About Brazilian football

Making sense of domestic football can be quite confusing with the number of competitions, strange names, a confusing calendar and complex rules. Here is my attempt to explain:

Note: this was written in 2011. Things may have changed a little since then, especially with the format of the Copa Sudamericana and qualification for that. Broadly, though, its much the same. Enjoy the read.

The National Championship

The Brazilian national championship is split into four divisions: Série A, B, C and D. The série A consists of 20 teams which all play each other once, home and away. The team that finishes the season with the most number of points is crowned Champion. Until a few years back, the top eight placed teams in the league would enter into a quarter final knockout phase – the winner of the knockout phase was crowned Champion as opposed to the team that accumulated the most points. The fans used to love that and the quarter finals always attracted huge crowds; many people say that the new system is more ‘boring’.  I can see the arguments for both. The série B also contains 20 teams while série C and D get a little bit more complex. The national championship season runs from May to December each year.

State championships

Brazil is a huge country, divided into 27 states (including the federal district of Brasília). Each state has a local state championship that runs from around January to May every year (the exact dates vary from state to state). The quality of the state championships varies widely between states and most of the better teams are located in the more affluent southern states: Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Paraná, Minas Gerais and Rio Grande do Sul. The Rondônia state championship – a wild-west state located in the Amazon jungle, bordering Bolivia and famous for deforestation and cattle farming – is not very strong, for example. I’ve never been there. I don’t plan to go there. And I couldn’t care less about what happens in the state championship there.

The state championships are traditional and most fans love them. They give smaller teams the opportunity to play against bigger teams which is good for their players, fans and the club coffers. I think that is a good thing too. But, in my opinion they are unnecessary long and clutter an already busy calendar.

They are mostly run in some kind of league format with qualification for a knock-out phase depending on the final league position. For example in the São Paulo State Championship (Campeonato Paulista in Portuguese) – by far the strongest of the state championships – there are twenty teams that play each other once in a league format with the top eight teams qualifying for a quarter final know out phase. Each team will play at least 19 league matches. The winner will play a total of 23 games (19 league, one quarter final, one semi and two for the final which takes place over two legs). There are also several divisions within each state (first, second, third divisions) with relegation and promotion for the best and worst teams. Confused?

Don’t fret because the Rio State Championship (Campeonato Carioca in Portuguese. Carioca being the nickname for Rio State) is even more confusing. The top division consists of 16 teams split into two groups of eight. The competition is also split into two sub-competitions or phases (whatever you want to call them): The Guanabara Cup (Taça Guanabara) and the Rio Cup (Taça Rio). In the first competition (Guanabara Cup), each team plays all the other group members once, in a league format, with the top two sides in each groups going through to a semi-final where they play the top two from the other group. The winners of the two semis play a final to decide the Guanabara Cup winner.

The groups stay the same for the Rio Cup but instead of each team playing the teams in its own group once, they play all the teams in the other group once. Once again, after summing up the points league style, the top two from each group go through to the semis. The team that wins the Rio Cup then plays the winner of the Guanabara Cup to see who the State Champion is. If one team wins both the Guanabara and Rio Cups, then that team is the State Champion.

Each state follows its own format which will generally be something similar to the format in São Paulo and Rio.

The top teams from each state (one to eight teams depending on the strength of that states’ championship) will qualify for the Brazilian Cup (Copa do Brasil in Portuguese. Remember Brazil is spelt with an S in Portuguese!) the following year. My favourite state Rondônia for example, only send one team bless them. Also, I believe that league position also determines who does and doesn’t qualify for the national fourth division in some cases.

Brazilian Cup (Copa do Brasil)

The Brazilian Cup is the main domestic Cup competition in Brazil. 64 teams classify for the competition each year and there are six rounds including the final. All rounds of the competition are played over two legs with away goals counting double if the aggregate score is equal over the two legs. There is no extra time and if the score (and away goals) is tied after the two matches, the tie goes straight to penalties.

The teams that qualify for the Copa Libertadores of that year do not enter the competition. The winner of the Brazilian Cup qualifies for the next year’s Copa Libertadores (and subsequently won’t get the chance to defend their Brazilian Cup title). Excluding the Libertadores qualifiers, the top teams from each state qualify. The number of teams to qualify depends on the strength of the state championship (I don’t know how that is decided). This year, eight teams from São Paulo, four from Rio and Paraná qualified whilst some of the smaller states only got to send one team. Remember there are a 27 states in this huge country.

