One of the things that makes Brazilian football so appealing is the novel nature of their footballers’ names. Throw in arguably the most recognisable strip in world football, the iconic yellow and blue, as well as the nostalgia of “Samba” football — jogo bonito — to the purists, what you get is a heady mix that has enthralled and captivated fans the world over.
Through a trophy-laden history and a reputation for entertainment, Brazilian football has built one of the most recognisable brands in world sport — as recognisable as the all black strip of the New Zealand national rugby team, the purple and gold of the LA Lakers, or the pin stripes of the New York Yankees.
At the heart of that brand has been some of the most gifted and recognisable players the game has ever seen: Pele, Socrates, Dunga, Ronaldo, Kaka, Neymar — the list is endless. For over a century, Brazil’s finest have gone by one name and in the last World Cup, Russia 2018, 15 of Brazil’s 23 players were typically referred to by a single name, making the South Americans stand out from most national teams.
With the global practice largely being to have one’s surname printed on the back of their shirt, why have Brazilians decided to forego tradition?
“Brazilian football is an international advert for the cordiality of Brazilian life because of its players’ names,” British journalist Alex Bellos writes in his book, Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life.
“Calling someone by their first name is a demonstration of intimacy — calling someone by their nickname, more so.”
Brazilians feel a personal connection to their stars, and the use of nicknames and first names, even on formal platforms, reflects that sentiment.
The use of first names and nicknames may also be functional. Brazil, a former Portuguese colony, still uses Portuguese naming conventions. On most birth certificates, there can be as many as four names: the person’s first name, a saint’s name, the mother’s last name and the father’s last name. That structure adds to the appeal of using a simple nickname or first name.
Imagine a commentator having to call out Arthur Henrique Ramos de Oliveira Melo — the full name of Juventus midfielder Arthur — and not just him, but 10 more similarly named teammates? Nightmare.
The first-name basis has even applied to the political realm. Two of Brazil’s recent presidents, Dilma Rousseff and Luiz Inácio da Silva, were often referred to as Dilma and Lula. By promoting the use of their first names, these politicians were trying to create a sense of relatability and intimacy with all Brazilians in spite of their elevated station and office. That’s something that soccer players in Brazil have long done with relative ease.
Pele, acclaimed greatest footballer of all time, has no link to his full real name — Edson Arantes do Nascimento. As a youngster he couldn’t pronounce his favourite footballer’s name, Vasco de Gama goalkeeper Bile, and so he turned it into Pele.
In his autobiography, he revealed that he has no idea what the name means, nor do any of his contemporaries. Apart from the suggestion that the name is derived from that of Bile, and that in Hebrew it means “miracle”, the name Pele has no known meaning in Portuguese.
Givanildo Vieira de Sousa, known as Hulk, enjoyed comic books as a child and his father began to call him “Hulk”. Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, is believed to have gotten his nickname “Kaka” because it was as close as his brother could get to saying “Ricardo.”
Garrincha, Brazil’s 1962 World Cup hero, means wren (which is a small songbird) in Portuguese. He received that nickname because he was one of the smallest kids in his grade. There are countless other examples: former Arsenal and Chelsea winger Willian is known formally as Willian Borges da Silva; Manchester United’s Fred goes by Frederico Rodrigues de Paula Santos; and Real Madrid’s midfield linchpin Carlos Henrique Casimiro is popularly known as Casemiro.
Typically, it is due to the fact that most Brazilian full names are complicated and long, which has led their footballers to shorten their names or choose a nickname in order to be more easily recognised by their fans.
But what excuse or logical justification do we have here in Zimbabwe? Watching the ongoing Chibuku Super Cup has revealed an unwanted culture creeping into the local game — the use of first names on the back of players jerseys — Tendai, Gift, Billy, Themba, Blessing … Blessing? Blessing Sarupinda or is it Blessing Moyo? The purpose of a name is for easier identification, but this development has only served to make it awfully confusing for fans and a nightmare for commentators.
While it may be part of Brazilian popular culture — is it ours? Even at school we were called by our surnames because they were an identifier and not a fad. It was not about what you wanted to be called, but what easily identified you. How our Premier Soccer League clubs have allowed this development to take root is an indictment on their part and the league and reveals the lack of standards in our game.
It’s time that standards are enforced and where the rules and regulations are vague, they need to be tightened up — not only from a policy enforcement perspective, but more importantly from a brand-building perspective.
How are we building our players’ brands if we can’t identify them? How can he be “Tino” in Zimbabwe and yet be “Kadewere” in France? How can he be “Marvelous” in one moment and “Nakamba” in Birmingham? Let them be Kadewere and Nakamba the world over.
Zimbabwean football needs to be intentional and put more effort into building a consistent brand image, because If we don’t take ourselves seriously, no one else will. That’s what’s in a name. — Twitter: @mikemadoda