Whenever a team loses its star player, let alone one who is a perennial contender for FIFA World Player of the Year award, it is almost inevitable that they will struggle to fill his boots. But such are the myriad of options available to Brazil coach Dunga that he will approach today's final Group G encounter against Portugal with few worries, confident that his side will prove to be a match for any team in South Africa.
It goes without saying that Kaka is a vital cog in the all-conquering Brazilian machine. His last absence from the national team through injury was followed with intense interest throughout the South American nation, from the Brazilian Football Federation's technical committee to the millions of fans hoping to see their team lift their sixth FIFA World Cup™.
After a quiet start to the tournament, Brazil’s talisman came to life in the game against Côte d’Ivoire, showing that he has recovered fully from the groin injury that disrupted his domestic campaign with Spanish giants Real Madrid. His dismissal towards the end of the game, however, has given A Seleção the chance to show that they are much more than a one-man team.
Kaka himself is quick to state his unequivocal faith in his team-mates, who currently lead Group G with six points, two more than their forthcoming opponents. “We’re going to win against Portugal,” said the man who won the adidas Golden Ball at the FIFA Confederations Cup South Africa 2009.
Dunga has at his disposal a variety of options as he searches for a replacement for the Real Madrid superstar. For their part, Portugal are well aware of Brazil's strength in depth.
“Brazil have got some very strong players,” said midfielder Tiago. “It is a shame that he can’t play but we’re not thinking about that. Either Julio Baptista will come in for him or another of their great players will be called on. Brazil have quality throughout their squad.”
In fact, Julio Baptista is the most logical choice to replace Kaka. The Roma player made a substitute appearance in his country’s recent friendly against Zimbabwe and seems to have done enough in recent training sessions to merit his chance. And, of course, who can forget his outstanding displays in the Copa America 2007, including a memorable performance against arch-rivals Argentina in the final.
But the player himself is happy to bide his time. “He plays in the same position as me, but I’m here to help and to wait for my chance. If the coach has to use me, I’m ready,” said Baptista, who is a great friend of Kaka’s, and has been since their days together in junior football with Sao Paulo.
Another option is to deploy Robinho in a deeper role and play Nilmar or Grafite up front, something which Dunga has already tried in the last few minutes of his side’s victory over Korea DPR. Robinho, currently on loan at Santos from English side Manchester City, sees some merit in the system. “When we play with three forwards, I’m the one who drops deeper to try to get on the ball and play other people in. So if we have to use that system, there’s no problem. Dunga can count on me wherever I play.”
For his part, Dunga, who may also have to do without Elano, as the midfielder recovers from a leg injury, is keeping his cards close to his chest, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that midfielder Ramires or right-wingback Daniel Alves could play some part against Portugal.
A silver lining
Kaka acknowledges that the Portugal game would have been an important step back towards full match-fitness. However, he refuses to be downbeat and is quick to see the positive side. “It’s a setback in terms of me getting back to full fitness, but it will give me a week before the next game so that I can do some strength work. I want to sharpen my fitness so that I’m ready for the knockout games.”
He is also well aware of the potential benefits that his absence may have in bringing the Brazil squad closer together. “I think I can be a good example for the others in terms of showing that I’m willing to work hard," he said. "I can help them by giving them advice and also through my attitude. The fact that I’m not playing will be a great motivation for whoever takes my place in the team, and I hope that they play well and enjoy good fortune because the game against Portugal will be tough.”
In such a high-profile game between the countries ranked first and third on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, luck may well be the decisive factor. But Kaka has a warning for his team-mates, who, he says, cannot afford to rely on fortune alone. “We want to top the group and even though we know we only need a draw, a win is really important to give us momentum going into the last 16,” he concluded.