A name of two halves? Not in Brazil…

It’s difficult to argue that football is not a truly international sport. The conventions used around the world to name players, however, vary widely, and serve as a useful reminder that you can’t directly translate one word into its foreign equivalent. Different cultures express things in different ways – in fact they often express subtly different things full stop. In trying to explain the differences we come across a number of the social, cultural and economic factors that influence language.

When I was at primary school there was a persistent belief in the playground that Brazilian footballers only had one name. I understand where it came from – some of the greats have been known by one word: Pelé, Zico, Ronaldinho (Ronaldinho Gaúcho in Brazil).

While in England, players are traditionally known by their surname (perhaps a legacy of the influence of public schools in the early stages of the game’s development), Brazilian players tend to use their nicknames.

The exact reason for this would seem to be lost in the mists of time. Some commentators have speculated that free of the dour, officious English influence the flamboyant Brazilian game always centred more around individual stars – big names who would draw big crowds. Then again, a similar thing happened in Argentina, but the naming conventions are much the same as those in Europe there.

Some sociologists have argued that surnames had a greater social importance in Europe, as they denoted ancestry and, ultimately, inheritance of property and status. Football in Brazil exploded among the poorest classes – those who had least property and status to claim by their name – so why not adopt a nickname instead? Conversely, in British public schools surnames probably came to be used as the students came from wealthy and illustrious families.

It’s also been joked that the custom of using a nickname has saved poor unfortunate referees from having to officiate a game played almost entirely by people called da Silva and dos Santos. Behind the joke is a serious point – the prevalence of such surnames is a hint of Brazil’s dark past of slavery, when slaves would commonly be given Portuguese names, often including the surname of the owning family. In modern Brazil, it means the players use another name to avoid confusion.

All these factors probably influenced the current norm, but they also shed light on some of the reasons different cultures come to use language differently.

Many sources have informed this blog post. For more information on Brazilian football culture, Futebol: the Brazilian Way of Life by Alex Bellos can be recommended. Although based on tactics, Jonathon Wilson’s Inverting the Pyramid covers the general history of the game very well. Tim Vickery’s BBC blog on South American football is also worth a read.

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