CARSON, Calif. — Two very similar Brazilian midfielders will be lining up on opposite sides of the ball on Saturday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
Based solely on their looks, it won’t be difficult to tell the two apart. One is taller, has thick black hair and debonair looks. The other has a svelte but deceptive frame, loads of facial and hair and has a tattoo that covers his upper left arm.
Different in appearance and on the field, though, both Kaká and Juninho have strikingly similar backgrounds. And while they do not know each personally, Kaká’s rise through the Brazilian ranks provided a path for the latter to follow.
“I love watching Kaká play,” Galaxy midfielder Juninho said ahead of Saturday's World Football Challenge matchup between LA and Real Madrid (10 pm ET, ESPN2, ESPN Deportes). “We went to the same schools and are from the same area. He’s a special player and it will be special to play against him.”
Kaká went through the ranks of the famed Brazilian side São Paulo in the 1990s and early 2000s, scoring several important goals and catching AC Milan’s eye. He then moved to the San Siro and made his name there before joining Real Madrid in 2009.
Juninho, meanwhile, also went through the São Paulo system and was loaned out to the Galaxy in 2010. In one-and-a-half seasons, he has cemented himself as one of the club’s top players and is possibly one of the league’s most underrated stars.
Having the chance to share a field with Kaká is a bit of a unique opportunity for Juninho.
“I don’t know him personally because he was gone before me, but I believe all who know about soccer consider him special,” Juninho said.
Will the Galaxy midfielder try and exchange jerseys with former World Player of the Year?
“For certain,” said Juninho. “Either him, Marcelo or Pepe.”
Real Madrid have a special place in Juninho’s heart. As a youngster, two of his fellow countrymen entertained him while he watched the club play, and now, one of the players he most admires is one of the team’s most important figures.
“I grew up watching Ronaldo and Roberto Carlos, two players who were there for many years and won many championships,” Juninho said. “I like how Xabi Alonso plays, very intelligent.”
Playing against the likes of Xabi Alonso, Kaká, Marcelo, Pepe, Cristiano Ronaldo or whatever other stars are on the field for Real Madrid on Saturday, Juninho said he feels mostly one thing, but he keeps it in check.
“Admiration. I believe the majority of my emotions would be admiration,” he said. “I admire them, but I have to play my game. I believe on the field they do their thing and I do mine.”
Playing against those players is one thing, but to try and win a match against Madrid is something else. Victory against a team of that caliber could spawn even more confidence in the MLS-leading Galaxy.
“They have a great team and it’s complicated to say whether we’ll win or not,” Juninho said. “For sure, we will have a special joy if we win.”