The World Cup kicked off on Friday, and defending champ Brazil will take the field against Croatia on Tuesday *. The South American squad features FIFA World Player of the Year Ronaldinho, along with stars like Ronaldo, Cafu, and Fred. Why do so many Brazilian soccer players go by one name?
That’s the Brazilian convention. Nicknames and first names are used in all settings, no matter the gravity. Brazil’s president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, is known to all by his nickname, Lula. Clergymen, doctors, and other professionals are frequently known by an informal name. The phone book for the town of Claudio even lists inhabitants by their nicknames rather than their surnames.
Brazil’s affinity for nicknames might stem from the country’s historically high illiteracy rate. As such, shortened spoken names are typically used more often than longer birth names. In Brazilian society, the use of a first name or nickname is a mark of intimacy.It’salso often a class signifier. Lula, for one, is known for his working-class roots.
Some scholars speculate that the use of single names could have its roots in the slave system. (Slavery was abolished in Brazil in the late 19th century.) When they were documented, slaves would be referred to either by their first name only—say, Joao—or by their first name and country of origin—say, Joao Congo.
When the English introduced soccer to Brazil in the 1800s, Brazilians referred to players in the English manner, by their surnames. But as the sport grew in popularity, nicknaming took over. When the Brazilian national team played its first match in 1914, the squad featured a forward called Formiga, which means “ant” in Portuguese.
Seventeen of the 23 players on Brazil’s current World Cup roster go by a single name. There are no hard and fast rules, but naming conventions reflect the Brazilian adoration for goal-scorers and their relatively diminished affection for the players defending their own end. The most famous forwards in Brazilian soccer history, Edson Arantes do Nascimento and Manuel Francisco dos Santos, are better known as Pele and Garrincha. Defenders typically do not have nicknames—the given name of fullback Roberto Carlos is Roberto Carlos da Silva. Goalkeepers tend to be known by their surnames as well as their first names. In almost a century, there has been only one major keeper known by a nickname: Dida, Brazil’s starting goalie in this World Cup.
Players with the same first name often change their moniker to differentiate themselves. In recent decades, there have been several Ronaldos at the national level. One became known as Ronaldao, meaning “big Ronaldo.” Another became Ronaldinho, meaning “little Ronaldo.” When another Ronaldinho came along in the late 1990s, he was called Ronaldinho Gaucho—that is, “little Ronaldo from Rio Grande do Sul.” Eventually, the first Ronaldo left the Brazilian national squad, so Ronaldinho became Ronaldo. Ronaldinho Gaucho became Ronaldinho.
Three other nations in this year’s World Cup feature lots of players known by only one name. Portugal, Brazil’s former colonial overseer, has 10. Portugal’s neighbor Spain has six players known by a single moniker. Angola, another former Portuguese colony, has 16, including Jamba, Loco, and Love.
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Explainer thanks Alex Bellos, author of “Futebol: Soccer, the Brazilian Way of Life“; Thomas Skidmore of Brown University; and Laird Bergad of the City University of New York.
Correction, June 12, 2006: This piece originally misstated the day of Brazil’s opening World Cup game. It is Tuesday, not Monday. Return to the corrected sentence.