Copa Libertadores

This is South America’s premier Cup competition, something like the South American version of the Champion’s League. There is a qualifying round with twelve teams enter a playoff to enter the group states. The competition is split into eight groups of four teams with the top two teams in each group qualifying for the next round. The competition runs from January (the qualifying rounds. Group stages start in February) and runs until June. The winner qualifies for the World Club Cup.

The number of teams to qualify from each country depends on the strength of that country’s league and the performance of its teams in the competition, just like in Europe. This year, Brazil sent six teams (four straight into the group stages and two via the qualifying rounds), Argentina five and Bolivia three. I think Brazil normally send five but because Internacional won, they sent another representative. Mexico isn’t in South America (everybody knows that, right?) but they are invited to participate every year and sent three teams this year.

Only four Brazilian teams went directly into the competition: Internacional as last year’s winners, Fluminense as league Champions, Cruzeiro as league runners-up and Santos as the Brazilian Cup champions. The other two, Corinthians and Grêmio both entered the qualifying rounds. We all know what happened to Corinthians and Ronaldo this year…

South American Cup (Copa Sul-Americana)

Something like the Europa League (ex UEFA Cup) in that it is the second most important South American club competition. I’m not too sure of the qualifying criteria and it varies from country to country but it’s normally the best teams after those that qualify for the Libertadores or the teams that do well in the domestic cup competitions. Sometimes a team that qualifies for the Libertadores can also play in the Copa Sudamericana but I think this is up to each country’s federation. In Brazil this year, no team that qualified for the Copa Libertadores entered the Copa Sulamericana. Independiente from Argentina will play in both competitions though.

I’m not sure how the draw works but it seems that teams from each country play against each other until there are no more teams from that country left. I think I’ve therefore correct in saving that this ensures that the final will be between teams of a different country and that in the earlier rounds the travelling demands aren’t so big (South America + Mexico is much bigger than Europe I’ll have you know). The winner of the competition qualifies for the next year’s Copa Libertadores. The competition runs from approximately July to December each year.

Team names

To make life simple for foreigners, many teams in Brazil have the same name and are identified by the state they are from. Without being well versed in Brazilian geography and state abbreviations, this can be quite difficult. When you see a dash and two capital letters after the name of a team, that is the name of the state the team is from. For example, Corinthians-SP is the Corinthians from São Paulo state. The SP means São Paulo. But because they are the biggest and best Corinthians in the country, by far, normally we don’t bother with the –SP. There are other Corinthians’ in Brazil though and to identify them we use their state abbreviation. For example, there is a Corinthians from a state called Rio Grande do Norte (a faraway place) who are in this year’s Brazilian Cup. To identify this team, we write, Corinthians-RN. So don’t confuse them with Corinthians from São Paulo. We don’t bother with the dash and state name for the big clubs. So if you see a team written with a dash and two letters next to it, it’s probably a smaller team with the same name of a big club. Capiche?

One exception is a team whose name that springs up a lot: Atlético. In the first division for example, there are three Atléticos: Atlético Mineiro (from the state of Minas Gerais, also written Atlético-MG), Atlético Paranaense (from the state of Paraná, also written Atlético-PR) and Atlético Goianiense (don’t ask me how to pronounce that!) from the state of Goiás (also written Atlético-GO). Atlético this, Atlético that. It’s annoying, I know. Don’t shoot the messenger!

Player names

Names are names but there are a few things I should point out regarding Brazilian football players’ names. If you thought things were getting easier, think again.

Most Brazilian’s have really long names (first name, Mom’s name, Dad’s name, where they’re from). Brazilian surnames just wouldn’t fit on the back of shirts! However, I’m told that the real reason players use their first names instead of surnames is because Brazil is an extremely informal society. For example, Ronaldo’s full name is: Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima.

Many players, however, go beyond using their first name and use a nickname or a name they’ve been given. Kaka´s real name is: Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite. He ended up with Kaká because there is a ka sound in the middle of RiCArdo. Somalia – the Botafogo midfielder – is actually Paulo Rogério Reis Silva. He got his name Somalia because he is black, with very dark skin, like people from Somalia. Not very politically correct that but he doesn’t seem to mind… Vágner Love’s real name is Vágner Silva de Souza. The Love part of the name, as the story goes, is because he used to frequently bring girls back to his hotel room whilst travelling with his teammates.

