as the country’s fastest-growing faith, it will be Brazil’s most-followed by the middle of the century.
Read | Kaká: a footballer of rare substance
Already, it packs considerable clout in politics owed to an infiltration of Congress as well as increasing control of the media best highlighted by the Universal’s church acquisition of Record Channel 7, which, with its popular biblical-themed novela soaps, provides a worthy competitor to broadcasting giant Globo boycotted by Evangelists due to its more risqué content.
It’s easy to see the appeal, with an overriding presence in the kind of impoverished communities most footballers are raised in boasting an array of igrejas from nondescript thrown together wooden shacks to elaborate temples inhabited by much larger organisations such as Universal and Kaká’s Renascer (Rebirth of Christ).
In the past, critics have been quick to point to out how well Renascer has benefited by way of the compulsory 10 percent cut of earnings all Evangelical churches typically demand from their attendees, with a particular emphasis on the player’s big money move to Real Madrid which brought with it a not-too-shoddy signing-on fee.
Before that came Kaká’s decision to donate his 2008 Ballon d’Or to be put on display in a São Paulo branch of Renascer, a move that drew added disapproval given that founders Estevam Hernandes and Sonia Haddad Moraes Hernández, who had built up a considerable portfolio of property in Brazil and overseas, had recently been arrested in the US for trying to smuggle over $56,000 in cash into the country hidden in a Bible.
Apparently, Brazilian federal police were also keen to question Kaká himself in order to ascertain his connection to and involvement with the couple. At the beginning of 2009, tragedy struck Renascer as the roof collapsed at the church Kaka was married in, killing seven and injuring over 50 during a service.
Returning to base level, hope is continually packaged and sold to the lower classes, who are unable to improve their lot neither through public education nor the dead-end jobs it paves the way for, in miracle form. Therefore, when an individual manages to make his way up to the professional ranks, considering the level of talent and its quantity he must surpass to stand out, it’s natural to assume that divine intervention has played its role in a life-changing development. When elevated further to the highest echelons of the game, it’s common to find a player burying himself further into his faith and thinking of himself as even more abençoado (blessed) than before.
Read | A journey to England: why Brazil’s youngsters want Premier League football
Not just the poor subscribe, however, with Kaká having come from a comfortable background and diving deeper into Renascer after defying the odds and recovering from a swimming pool accident that came close to paralysing him as an 18-year-old contender at São Paulo. The first phase of this miracle comeback involved winning the World Cup with Brazil in 2002 as numerous players took part in a post-match prayer. Kaká, who was on the bench for the duration of the match, could clearly be seen paying his respects with captain Cafu before rising to reveal his famed ‘I Belong to Jesus’ shirt for the first time on the global stage.
Some go even further. In 2012, during a spell at lowly Kabuscorp as a 40-year-old, one of the more senior stand-out stars of the team that had lifted the Jules Rimet in Tokyo 10 years prior, Rivaldo, founded the R10 Institute with backing from fellow Barcelona legend Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, whilst also opening his own church in Angola, memorably stating that the initial move to the former Portuguese colony was a ‘call from God’. A certified pastor, Santos striker Ricardo Oliveira is surely welcome to give a sermon there when his schedule allows.
That fabled World Cup–winning squad at the start of the Millennium wouldn’t be the first to be tinged by o poder de Deus (the power of God), with swathes of their USA 94 predecessors, including Rafinha and Thiago Alcântara’s father Mazinho, members of the highly-influential Atletas de Cristo organisation founded in 1984, which also counts David Luiz among its brethren.
Baptised in the back garden of former PSG teammate Maxwell, who considering his limited ability and bit-part roles has every right to feel consecrated as football’s most decorated player of all time, Luiz grabbed headlines with the announcement of a vow to stay celibate until marriage to his long-term girlfriend.
It would appear though that no matter how religious a player is or what he has achieved on the field, some temptations are too much to bear. Without delving into tabloid fodder, the 2015 breakup of Kaká’s seemingly-perfect picture book family was brought about by the discovery of an affair with 21-year-old Miss Brasil, Jakelyne Oliveira.
An outside shot to be called up to Russia 2018 for his positive influence in the dressing room and invaluable experience, there are bound to be public demonstrations of faith, even at the risk of governing body discipline, from Neymar and others in the squad upon hotly-tipped victory should Kaká feature or not.
And for those watching at home from the favelas and comunidades in desperate quest of following their paths, an added incentive to sacrifice one’s self to the Lord. How the chosen will handle their newfound wealth and fame, however, and which path they choose to take in navigation of their careers and potential pitfalls, is another matter entirely.
By Tom Sanderson @TomSandersonSP