Whether it be on the beach, at school, in the street or in a stadium, no game of football in Brazil would be complete without some of the players eschewing their formal first names or surnames for a more informal nickname.
The likes of o Formiga (the Ant), o Carioca (the one from Rio), or o Mexerica (the Tangerine) are commonplace, whilst it is almost obligatory for smaller, slighter players to have the diminutive form “inho” added to their name, as is the case with Robinho (Little Robson). In contrast, taller, more robust individuals would have the augmentive “ão” added, for example ex-Brazil coach Felipão (Big Phil) Scolari, who was a rugged defender during his playing days.
Perhaps these nicknames are simply a way of differentiating players in a country as football-mad as Brazil, or maybe Brazilians’ obsession for smothering the beautiful game in a shroud of creativity and quirkiness, but there can surely be no other nation where nicknames are such an integral part of the footballing culture. And what's more, while legendary figures such as Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer (Der Kaiser) or Argentina’s Diego Maradona (El Pibe de Oro) enjoy affectionate sobriquets, these would never replace their real names in everyday use. Not the case in the nation that has won five FIFA World Cups™, where players’ nicknames are formalised to such an extent that the vast majority of fans never learn the identities that adorn their idols’ birth certificates.
Indeed, some of the most famous faces in the illustrious history of A Seleção are infinitely better known by a diminutive form of their name. Fine examples are two-time world champion Didi, full name Valdir Pereira; Brazil’s top scorer at Sweden 1958, Edvaldo Izidio Neto, who went by Vava; or more recently the 2007 FIFA World Player, Kaka, whose full name is Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite.
Other Seleção stars came by their nicknames by a more roundabout route, including two of the finest players in world football history in Pele and Garrincha. The former, born Edson Arantes do Nascimento, was known by the diminutive Dico by his family while growing up, only to be dubbed Gasolina by Santos defender Wilson after joining O Peixe in 1956. Yet the origins of Pelé require a lengthier background explanation, with roots that can be traced back to gifted goalkeeper Bile, who turned out for humble outfit Vasco de Sao Lourenco, in the south of Minas Gerais state.
With Pele’s father Seu Dondinho playing alongside Bile at Vasco, the young Edson would enjoy watching the gifted goalkeeper in training, before later attempting to recreate the custodian’s spectacular saves in street kickabouts with his friends. An aspiring shot-stopper himself as a child, when Edson was in goal he would greet particularly outstanding blocks with a shout of “Bilé!” which those around him misheard as “Pelé!”
Garrincha, for his part, was born Manoel dos Santos, with his nickname coming from a small brown bird that was common in his native town of Pau Grande. Given the sobriquet by his sister, due to his small, skinny build and severely bowed legs, the name would later become synonymous with electrifying wing-play and one of the most popular right-sided forwards of all time.
A team-mate of Pele’s during victory at Mexico 1970, Eduardo Goncalves de Andrade was another Brazilian legend whose physical stature earned him an enduring identity. Of average height but outrageously gifted, the young Eduardo would often play with and against much older youths on the pitches of Minas Gerais state. Those same youths thus anointed their younger counterpart with the name of a small and little-valued coin of the time: Tostao.
Following in a similar vein was the uncle of Brazil’s USA 1994-winning captain Carlos Caetano Bledorn Verri, who charmingly dubbed the short and stocky youngster ‘Dunga’ (Dopey) in reference to the character from Disney film ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’. Even harsher, perhaps, were the school-mates of midfielder Marcos Andre Batista Santos, a FIFA World Cup winner at Korea/Japan 2002, whose looks first earned him the nickname o Capeta (the Devil). More was to come for the unfortunate youngster once his front-two milk teeth had fallen out, which saw him called o Vampiro (the Vampire). From a combination of the two names came Vampeta, under which guise the player turned out for a host of big clubs including European sides PSV Eindhoven, Inter Milan and Paris Saint-Germain.
Staying in touch with their roots
Aside from physical characteristics, another popular form of nicknaming Brazilian players comes from their place or state of birth, with notable examples being Junior Baiano (from Bahia) or Marcelinho Carioca (from Rio, whose inhabitants are called Cariocas).
Another is former Lyon set-piece wizard Antonio Augusto Ribeiro Reis Junior, who was known simply as Juninho until mid-2000, when then club Vasco da Gama signed Osvaldo Giroldo Junior, also known as Juninho, on loan from Atletico de Madrid. The latter thus temporarily became Juninho Paulista (from Sao Paulo state), with the former going with Juninho Pernambucano (from Pernambuco state), an identity that has stuck with him through his hugely successful time in France and his current spell in Qatar.
A similar clash is behind the changing nicknames of the two most famous Ronaldos in history. Corinthians striker Ronaldo was for much of his early career known by the diminutive of Ronaldinho, until a rising star from Gremio with the same name began to break into A Seleção circa 1999. To avoid confusion, the younger of the pair became Ronaldinho Gaucho, though over time o Fenômeno would drop the “inho” to be simply Ronaldo while the current AC Milan attacker is also much better known as just Ronaldinho.
Not that nicknames are always an accurate description of a player’s background. For example midfielder Mineiro, a member of Brazil’s squad at Germany 2006, is actually a Gaúcho (from the state of Rio Grande do Sul) as opposed to a Mineiro (from Minas Gerais). Even further from the mark was former midfielder Ricardo Rogerio de Brito, a starter for Brazil at Mexico 1986 and Italy 1990, whose fair hair and pale skin earned him the Teutonic sobriquet Alemao (German).
Nor was Alexandre Pato named for any likeness to a pato (duck), with the AC Milan goal-getter in fact hailing from the city of Pato Branco in Parana state. In contrast, Santos and Brazil starlet Paulo Henrique Ganso was named after a ganso (goose), thanks to the club’s kit-man always greeting the arrival at training of O Peixe’s gangly and long-limbed U-20 players with the words, “Here comes that bunch of geese”. Similarly, the build and strength of Porto’s powerhouse forward Givanildo Vieira de Souza means the super-hero inspired nickname Hulk sits easily on his broad shoulders.
Another curious tale lies behind the identity of Wolfsburg striker Grafite, Edinaldo Batista Libanio, who was known as Dina until his youth coach at Matonense, Estevam Soares, decided to dub him grafite (graphite) after a former charge who also had long, pencil-thin legs. The nickname of one of the most successful Brazilian exports of recent times also came about due to a resemblance to a former player. When playing in a wide-right role at youth level, Marcos Evangelista de Moraes was dubbed Cafuringa in honour of an ex-Atletico Mineiro player who had thrived in that same role. However, over time the name and the favoured position would both change, with Cafu going on to become widely recognised as an archetypal exponent of the right wing-back’s art.
Animals too are popular for this original form of satire, as is the case with Pavao (Peacock), Edson Cegonha (Stork), Claudio Pitbull, Eduardo Ratinho (Little Rat/Mouse), Aranha (Spider) or Jorge Prea (Guinea Pig). So too are foodstuffs: Cocada (Coconut candy), Eduardo Arroz (Rice), Ademir Sopa (Soup), Triguinho (Wheat), as well as objects like Viola, Balao (Balloon), Tesourinha (Little Treasure), Alfinete (Pin) or Valdir Papel (Paper), proof that in terms of player names at least, pretty much anything goes in Brazilian football.
Given the innumerable examples of this curious trend, why not click on “add your comment” and tell us about your favourite footballing nickname, Brazilian or otherwise, remembering to keep your posts clean, respectful, on-topic and in English.