Next, just like teams, lots of players have the same name. To differentiate, sometimes the ending of the name is changed to describe the player’s size. For example, -inho means little. Ronaldinho = little Ronaldo. –ão (pronounced aaw while pinching your nose) means big. So, Ronaldão = big Ronaldo. Luisão, the tall Benfica defender is a good example of a player with this type of name. His real name is unsurprisingly Luís. Many people don’t know that Ronaldo (ex-Madrid, Inter, Corinthians, etc) used to be called Ronaldinho because he once was a skinny young lad. I think there are two overlapping reasons why it changed: 1/ he filled out and 2/ Ronaldinho Gaúcho (Flamengo, ex-Barcelona) appeared on the scene.

Another way to distinguish between players with the same name is where they are from – just like the clubs. Ronaldinho Gaúcho, means Ronaldinho from Rio Grande do Sul. Again, really confusing for those not well versed in Brazilian geography and state nicknames. Somebody from the state of Rio Grande do Sul is nicknamed Gaúcho. See list of state nicknames below. Another example of this is Marcelinho Paraíba: little Marcelo from the state of Paraíba.

Why do some players have this place in their name and others don’t? Basically, it depends on how many players have the same name and who is most famous and it comes down to the player himself, his teammates and the fans.

The end of with, I have to explain the best name of all: the retired World Cup winning midfielder Vampeta. Marcos André Batista Santos was named Vampeta because he is kind of ugly. His mates said he was so kind of ugly that he resembled the son of a vampire (vampiro in Portuguese) and the son of the devil (capeta in Portuguese). Stick these two words together and you get Vampeta. Isn’t that sweet?

A final word on names: Brazil is a big country that still has poverty and illiteracy in parts. Some people in parts think it is cool to give people English names. The only problem is that any word in English to them can be a name. Apparently some poor soul (not a footballer unfortunately) has the name Letsgo. These great inventors of weird names don’t always get the spelling right either and they often put a son on the end of this fancy English name. Possibly throw in an l for good measure:

Here are some of the crackers:

  • Elkeson (Vitória) – The son of the moose-like animal known as an Elk
  • Uelliton (Vitória) – Wellington
  • Maicon (Inter Milan) – Michael but they spelt it wrong at the registry
  • Maicosuel (Botafogo) – Michael on a carrosel
  • Keirrison (Santos) – Beats me
  • Wallyson (Cruzeiro) – come on!
  • Saimon (Grêmio) – Simon. Very good.
  • Alex Sandro (Santos) – The Spanish name Alessandro
  • Alecsandro (Internacional) – same as above
  • Everton (Botafogo) – Are his parent fans?
  • Everton Santos (PSG) – His parents are Everton and Santos fans
  • Weverton (Portuguesa) – His parents got the name of the team wrong
  • Everlan (Murici) – Evian + Everton with an l thrown in for good measure
  • Harlei (Goiás) – That is Harlei Davidson I’ll have you know
  • Leyrielton (Goiás) – WTF?
  • Rithely (Goiás) – whats with these guys from Goiás?
  • Vanderlei Luxemburgo (Flamengo) – from the old Dutch name Van der Ley
  • Wanderley (Flamengo) – same as above
  • Moises (Al Rayyan) – Moses
  • Mithyuê (Grêmio) – No idea
  • Maylson (Grêmio) – ditto
  • Richarlyson (Atlético Mineiro) – The son of Richard and Charlie
  • Madson (Atlético-PR) – the son of a madman


Appendix 1: Map of Brazil










Appendix 2: state abbreviations, 2011 Brazilian Cup spots and state nickname

SP – São Paulo 8 (Paulista)

RJ – Rio de Janeiro 4 (Carioca)

PR – Paraná 4 (Paranaense)

CE – Ceará 3 (Cearense)

MG – Minas Gerais 3 (Mineiro)

GO – Goiás 3 (Goianiense)

RS – Rio Grande do Sul 3 (Gaucho)

PE – Pernambuco 3 (Pernambucano)

AL – Alagoas 2 (Alagoano)

AM – Amazonas 2 (Amazonense)

MT – Mato Grosso 2 (Mato-Grossense)

MA – Maranhão 2 (Maranhense)

PA – Pará 2 (Paraense)

DF – Distrito Federal (Federal District) 2 (?)

