Brazilians love the name game

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, actually, and especially if you are talking about Brazil.

The four-times World Cup champions are the only major sporting country in which athletes are most commonly known by their first names or nicknames.

It adds to the romance of Brazil.
Pele might not have played differently had he been known by his surname, Nascimento, but it would not have sounded so good.

Since first names are chosen rather than inherited, behind each name lies a story. Roberto Carlos, for example, was named after the real Roberto Carlos—who is Brazil’s equivalent of Frank Sinatra.

One day someone will write a thesis about why so many people called Ronaldo have played for Brazil recently. The first three were easy to distinguish, thanks to the Portuguese language’s descriptive suffixes. Adding “-inho” to a name means “little”, adding “-ao” means “big”.

So, in the mid-1990s there was the goalkeeper Ronaldo, the defender Ronaldao—since he was big and hard—and Ronaldinho, the teenage buck-toothed phenomenon, so called because he was young, and hence, little.

But in 1999 along came another Ronaldo, also, as it happens, teenage and also buck-toothed. What to do? The logical step would have been to call him Ronaldinhozinho—even younger Ronaldo. But Brazil is never logical. Instead he became known as Ronaldinho Gaucho, meaning Little Ronaldo from the state Rio Grande do Sul.

For the sake of simplicity Ronaldinho has now graduated to Ronaldo and Ronaldinho Gaucho is known as Ronaldinho, since the other two Ronaldos are no longer in the squad.

Brazilians also love giving people nicknames. The current squad has a few choice examples: Vampeta, the reserve midfielder, comes from the words vampiro and capeta, or vampire and devil, since he was frightening-looking as a child.

Perhaps the most inappropriate nickname in a Brazil squad was Dunga, who captained Brazil in 1994 and 1998. The hard-looking defensive midfielder was called after the translation of the name Dopey in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Fancy players and strikers are almost always known by nicknames, but goalkeepers are hardly ever known by their nicknames. Of the nine keepers to have had more than 20 national caps, four are known by their surnames and four by their first names.

It makes sense: Brazilians are more affectionate to their attacking players, so they will address them more affectionately—with nicknames and diminutives.

The only person in defence who is known by a nickname is Cafu, but then he is the least defensive defender that ever put on a yellow shirt. The coach Luiz Felipe Scolari even admits that he cannot defend properly. With a name like a striker’s, Cafu behaves like a striker.

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