The 2010 FIFA World Cup™ is coming to Africa, a continent where nicknames are traditionally used in football instead of country names. But this symbolism is also a deep-rooted tradition in other parts of the world, and the 32 teams participating in the tournament will all proudly answer to their alternative name tags.
Big cats or other powerful animals tend to dominate the jungle of African team nicknames. Initially, the best African players were always presented by the European press as primitives, whose skills were a legacy of their connection to the animal world. Eusebio was therefore likened to a panther, Ben Barek to a feline, and Salif Keita a gazelle.
"At the time at least, European journalists found it difficult to acknowledge that African players might be playing a tactical game, with good technique,” Pierre Lanfranchi, a professor at England’s De Montfort University and a renowned football historian explains, "and that is something that has translated into some of the nicknames subsequently applied to Africa’s national teams."
Lanfranchi adds that other African nicknames were coined as a response to those already adopted by rival teams on the continent. "The reference to the Algerian Fennecs came about at a later stage, with the first mentions in the press in the early eighties, and it seems to have been a response to Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions and Côte d’Ivoire’s Elephants," he says.
The South African hosts of the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ are one of the exceptions to this rule and will head into their home tournament firmly established in the nation’s hearts as Bafana Bafana (literally meaning “Boys, Boys” in Zulu), a term coined by a journalist working for a Soweto newspaper following the abolition of apartheid and the return of South Africa to international competition in 1992. Some say that the name arose because the teams were coached by older men and the players were all very young, although another theory is that it was chosen because the team only won one of its first six international matches due to their lack of experience in high-level matches.
The patriotic Latin Americans tend to identify themselves through the colour of their shirt or national flag, resulting in nicknames such as la Albiceleste ("the White and Sky Blues", Argentina), la Roja ("the Reds", Chile), la Celeste ("the Sky Blues", Uruguay), la Albirroja ("the White and Reds", Paraguay), a Canarinha ("the Canary Yellows", Brazil), el Tri (Mexico, a reference to the tricolour of its flag), and la Bicolor ("the Bicolours", Honduras).
The nicknames of the European teams that will be competing in South Africa also suggest a degree of patriotism, with several being identified by national or regional colours, such as les Bleus ("The Blues", France), la Roja ("The Reds", Spain) or the Azzurri ("The Blues"), chosen by Italy because it was the colour of the House of Savoy. In a similar vein, the Netherlands chose the Oranje because of the connection with their royal family, the House of Orange.
"Using the teams’ colours or symbols as a nickname means that the players are honoured to wear the nation’s colour or symbol, or animal in the case of African teams," comments Patrick Mignon, French writer and sociologist from the National Sports and Physical Education Institute (INSEP) in Paris.
One European team that manages to combine both patriotic symbolism and a reference to a powerful animal is the Serbian White Eagles, a reference to the birds which appear on the country’s coat of arms. Other national teams who have adopted emblems from their national coat of arms or other heraldry include Portugal, known as the Seleção das Quinas (`'the Section of the Shields") and England, whose Three Lions have appeared on the team’s shirt since their first match in 1872. Outside of Europe, Ghana (the Black Stars) and USA (Stars and Stripes) also use elements from their national flags.
Created from scratch
In Japan, the Samurai Blue was created from scratch by the Japan Football Association. "We needed a nickname to support the team for the 2006 World Cup," explains Megumi Fujinoki of the Japanese FA’s communications department. "So to choose a name, we put five options to a vote by the fans and they picked Samurai Blue."
In New Zealand, the first 11 were originally known as the Kiwis, after the national bird, and used to wear white shirts and socks and black shorts, but before the 1982 FIFA World Cup™ in Spain, their first participation in the final round of the competition, they decided to change the colour of the shorts so the kit would be all white, giving rise to the nickname the All Whites.
Across the Tasman Sea, in Australia, the inventor of the nickname the Socceroos, a composite of the words kangaroos and soccer, was Tony Horstead of Sydney’s Daily Mirror. It was first used by the Australia FA in 1973.
For the Cameroonian team, the nickname the Indomitable Lions was created back in 1972. After Cameroon had failed to win the Africa Cup of Nations as hosts that year, the country’s president, Ahmadou Adhidjo, ordered a series of general reforms, one of which was to christen the national team - the nickname Indomitable Lions was the end result.
Greece’s sobriquet, the Pirate Ship (To Peiratiko) was coined in 2004 after they won the European Championship in Portugal. The most widely accepted story behind Greece’s nickname is that the team surprised everyone with their victory in the tournament, similar to a surprise attack by pirates on another ship.
Another recent nickname is Danish Dynamite, which originated in 1983, after Denmark overcame England 1-0 at Wembley thanks to a goal by Allan Simonsen, setting them on course to qualify for EURO ’84 in France, at which they reached the semi-finals. A few weeks before that match, a Danish newspaper launched a competition to choose a song for the Danish national team. The chant "We are red, we are white, we are Danish Dynamite" became very popular, and the last two words went on to become the team nickname.
Germany are known simply as die Mannschaft ("the Team") or Nationalmannschaft ("the National Team"), while in Switzerland the fans refer to their team as die Nati (an abbreviation of Nationalmannschaft).
Whatever the reasons for the nicknames, or their effect on each nation’s psyche, one thing is clear: at a tournament already brimming with talented teams and individuals, the widespread use of such pet names can only add to the excitement.