When Claudemir Jeronimo Barreto is in top form, tearing opposing defences apart with his lightning quick thrusts and exceptional close control, he can be near unplayable. Away from the field the man universally known as Cacau is thoughtful, calm and a remarkably balanced character.
It is clear on meeting him that his life is already enriched with momentous events and memories. In short, the 32-year-old is an extraordinary character.
The player hailing from Santo Andre in Brazil started out with Palmeiras in Sao Paulo. He also played for Nacional AC Sao Paulo as a youth. Thanks to Osmar de Oliveira, the director of a samba group and the player’s manager later in his career, Cacau arrived in Germany in 1999 and toured with the dance troupe, albeit as a member of the support staff rather than a performer.
Cacau’s first playing contract in Germany was with Turk Gucu in Munich, where he represented the club in the fifth tier. In 2001 at the age of 20 he joined Nuremberg, initially playing for the reserves. A remarkable and unconventional career began to pick up speed.
He has played for Stuttgart in the Bundesliga since 2003, with the highlight of his career coming four years later when VfB won the league title. And though 2013 has not been a good year for him due to a string of injuries, Cacau is looking to the future with optimism and confidence, especially as his next Bundesliga appearance will take him up to 250 German top-flight matches.
On the international stage, the striker has six goals in 23 games for Germany. At the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ he came on as a 68th-minute substitute in Germany’s opening match against Australia and scored just 110 seconds later. It is the second-fastest goal in tournament history by a player after coming on as a sub.
Committed Christian Cacau combines authentic joie de vivre with an enquiring and thoughtful attitude to life. He is well aware of the benefits brought to him by the game and now has plans to give something back.
A few days prior to the Final Draw for the 2014 FIFA World Cup, he talked exclusively to FIFA.com about a life shaped by two different cultures, what he is expecting from next summer’s global showdown in his country of birth, and realising one of his greatest desires, helping kids to a better future thanks to community involvement.
FIFA.com: Cacau, is your mentality nowadays more German or still Brazilian?
Cacau: I guess it’s more German at the moment because I live in Germany. But basically I’m very proud about managing to combine elements of both. Being relaxed and flexible is important to Brazilians. These attributes are very helpful in certain situations. The priority for the Germans is organisation. I’ve tried to take on board the positive sides of both mentalities. It’s the perfect blend in my opinion.
Was settling down in Germany difficult at the start?
Yes! I’ll admit it was very tough at first because I didn’t have the language skills. There’s no way you can settle in properly when you can’t make yourself understood and also don’t understand anyone else. I arrived in Munich with a Brazilian mentality and it took a while before I acclimatised to my new environment. I also had to fit in as a footballer. It was a completely new world for me. However, slowly but surely and with help from a handful of fellow countrymen I took on board some new qualities and values which helped me integrate.
Did you have any negative experiences in terms of discrimination or outright racism?
I was given strong warnings about this, but nothing that bad ever happened to me. The opposite in fact, I was welcomed to Germany with open arms. Wherever I went I basically received an immensely friendly reception. Obviously I thought that was very positive.
How much were you helped at the start in Germany by your deep religious beliefs?
Faith was and still is my strong foundation. At the start I was awfully homesick and afraid I wouldn’t make it in Germany. But I always drew hope from my faith. I don’t think I’d have succeeded if it wasn’t for that.
It can’t always be easy combining strong faith with the demands of elite sport...
That’s true. I struggled with it at the start of my career, but it was always clear to me that I neither could nor wanted to separate my faith and elite sport from each other. As a professional footballer the priority is always to perform. It’s vital you succeed and help your team. An important part of that is an unconditional determination to win and also to get stuck into challenges. On the other hand faith is helpful to me in terms of coping with the pressure to perform every time. It gives me the certainty that I’m loved even when we lose or I play badly.
You’re heavily involved in community projects as well.
During my childhood in Brazil many people helped me become what I am today. And during my early years in Germany there were people like Osmar de Oliveira who gave me incredible support. One of the things I’ve learned is that you must never forget where you’ve come from. So in recent years I’ve become increasingly keen to do something to help - in my case by supporting disadvantaged kids in Brazil.
