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slug_mlsweekKaká’s MLS adventure starts at the place closest to American—and Brazilian—hearts

Photograph by Gustaff Choos

Photograph by Gustaff Choos

One year before signing with Major League Soccer upstarts Orlando City SC, Brazilian footballer Kaká spent his wedding anniversary at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida. Under the Magic Kingdom’s soft gray turrets, the Kakás, flanked by Mickey and Minnie Mouse, posed for a photo. With wide smiles and exquisite bone structure, they paint a portrait of wholesome, domestic bliss beneath a pasty blue sky.

It’s a photo that you have seen before—a picture of a picture—and the role of the Kakás in it is to export this image of idealized American life, drawn into being by Walt Disney himself decades ago, to a new market: Brazil.

It’s this growing market that convinced Orlando City’s owner, Brazilian Flávio Augusto da Silva, to purchase a football club in central Florida and make the 32-year-old Kaká the face of the team. Every year, 770,000 Brazilians visit Orlando, a higher number than to any other American city, and da Silva plans to turn them into fans of his new purple-clad club. “They could buy the tickets in Brazil,” said da Silva in 2013. “The same way they buy tickets to Disney or Universal, they could buy tickets to Orlando City.”

To make this plan work, da Silva will need to re-create his own rags-to-riches story. Born poor in Rio de Janeiro, da Silva founded a network of English language schools, Wise Up, in 1995, anticipating the rising demand for English speakers that accompanied Brazil’s emergence as a developing global economic power. His gambit paid off: da Silva sold Wise Up for over $400 million in 2013 and purchased a controlling stake of Orlando City, then playing in the American third division USL Pro.

Together with club chairman and minority owner Phil Rawlins, a former shareholder and board president of Stoke City, they won a spot in MLS as the league’s 21st team at the reported price of $70 million. A 19,500 seat stadium is under construction in downtown Orlando that will house the club beginning in 2016. This season, they will play in the Citrus Bowl, an aging monolith first constructed during the 1930s as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and later expanded to seat 65,000.

While relying on suitcase-toting Brazilian supporters to fill an arena doesn’t necessarily make for a stable business plan, a strong existing fan base in Orlando will bolster da Silva and Kaká’s efforts. In 2013, the club drew over 20,000 fans to the USL Pro championship game, and the club has already sold more than 13,000 season tickets ahead of its March MLS debut, courting native Floridians that are more interested in local first-division football than Daffy Duck.

For Kaká, the move represents a recalibration of ambition at the end of a pedigreed playing career. Left off Brazil’s 2014 World Cup squad, the 2007 Ballon d’Or winner and FIFA World Player of the Year must now lend his talent to Orlando’s first MLS campaign after a European playing career that took him from Real Madrid to AC Milan. On loan with São Paulo FC this past fall, the central midfielder will arrive in Orlando as the highest-paid player in MLS, carrying high performance expectations to justify his fat paycheck.

Off the field, Kaká’s presence can already be felt on social media, where over 700,000 Brazilians have liked Orlando City’s Facebook page, far exceeding the club’s English-language online presence. If da Silva and Kaká are to realize their global superclub ambitions, Kaká, allegedly the fourth most popular athlete in the world on Twitter and Facebook, must now help turn those clicks into dollars, selling his fellow Brazilians on the notion that the Disneyfied happiness he displayed on his wedding anniversary two years ago is only one purple Orlando City kit purchase away.

With Orlando’s first match against fellow expansion team New York City FC on March 8 (it’s already sold out), Kaká will be called on to orchestrate the on-field product that his benefactor da Silva plans to sell around the world. If they need advice on this business model, they would do well to consult their next-door neighbors at Disney World. In the Disney empire, da Silva and Kaká will find the distillation of late American capitalism: a global media juggernaut, exporting content around the world, served with a toothy grin.

It seems only fitting that Orlando City’s inaugural match will be played at home in Orlando—the city that grew around Walt Disney’s idea of the American Dream—and the city that now plays home to da Silva and Kaká’s Brazilian Dreams too.

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