PB – Paraíba 2 (Paraibano)

BA – Bahia 2 (Baiano)

SC – Santa Caterina 2 (Catarinense)

PI – Piauí 2 (Piauiense)

MS – Mato Grosso do Sul 2 (Sul-Matogrossense)

RN – Rio Grande do Norte 2 (Potiguar)

SE – Sergipe 2 (Sergipano)

ES – Espírito Santos 2 (Capixaba)

AP – Amapá (Amapaense)

AC – Acre (Acrense)

TO – Tocantins (Tocantinense)

RO – Rondônia (Rondoniano)

RR – Roraima (Roraimense)

28 thoughts on “About Brazilian football

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  6. Wicked! lol! Good explanation about our love for weird names.
    I could give you some others, maybe incluiding my own family as shameful examples, however you got it all covered.
    Oh, have you meet Kate Marrone da Silva, or Godson Oliveira, or even Charlingtonglaevionbeecheknavarre dos Anjos Mendonca (yes, that’s how it’s spelled).
    Following, a link that might be of use or for a laugh.

    • Thanks Juliana. Those names still crack me up everytime I read them!
      Check the link. It didn’t work by the way.

    • Thanks for the comments Jason, glad you enjoyed it. Did I mention Oleúde, captain of Portuguesa in the early 1990’s? Pronounced Ho-le-oo-dee. Named after the Hollywood brand of cigarettes.

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    • I’ve done a little research on it and you’re right about it being a common name in Spanish and Portuguese. It just seemed like Moses spelt wrong to me though. Probably shouldn’t be there.

  8. Great article man! Nicknames are an essential part of the Brazilian culture and hope it never changes. All you need is one person to come up with a name and your stuck with it for life..

    Myself being American – Brazilian played soccer as a goalie when I was 14 years old down there; me being from the States and a goalie I was called Tony Bengola. The name came from the US goalie called Tony Meola and Bengola is a funny word for pennis that sounds like Meola… Believe it or not, my jersey said Tony Bengola (Tony Pennis) yup.. the word pennis was on the back of my jersey….. You just have to accept it and go with it… lol

    • I’ve got a friend called Luis. Nobody calls him Luis, everyone calls him Alemão (which means German in Portuguese).
      He’s Brazilian of Japanese descent so doesn’t look German at all. He was mugged once and the mugger said: “Hey Alemão give me your money”.
      Presumably in the muggers head anyone that doesn’t look Brazilian is Alemão… who knows.
      Anyway, he told his friends the story and they’ve called him Alemão ever since… haha

  9. Hi, nice read. Being from Brasil and also a lover of football (it’s only natural), I thought I might drop a word here on the Copa do Brasil spots.

    Every year, CBF (the FA of Brasil) publishes a ranking of clubs based on their performance on the national championships of that year (all levels of Brasileirão and Copa do Brasil). This is also used to calculate the state-ranking: teams from the same state are added up, and the 27 states are ranked according to the performance of their teams.

    The 5 top states of this state ranking (currently São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Rio Grande do Sul and Paraná) are awarded 3 spots, and the bottom 5 are awarded only one spot. All the other ones get 2 spots. It’s worth saying that it’s up to each state to decide how teams would qualify, most of the spots come from the state championships, but some states have parallel tournaments that fills one of the spots (like my state, Minas Gerais, with the Taça Minas Gerais).

    That’s a total of 54 spots. The other 10 spots are awarded to the top 10 teams of the club ranking, excluded the teams that are qualified for the Copa Libertadores and the teams the are already qualified via state championship. And there we have our 64 spots.

    • Thanks Christiano. Glad you enjoyed it and thanks for clearing up those quite confusing Brazilian Cup qualification rules!!

  10. Also, regarding state nicknames. The one from Goiás is actually “goiano”. “Goianiense” refers to the capital city of that state, which is “Goiânia”. The one from Federal District is actually “brasiliense”, referring to the country’s capital city, Brasília. You can also say “candango” for them.

    As a pronoucing guide… 🙂
    goiano = go-ee-ah-now
    goianiense = go-ee-ah-nee-en-cee

    Keep up the good work! It’s nice to see people from Europe actually having interest in the local football here. As far as I know, the Brasileirão does not have much TV broadcasting there, which is a shame.

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  12. I luke the valuable info you provide iin your articles.
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