Tell us what you’re doing in a bit more detail.
Happy to! After a long period of preparation we’ve now succeeded in making our dream come true. Our Sports for Life project with the international Christian children’s charity World Vision uses sport to organise activities and convey the values which are important in daily life. We work in Mogi das Cruzes, where I grew up, on programmes that help to create a perspective, so younger generations can better organise their daily lives. Using activities such as football we want to show kids who suffer from low self-esteem, are without hope and are in danger of slipping into the criminal world that they’re worth something and can achieve things in society. We want to strengthen them and help them put down roots so they can take control of their lives. Using football and other sports such as basketball and volleyball we want to bring these kids a feeling of joy and a sense of belonging, and instil values such as respect and a charitable attitude.
To find out more about the Sports for Life project supported by Cacau, simply follow the link.
How much does your own remarkable experience help?
It plays a very important role, because I know from personal experience how difficult it is when you’re totally down and out, and how valuable it is when someone helps. I want to show that it’s worth helping. People look at me and say: 'He’s one of us and he’s made it. If he can do it, so can we.'
How can football help?
Football can set things in motion, especially within the community - a great deal more than you’d imagine, in fact. I always think of my older brother in Brazil. He started going to a new school and was totally left out at first. They were going to play football in a sports lesson and he was the last pick. But he got stuck in and showed them what he could do. They were all stunned. After that they all thought he was great and everyone wanted to be his friend. He was included in everything after that. Football can give back an unbelievable amount if it’s used properly. It makes me incredibly proud when I see the kids’ eyes sparkle. And seeing tears of joy in parents’ eyes is just priceless.
Let’s turn to the 2014 FIFA World Cup™ for a moment. What are you expecting from the finals in Brazil?
I’m sure we’ll see exceptionally high-quality football at the World Cup. The smaller teams have caught up a lot. And here in Germany we’ve developed a technically excellent style of play, up there with the Spanish and Brazilians. If you add in Italy, Portugal and the Netherlands, I can count six teams who play attractive attacking football. That’ll be the decisive factor in Brazil, it’ll rouse the fans, help the teams rise above themselves and go on to win the Trophy. The atmosphere will be outstanding, at every match and not just when Brazil play. It’s what we saw at the Confederations Cup 2013.
Germany fans are yearning for a first major international title since 1996. Naturally, Brazil are expected to go all the way in front of their home crowd. Which team is under more pressure?
I’d say Brazil are under greater pressure. We’ve won the World Cup five times but never at home. We’ve still not got over the Maracanazo [Brazil’s shock 2-1 defeat to Uruguay at the Maracana in the final game of the 1950 World Cup, when the host nation were overwhelming favourites].
You’ve just said “we” twice...
[Laughs] You got me there! It’s true that I say “we” for both Brazil and Germany. I do it unconsciously but I think it’s wonderful. I’m very happy about it.
What would a sixth World Cup triumph mean to Brazil next year?
Every Brazilian is hoping to witness a World Cup triumph on home soil. Everyone will do whatever he or she can. Every Brazil game will be like a public holiday, although that obviously means the pressure will be immense.
Who are the favourites?
Spain, Germany and Brazil, obviously!
Could you still feature for Germany at the World Cup?
It’s hard to say. I’m injured at the moment in any case, and I’ve not played much for Stuttgart recently. So it’s not a priority for me at the moment and there’s no point talking about it. But I’ll definitely be in Brazil during the tournament.
And who’s your favourite to win the FIFA Ballon d'Or 2013?
It’s a very, very interesting question this year. After his four-goal gala against Sweden everyone’s obviously talking about Cristiano Ronaldo again. But Franck Ribery is in unbelievable shape too. And yet again, Lionel Messi has scored countless goals this year. I think one thing is certain: Messi and Ronaldo are nowhere near as far ahead of the others compared to previous years. I’m very excited, so let’s see what happens.