You may have heard that Brazil are quite good at football: five time World Cup winners (the most of any country), top ranked team by FIFA (at least at the time that I wrote this) and a conveyor belt of footballing talent.
I cannot explain why Brazil is so good; people far more intelligent than me have spent many years trying to figure that out, without much success. But I can confirm that Brazil is a football mad country and that the sport is ingrained in the country’s culture. Every day it dominates television screens in bars, canteens and people’s living rooms up and down the country. People that don’t even care about football support a team! My friend’s Mum has a Botafogo club crest sitting on her mantelpiece. “Ah, so you like football?” I ask, smiling. “No”, she replies, smiling. But when pressed she confesses: “yeah, I support Botafogo”.
Despite this passion and the national team’s success, the domestic club game is a mess. A bit harsh, perhaps, and not ideal marketing for this blog. In some ways football reflects Brazil’s society, a country of extremes: a huge, rich, country with abundant natural resources, yet millions of its citizens living in poverty; vibrant, warm and very friendly people, yet with some of the highest crime rates in the world; so good at football, but a badly organised and mismanaged local game.
Violent clashes between rival fans is not unheard of; some badly managed clubs don’t pay their players on time; the calendar is overcrowded and has too many games; special interests manipulate decision-making at the top of the game; and some great stadiums like the Maracanã lie empty and have slipped into disrepair due to bad management and poor politics. Brazilian clubs also have to deal with their best players getting picked off by richer European, and now Chinese, rivals mid-season. Imagine Chelsea selling Diego Costa and Eden Hazard in January. How to deal with that Mr Conte?
But there are many good things about the domestic game too: the atmosphere at the big games is electric; the Série A is one of the most exciting in the world (there is no top six like England or no top two like in Spain); tactics to a backseat to creative players, who are encouraged to show off their skills and personalities on the pitch; and with so many Brazilian footballers playing abroad, emerging stars get more opportunities to shine in Brazil, than they do in the English Premier League. Another cool thing about Brazilian football is that you are likely to see something random that will make you laugh every week – like a masseur doing a cartwheel or player named after a Pokémon.
Before the 2014 World Cup Brazil’s booming economy had lifted the local game. Stars of the past, such as Ronaldinho, were returning earlier and stars of the future, like Neymar, were leaving to play abroad later. An economic crisis has seen some of that progress reverse, but whatever way the economy heads over the next few years, you are almost guaranteed great games, an exciting championship and a first-hand view of some of footballs’ future stars.
Brazilian club football can be a little daunting and confusing, with a large number of competitions, unusual player names and team names with a strange hyphen in their name. To put you at ease, I have attempted to explain what is going on. Click on the links below for more information on each competition. Read on for more information about team names and player 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 Corinthians from São Paulo are the biggest and best Corinthians in the country (by far) people don’t normally bother with the –SP for them. There are other Corinthians’ in Brazil, though, and to identify them we use a state abbreviation after their name. For example, there is a Corinthians from a state called Rio Grande do Norte (a faraway place). To identify this team, we write, Corinthians-RN. 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. Get over it.
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, Mum’s name, Dad’s name, where they’re from). Brazilian surnames just wouldn’t fit on the back of shirts! However, the real reason players do not use their surnames is because Brazil is an extremely informal society. For example, Ronaldo’s full name is: Ronaldo Luís Nazário de Lima. Instead of the formal Nazário de Lima, people just call him Ronaldo.
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 name of a player, is actually Paulo Rogério Reis Silva. He got his name Somalia because he is black, with very dark skin, like people from Somalia. Not 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 defender, is a good example of a player with this type of name. His real name is 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. But that changed when he got a little bigger and Ronaldinho Gaúcho (ex-Barcelona and world player of the year) 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. His real name is Marcos André Batista Santos. Vampeta because he is ugly. So ugly, according to his team mates, 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.
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. Some chap has the name Letsgo. There is a guy called Oleúde, an ex-pro, named after Hollywood, the place in Beverly Hills, but written so because that’s how Hollywood is spelt phonetically in Portuguese. Some names just get written down incorrectly at the registry office and people are stuck with them for the rest of their lives. Sometimes people have an English-sounding word for a name and their parents decide to odd on son on the end, presumably to make it sound better. Here are a few of the best:
- Elkeson – The son of the moose-like animal known as an Elk
- Uelliton – Wellington
- Maicon – Michael but they spelt it wrong at the registry
- Maicosuel – Michael on a carrosel
- Keirrison – Beats me
- Wallyson – come on!
- Saimon – Simon. Very good.
- Alex Sandro – The Spanish name Alessandro
- Alecsandro – same as above
- Everton – Are his parents fans?
- Everton Santos – His parents are Everton and Santos fans
- Weverton – His parents got the name of the team wrong
- Everlan – Evian + Everton with an l thrown in for good measure
- Harlei – Harlei Davidson?
- Leyrielton – WTF?
- Rithely – ditto
- Vanderlei Luxemburgo – from the old Dutch name Van der Ley
- Wanderley – same as above
- Moises – Moses
- Mithyuê – No idea
- Maylson – ditto
- Richarlyson – The son of Richard and Charlie
- Madson – the son of a madman
- Yago Pikachu – because he is small, like a Pokemon
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)
Initially published in 2011 – edited and updated in 2017.