When it comes to football – some of you may know it by its American name, “soccer” – Brazil is a land of legend. Five World Cups. Two runners-up. Two thirds and a fourth. That’s more championships than any other nation and only Germany has more top four finishes. At the club level, Brazilian players dominate every league in the world.
Not only have the Brazilians been incredibly successful, they have truly put the beautiful in The Beautiful Game, playing with a verve, a joy, an elegance that sometimes makes even the best players from other nations seem oafish by comparison. Brazilians dance where others plod.
This culture of panache is even evident in the players’ names. In Scotland, if you’re christened Archie Gemmill, then you play your career as Archie Gemmill. You may have a nickname, but you’re introduced as Archie Gemmill. However, in Brazil, the players (well, the midfielders and forwards, mostly) adopt their nicknames, and the nom de futbol becomes their actual name. (Think Madonna or Sting or Bono, or in the case of Lúcio, Cher.) And historically, these names attacked the public consciousness with every bit as much style and grace as a rampant Pelé bearing down on a slow-footed Paraguayan defender.
In Brazil, though, if you were born Edison Arantes do Nascimento, you became Pelé. Pelé: the name fairly dances on the tongue, liquid and electric and animated as a ball on the icon’s magical feet. It wasn’t just him, though. Consider some of the other player names from Brazil’s golden past:
In Brazil, a simple laundry list of player names once read like a love poem. Still does, at times. Today’s Brazilian national team features players with names like Ronaldinho, Zé Roberto, Robinho, Daniel Alves, Thiago Silva, Adriano, Philippe Coutinho, Júlio César, Rafael, Mariano, Lúcio, Luisão, Michel Bastos, Fernandinho, Júlio Baptista, Elano, Felipe Melo, Alexandre Pato and Luís Fabiano. So the poetry is not dead.
However, the country’s football culture appears to be showing the effects of a looming name shortage, and it isn’t pretty. In some cases, the offenses are merely pedestrian. There’s Alex, who plays center back for my beloved Chelsea. Very good player, but…Alex? Then there are goalkeepers Victor and Jefferson, who play for Grêmio and Botafogo, respectively, in the Brazilian league. Douglas also plays for Grêmio. Lucas plays at Liverpool. Roma features the unimaginative Juan, and Wesley plays at Werder Bremen in Germany.
Yawn. Dancing with the ball? No thanks, I’ll just sit here on the couch and watch Walking with the Stars.
Then there are those who push pedestrianism to unseemly limits. Take Manchester City’s Jo. Jo? Seriously. You’re from the same country as Taffarel and Jo is the best you can come up with? And how about the Philadelphia Union’s Brazilian import, Fred. No, I’m not making that up. All the exciting names in the world and you choose Fred? Yabba dabba doo, I guess. Then there’s Wolfsburg’s Grafite. I’ve never seen him play, I don’t believe, but I hope that’s not the sexy, playful Portuguese nickname that means “a soft, steel-gray to black, hexagonally crystallized allotrope of carbon with a metallic luster and a greasy feel, used in lead pencils, lubricants, paints, and coatings, that is fabricated into a variety of forms such as molds, bricks, electrodes, crucibles, and rocket nozzles.”
Not everyone is content to leave it at pedestrian, though: witness Porto’s 24 year-old striker Givanildo Vieira de Souza, aka Hulk. Yes, Hulk. Allegedly the name arose because people thought he looked like Lou Ferrigno (which is cruel enough, if you ask me).
There are many Brazilian players I simply don’t like (Lúcio is a punk-ass crybaby and Kaká can bite me), and the truth is that as much as I respect the Seleção, I rarely pull for them in international competitions. I guess with all their success I think of them the way I do Evil Empire teams like the Yankees and Manchester United.
Despite that, however, I can’t bear watching such a beautiful culture deteriorate right before my eyes. I hope the Brazilian culture ministry will step in and begin regulating name selection by its footballers. Many of them are simply too young to be entrusted with a decision that can reflect so critically on the nation.
Otherwise, I suppose I’ll just have to get used to the next generation Canarinho and stars like Bob, Rebar and Spiderman.