At the conclusion of the 2007 UEFA Champions League Final, Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite of AC Milan, known to most soccer fans as Kaká, removed his jersey and revealed an undershirt that proudly read “I Belong to Jesus.” Just like that, millions of fans around the world witnessed arguably the greatest soccer player in the world profess his love for Jesus.
As a footballer Kaká is both talented and incredibly fun to watch and he is known throughout the sport for his incredible pace, vision, and shooting ability. He has a knack for changing games, such as his memorable heroics against Manchester United at Old Trafford in 2007. In his prime he was without doubt the best player in the world, winning FIFA’s Ballon d’Or (world player of the year award) in 2007 while guiding AC Milan to the pinnacle of European soccer, winning both Serie A (the Italian League) and the UEFA Champions League. Though lacking a World Cup title with Brazil, he will certainly go down as one of the greatest players of his generation and one of the most electric athletes the Italian league has ever seen.
But it is arguably off the pitch that Kaká has had his largest impact. When Kaká was 18 years old he was in a horrible swimming pool accident, fracturing the sixth vertebra in his neck. After having being rushed to the hospital, doctors and surgeons told him he would be lucky to walk again, let alone play soccer. A devout Christian, Kaká attributed his eventual recovery to God, and has since begun using his celebrity to promote Jesus. Kaká would don his “I Belong to Jesus” shirt on three separate occasions during his career and he plays with the phrase “God is Faithful” stitched into his cleats. His favorite book is the Bible, his favorite music is Gospel, and after scoring goals he typically points to the sky as a thanks to God.
Despite his fervent religious attitude, Kaká remains one of the most liked players in Europe and is celebrated by pundits as one of the “good guys” in the game. Since November 2004 he has served as an Ambassador Against Hunger for the UN World Food Program and is also a massive supporter of Goal4Africa, a program to help promote soccer in Africa following the 2010 World Cup. His likeability has translated into success within his faith, as he was the first athlete to garner 10 million Twitter followers is considered a major positive influence for Christianity worldwide. Many of his Twitter followers have even posted stories about their transformation as Christians thanks to his influence.
Kaká’s likeability and success stands in stark contrast with one of America’s most religious athletes, Tim Tebow. You don’t have to follow football to know all about Tebow and his legacy. His short NFL career has been extremely controversial with an extreme “love or hate” reputation around the league. Tebow was a Heisman winning quarterback at the University of Florida where he won two national championships. Now a second string quarterback with the Jets, Tebow has been referred to as “the most famous backup quarterback of all time” by noted commentators Stephen A. Smith and Michael Wilbon.
It should be no surprise that most of that attention stems from Tebow’s faith. A devout Christian like Kaká, Tebow floods the NFL with speeches about his religion. He always makes sure to mention Jesus as his “Lord and Savior” after every game and “Tebowing,” the act of placing your head on your hand to pray (as Tebow does before the fourth quarter), has become somewhat of a joke in the NFL after the Detroit Lions’ defense repeatedly “Tebowed” after sacking him several times in a game last November. Former Denver Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer said on the radio last year he wishes “he’d [Tebow] just shut up after a game and go hug his teammates.” For Plummer and many Americans, Tebow’s frequent post-game speeches about his faith are overwhelming and only alienate people from the Christian faith rather than bringing them closer, unlike Kaká who is seen as inspirational. So why is Kaká widely beloved while Tebow is simply the butt of a joke?
The most crucial difference between Kaká and Tebow are their respective emphasis on actions versus words. While Kaka rarely mentions God or Jesus in his post-match interviews and statements, Tebow opens every interview by praising and thanking Jesus for the opportunity to play football. Kaká is very humble about his religious beliefs while Tebow loves to blast his views on full volume. Tebow even as far as starring in a Pro-Life commercial during the 2010 Super Bowl, taking a very controversial social stance on national TV in front of some 106 million people.
On the other hand Kaká makes his faith seem personal. His deep connection with God is seen after he scores goals or wins major titles, though he is constantly to himself about it and not broadcasting it across the media during post-match interviews or press conferences. Does his success compared to Tebow indicate a world view that religion should be treated more personally? Generally speaking, even mentioning religion in the 21st Century is considered taboo. Perhaps Tebow’s loss of popularity stems from his desire to turn religion into a public expression whereas society is trying to make it more private and intimate. Perhaps Kaká’s more moderate demonstrations are less alienating to the fans because he doesn’t come off as being a religious fanatic?
Kaká’s success as a Christian can also be attributed to his tireless charity work. Although Tebow has done tremendous charity work in the Philippines, the organizations he works with are almost exclusively evangelical Christian, while Kaká’s work is with the UN World Food Programme, an organization that strives to eradicate poverty and hunger regardless of religion and without an agenda of conversion.
So what does this say about modern Christianity and more specifically the Catholic Church, an organization that continues to bleed new members year after year? Firstly, actions speak louder than words. Broadcasting the love of Jesus is fantastic, but actually moving to make a difference in the world rather than on the basis of conversion speaks volumes more about your faith and spiritual relationships. Tebow and Kaká’s difference in success also tells us that the modern world responds more positively to moderation. Putting down other faiths and engaging in acts of radical worship alienates people, pushing them away from Christianity rather than pulling them closer.
As a Christian I certainly respond to Kaká’s approach over Tebow’s. Kaká celebrates his relationship with God as he runs to the corner flag having scored a tremendous goal, thanking him by pointing to the sky, his eyes closed the entire time, clearly connecting with God on a personal level. His actions show his love of Jesus, and his desire to help other people experience the same love. His work with worldwide charities demonstrates his true understanding of Jesus’ message, no matter whether you think Jesus was the son of God or simply a peaceful prophet rebelling against the tyranny of Rome. These actions speak to people and offer a loving version of Christianity. Tebow, on the other hand, often reminds me of modern “Bible Belt” churches who place their entire value in baseless words rather than actually living out their faith.
If the goal of Christian Churches is to garner new members who believe in the love of God and want to make the world a better place perhaps taking the “Kaká” approach would be a better alternative than “Tebowing.” Kaká is well loved and has converted thousands of people across a religiously diverse globe while Tebow has managed to create a “love or hate” persona in a nation that generally accepts people of all faiths. At the end of the day it is ironic that Kaká, a soft-spoken Brazilian who constantly steps away from the light of the media, has had such a positive impact compared to Tebow, a confident young man who clearly has no fear of public speaking.