Skip to main content
Original Issue


Because ...


ON MAY 14 a soccer coach who goes by Chee-Chee announced the 23 players who would make up his traveling team, including Marky, Paulie and Ferdie. These might sound like members of a pee-wee squad, or perhaps characters in a script for Bugsy Malone II, but in reality they're players on the venerable Seleção—Brazil's World Cup team—which will venture to Russia in search of a record sixth trophy. The coach's nickname isn't actually spelled Chee-Chee; that's just how Tite (born Adenor Leo-nardo Bacchi) is pronounced in Portuguese. And those three players' handles, in their native tongue, are, respectively, Marquinhos, Paulinho and Fernandinho.

As for their full names? Most Brazilians don't know—or care. Brazil is an informal country in which even the most august citizen is addressed in the manner of Dr. Phil: first name or nickname only. The country's former president, who was recently jailed for corruption, is known universally as Lula (a nickname for his baptismal Luiz), which incidentally means squid. And what's true for politicians goes double for athletes. Brazil didn't invent sports monikers, but no other country has stamped them on uniforms as enthusiastically. In fact the official players list signed by Tite was headed not by the word for name but by the word Brazilians use for nickname: apelido.

This spring I went to a Brazilian pro soccer match just to see He-Man, a forward on the Belo Horizonte club América who has the fair hair and sturdy jaw of his Masters of the Universe alter ego. I also watched a game involving the Rio de Janeiro team Vasco da Gama so I could check out Pikachu, who morphs as rapidly as his Pokémon namesake from defender to attacker. Neither of these cartoon characters made the 2018 Seleção, but the '14 team had a forward named Hulk, and in 1994 Brazil won the cup with a captain called Dunga, the Portuguese name for the Walt Disney character he most resembles: Dopey, of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

This year's team is nonetheless awash in mononyms—besides nicknames, first names. There's goalkeeper Cássio, defenders Danilo and Marcelo, and midfielder Fred (though not that Fred, the World Cup 2014 flameout). Then there are players whose first names, in a peculiarly Brazilian tradition, are phonetically spelled or otherwise mangled versions of English or German names: keepers Alisson and Ederson, defender Fagner, midfielder Willian and, my favorite, a striker named Taison.

Then things get a bit complicated. Any enterprise that relies on first names runs into the problem of repetition. Thus players with common first names add a middle name to distinguish themselves, even as it serves to confuse: defender Filipe Luís (last name: Kasmirski), midfielder Philippe Coutinho (Correia), forwards Douglas Costa (de Souza) and Roberto Firminio (Barbosa de Oliveira).... There's only one Neymar of note in world football, but Brazil's biggest star gallantly adds "Jr." to his jersey, as if his father hadn't long ago hung up his cleats. Finally, the Seleção will field a few players who go old-school and use only their surnames: defender Geromel and the midfielder known as Casemiro, whose birth name is, bafflingly, spelled Casimiro.

Meanwhile, left home and dreaming of Qatar 2022 are players with marvelous mononyms, from Nenê and Sassá to Dedé and Dodô, from Weverton and Deyverson to Uendel and Uilson. Finally, wishing upon a star down in the second division of the São Paulo state league is a midfielder whose first name, Valdisney, is a tribute to the man who gave the world Dopey and the beautiful game Dunga. Off the pitch, those names are pure expressions of national identity. But between the nets, they're the lyrics to the artful music of Brazilian football.