Brazilian football

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.

  1. Série A
  2. State championships
  3. Brazilian Cup
  4. Copa Libertadores
  5. Copa Sul-Americana

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 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.

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, 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 – Rondí´nia (Rondoniano)

RR – Roraima (Roraimense)


Initially published in 2011 – edited and updated in 2017.

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33 thoughts on “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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  8. Good article but i dont see anything wrong with the name moises, seen it all over latin america thought it was an ok name.

    • 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.

  9. 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

      • “Alemão” is a nickname for “thief” or “enemy” in some brazilian states (especially in Rio de Janeiro)

        The drug dealers call their enemies “alemão”, a foreign people.

  10. 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!!

  11. Also, regarding state nicknames. The one from Goiás is actually “goiano”. “Goianiense” refers to the capital city of that state, which is “Goií¢nia”. 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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  19. Probably nobody will read this, but…

    Rithely was, at this article’s time, playing at the Sport Club do Recife (the Recife is the capital city of Pernambuco State, at the northeastern coast). Probably his name –which is spoken like the italian surname “Riccelli”– came as his mother wanted to pay a homage to handsome actor Carlos Alberto Riccelli, but didn’t knew how to spell his surname. The “th” is quite employed by people who want to mimic a “ch”/”tch” sonority.

    (By the way, putting exotic letters is an often employed tatic to force a different pronounce. Like many girls named after the late princess Diana, who were given a name spelled “Dyana” or “Daiana”, since naming them simply “Diana” would make the name be spoken “Deeana”.)

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