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One Name is Better than Two
Brazil keeps up its tradition of nicknamed stars; cheering for 'Duck,' 'Goose' and 'Dopey'
By John Lyons – The Wall Street Journal (June-2010)
SÃO PAULO, Brazil—Júnior Silva is outraged about the World Cup team his nation is fielding.
"It's madness that Dopey left Duck and Goose off the team," Mr. Silva, a shop worker in downtown São Paulo, says in Portuguese.
Brazil may take soccer more seriously than any other nation. Some banks will close and even many nursery schools are letting out early in honor of the country's World Cup debut Tuesday against North Korea.
But conversation about the sport can sound like a page from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs." A controversial figure in Brazil just now, for instance, is Carlos Caetano Bledorn Verri, the national coach whose player selections have sparked reaction even from a member of the nation's highest court.
But most participants in that debate have no idea who Carlos Caetano Bledorn Verri is. They know Mr. Bledorn Verri as "Dunga," which is the Brazilian name given to the dwarf "Dopey" of Snow White fame. As a child, it turns out, Mr. Bledorn Verri was short, earning him a nickname that he never outgrew.
Why would he want to? By serving as captain of the nation's World Cup-winning 1994 team, he turned Dunga into a nationally revered nickname.
This year, Brazil's team is the highest-ranked squad in the World Cup, and its star—Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite—is arguably the most talented player on the planet. But even in Brazil, where his celebrity is unparalleled, few people know who Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite is. They know him as "Kaká," a nickname that evolved from a younger brother's attempt to pronounce "Ricardo."
As he grew famous, Mr. dos Santos Leite did manage to change the spelling of his nickname, from the previous "Cacá." The word Cacá is an accent away from Brazilian slang for feces.
Even newspapers never mention the real names of these stars. "If you talk to 10 people, you might find one who knows Dunga's real name, but it's probably zero. The same for Kaká," says Reinivaldo Gomes, who runs a magazine stand in São Paulo. Nicknames have a way of sticking in Brazil. The nation's 64-year-old president, Luiz Inácio da Silva, is known far and wide as "Lula," which is Portuguese for squid and a common nickname in Brazil's northeast for Luiz.
Nickname mania is part of a broader cultural penchant for keeping things casual. Brazilians, for instance, prefer first names to last names, which is why the nation's richest man, mining tycoon Eike Batista, is known as Eike. To anyone wanting to show deference, he is Mr. Eike.
But not everyone's first name is as uncommon as Eike. "My sister's name is Camila, and her three best friends are called Camila," says Andres Tavares, an executive who has been known since childhood as "Gordo" (tubby), even though he no longer carries many extra pounds.
Although nicknames pervade Brazilian society, the best-known world-wide have been soccer players, and that's no surprise: Brazil has won more World-Cup championships than any other country. Ever heard of Edson Arantes do Nascimento—the man widely regarded as the greatest soccer player of all time? How about his more-famous nickname—Pelé? A member of three of Brazil's five World Cup-winning squads, he reportedly received the nickname as a child, when he mispronounced the name of a goalkeeper called Bile.
By now, global soccer fans are used to seeing first names or nicknames on the backs of Brazilian soccer jerseys instead of the traditional last names most athletes use. But as with most things in freewheeling Brazil, there are no hard-and-fast rules to name changing.
On this year's squad, for instance, is the veteran midfielder known as Kléberson. He was born José Kléberson Pereira. His second name was so overpowering it became his whole name.
At times, soccer nicknames get upgrades for marketing reasons. A striker on Brazil's team in South Africa, Edinaldo Batista Libânio, is known as "Grafite."
But back in 1999, when he showed up at a small soccer club in São Paulo, he was known as Dina—a nickname his coach thought sounded weak. As Grafite, he rose to the top of the national sport.
Theories abound as to why nicknames have such staying power here. But the custom is fitting for a country whose name itself is a kind of nickname. Centuries ago, the Portuguese were extracting so much Brazil wood that the name soon applied to the entire colony.
At least one Brazilian athlete brought his nickname to the National Basketball Association.
As the youngest child in his family back in São Carlos, Maybyner Rodney Hilário became known as "Nenê"—Portuguese for baby.
In 2003, at the outset of his NBA career, the nearly seven-foot tall, 250-pound center for the Denver Nuggets legally changed his name to Nene. As Brazil prepares for its first game, many here remain mystified by Coach Dunga's decision to leave off the team two young stars named Paulo Henrique Chagas de Lima and Alexandre Rodrigues da Silva.
Of course, nobody knows them by those names. They're known as "Ganso" (Goose) and "Pato" (Duck).