Goal celebrations generally fall somewhere in between raw displays of emotion incredible athleticism , and sheer ridiculousness (sorry no video available, but see if you can recall Finidi George at the 1994 World Cup getting down on all fours before relieving himself on the corner flag). Recently, however, a new type of celebration has made its way into soccer: the religious celebration. And no player is more overt in praising God after scoring than the Brazilian Kaká. Kaká’s celebrations initially appear simple. He raises both hands and lifts his head to the sky as he runs away from the goal. But the significance of these gestures is far more than meets the eye and begins to tell the story of one of the world’s most devoted religious soccer players.
Kaká is an evangelical Christian (Brazilian teammates Lucio and Edmilson are as well, but I am focusing on Kaká as he has the highest profile). He told the group Atletas de Cristo that he grew up in an evangelical family. “My parents were already saved and I grew up in the presence of the Lord.”
The young Brazilian’s faith became even stronger after he was baptized into the evangelical Reborn in Christ Church. He told Atletas de Cristo that was “when I began having a relationship of Father to son with God. … [S]omething supernatural happened to me. I can not explain it, but after that experience I got closer to God, more in-tuned with Him.”
Kaká is one of a growing number of evangelical Christians in Brazil. While Kaká’s homeland still has the largest Catholic population of any country in the world, the rise in evangelicals in the past few decades has been phenomenal. A recent article in the Washington Post offers some numbers:
Between 1980 and 2000, the number of those who identified themselves as evangelicals in national census counts doubled, to more than 26 million people in this country of about 185 million. The growth has changed the religious complexion of Brazil, where about 90 percent of residents identified themselves as Catholics in 1980. If the spread of the evangelical denominations continued at the same rate — an unlikely possibility, according to analysts — Catholics would be a minority here within 20 years.
But, as the same Washington Post article details, the rise of evangelical churches in Brazil has not been without controversy. Many of the churches focus on increasing personal wealth along with improving personal spirituality (and in this share many similarities with American evangelicals such as T.D. Jakes). But this monetary focus has made allegations of financial impropriety among church leaders particularly stinging. When Estevam and Sonia Hernandes-Filho, leaders of the a Brazilian evangelical church, were detained by U.S. Customs officials for attempting to bring in large amounts of undeclared cash, it was big news back in Brazil, where the couple is wanted for “siphoning off millions of dollars in followers’ money for personal enrichment.”
Estevam and Sonia Hernandes-Filho
News of the arrest of the Hernandes-Filhos was also notable because they head the Reborn in Christ Church, which counts a certain young man named Kaká among its disciples.The problems at the top of the church, however, have not filtered down to its most famous disciple. Kaká is described as having “impeccable manners and dedication” and has done work with the World Food Programme (see article titled Kaká Able to See Beyond Dollar Signs). He also has strong morals that he lives out in his professional life (the anti-Rooney, if you will): “I will not brawl … I am not supposed to be punching people up on the field or swearing.”
Kaká’s sense of morality also extends to his personal life. He objected to Carlos Alberto Parreira’s decision to allow the Brazilian players to have sex during the 2006 World Cup (maybe if the coach had listened, Brazil would have lived up to their potential). And, in what Alex Bellos said “must be a first for a footballer at his level” proudly declared himself to be a virgin at his 2006 marriage.
But, as defines evangelicals, Kaká is not satisfied to live out the Gospel in his own life. He has actively used his status as a professional athlete to promote his religious agenda. In addition to his more muted arms-raised celebration, Kaká has also made a habit of wearing t-shirts with evangelical messages underneath his uniform, which he exposes after scoring. The shirt he put on after winning the Champions League in 2003, which displayed the phrase “I belong to Jesus” (in English, a language he does not speak) was clearly intended to spreading a message to as wide an audience as possible.
Indeed, Kaká is open about his intentions. In his interview with Atletas de Cristo, he mixes the language of religion and soccer.
To those who already have Jesus: you have made the best choice and are in the best team. Go ahead. Do not give up. The fight is great, but we can only win being on Jesus’ side. To those who have not yet surrendered their lives to Jesus: What are you doing being outside of this team?! Come to learn the Word of God, come to know who God really is.
And, in what was either a prescient piece of advice to his soon-to-become rotund Brazilian teammate Ronaldo, the t-shirt slogan that didn’t make the cut, or his personal message of salvation for humanity, Kaká says, “Stop eating cookies, while God offers us a banquet.”