Off The Ball

What's in a name? Part II

As dedicated fans of the global game and loyal readers, matching an international team to its popular nickname has no doubt served you well in quizzes down the years. But what lies behind those monikers?

In the second part of our look at this fascinating football tradition, we delve into the historical, geographic and linguistic origins of some of the most enduring tags employed by national sides across the globe. The series concludes on Wednesday, when it will be the turn of the players to give up their secrets.

On international matchdays, teams take to the field carrying nicknames that span the vast spectrum of human speech. Quite often, those unfamiliar terms merely signify 'team' or 'national side' in the local tongue. So when a commentator waxes lyrical about the Nati facing the Reprezentace, he or she is simply adding colour to a Switzerland-Czech Republic match. In a similar vein, the side defending Germany's honour are known as the Nationalmannschaft and El Salvador answer to their fairly-straightforward alias, La Selecta.     

Of course, language can often unite, as is the case for Brazil and Portugal. There, the respective nicknames have followed slightly different paths, with the five-time FIFA World Cup™-winners opting for the Seleção title so familiar to fans of the game. As for Portugal, the country's finest turn out for the Selecção das Quinas ('national team of the five'), the figure five referring to the number of escutcheons on the shield at the heart of the Portuguese flag. Incidentally, heraldry also looms large behind England's popular status as the Three Lions. The trio of beasts in question decorate the team's badge, which in turn was based on the Royal Coat of Arms.  

Back in Brazil, the side currently coached by Dunga not only boast a record number of global triumphs but also lead the way in the nickname stakes as well. Spoilt for choice, their fans can be heard cheering for the Pentacampeões (Five-time champions), not to mention the Canarinhos (Canaries), Verdeamarelos (Green and Yellows) or the Auriverdes (Green and Golds) - the latter three inspired by the national flag and team colours.

Unsurprisingly enough, colour is a recurring theme elsewhere in the region too. Indeed, the pitch can be a vibrant place in Latin America, thanks to the Amarillos (Yellows) of Ecuador, the Albirrojos (White and Reds) of Paraguay, Argentina's Albicelestes (Sky Blue and Whites), the Roja (Reds) of Chile, the Blanquirroja (Red and Whites) from Peru, the Verde (Greens) of Bolivia and Mexico's El Tricolor.    

Royal Blue and Clockwork OrangeAs important as colour is in football nomenclature, two teams sporting uniforms cut from similar cloth rarely share the same nickname. In Europe alone, for example, Spain caress the ball around as the Furia Roja (Red Fury), while Belgium like to be addressed as the Diables Rouges (Red Devils). Further afield, Venezuela prefer La Vinotinto (The Burgundies).  

Not even red can compete with blue on the global stage, however, with the Celeste of Uruguay, Serbia's Plavi and Japan's Blue Samurais helping it become the dominant shade. As if to underline that point, the Final of the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany between Les Bleus of France and Italy's Azzurri was a veritable rhapsody in blue.

France's well-known diminutive is not too hard to explain, given that the shirt graced by Thierry Henry and Co celebrates one third of the country's flag (red, white and blue). The reasoning behind Italy's pet name, the Squadra Azzurra (Blue Team), is a little more subtle though, given that the national colours are red, white and green. In fact, until the early years of the 20th century, Italy graced international playing fields in white, and it was only in a match against Hungary in January 1911 that the blue strip made its first appearance. That was in honour of the House of Savoy, the ruling dynasty at the time, and thus the Squadra Azzurra was born.

Replace the House of Savoy with the Dutch House of Orange and you have the background to both the shirts and the Oranje nickname so cherished by supporters of the Netherlands. And it was another member of royalty - this time of the footballing kind - that earned the Lowlanders their billing as the Clockwork Orange during the 1974 FIFA World Cup; Johan Cruijff inspiring that title with many a devastating turn, pass and run.

Likewise, the heights reached by Michael Laudrup for Denmark sparked the Danish Dynamite tag, while Matthias Sindelar and Hans Krankl helped Austria become the Wunderteam, and Croatian duo Davor Suker and Zvonimir Boban stirred talk of the Vatreni (Fiery Ones). 

Kings of the jungle

For a festival of the most vivid epithets in international football, there is no better place to turn than the CAF African Cup of Nations. Once every two years, it seems as if all the beasts of the savannah come together to dispute continental supremacy, and more often than not the king of the jungle is tipped to come out on top. That said, there is more than one lion in the African game.

A proud tradition runs through the name, with the Indomitable Lions of Cameroon collecting the lion's share of honours in the 1990s, before Senegal's Lions of Teranga ('hospitality' in Wolof, one of the country's indigenous tongues) reached the quarter-finals at the 2002 FIFA World Cup Korea/Japan™. Perhaps both those teams owe a debt to Morocco's Atlas Lions, who became the first African team to qualify from a FIFA World Cup group stage at Mexico 1986. No doubt hoping to continue the trend, Congo DR switched from being the Leopards to the Simbas ('Lions' in Swahili) after the country changed its name from Zaire.

Strength and respect are hardly the exclusive property of the lion, of course, and the Elephants of Côte d'Ivoire are considered by many to be the new giants on the African scene. Hoping to follow them down that same path are Guinea, whose Syli nickname alludes to an indigenous type of elephant, although Angola's Palancas Negras (Black Antelopes) have already proved that even the more vulnerable of creatures can survive and prosper in the football jungle. Just as well too, or Benin's Squirrels and the Swallows of Burundi might be better off staying at home.

In addition to mammals, it is never long before a bird of prey hovers into view, and both the Sparrowhawks of Togo and Tunisia's Carthage Eagles can be proud of their showing on German soil last year. They will be keen to soar even higher at South Africa in 2010, while Mali's Eagles and Nigeria's Super Eagles will also be looking to qualify for the global showcase.

The same could also be said of reigning continental champions Egypt, who, in their guise as the Pharaohs, represent a smaller group of African teams whose aliases are tinged with historical resonance. Equally proud members of that band are the Black Stars of Ghana, named after a prominent feature on the national flag, which itself refers to the Black Star Line shipping corporation launched by Jamaican activist Marcus Garvey to bring those of African descent back to their roots.

From the poignant to the descriptive, and from the evocative to the bizarre, every national side on the planet has a nickname that sets it apart. In fact, the game is all the richer for the Reggae Boyz (Jamaica) and Socceroos (Australia) of this world, not to mention the Ticos (Costa Rica) and Taeguk Warriors (Korea Republic).

Each title has a tale behind it - just as every player's nickname suggests a story to be uncovered. Make sure to return on Wednesday 7 February as decodes some of the more fanciful sobriquets footballers swear by.