What's in a name? Culture prizes familiarity

Imagine how the U.S. lineup might look if the Americans took a page from the Brazilians.

T-Ho would be in goal, with Los, Gooch and Dolo anchoring the backline. Beas, Mo and Stuey could patrol the midfield, allowing Deuce to be paired up top with Jozy.

Confused? Nicknames are a big part of popular culture in most countries, particularly in sports, but we still hold tight to formalized names when it comes to anything official. Not so the Brazilians, for whom affectionate familiarity is the name of the game for everyone from the kid next door all the way up to the country's president.

"We don't use the last names," said Lyris Wiedemann, a native of Porto Alegre, Brazil, who is now director of the Portuguese language program at Stanford. "It reflects a trait in the culture that's more personalized. We care about the person, and the person is not the family name. It's who they are."

It's why no one knows Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite as anything but Kaka. Why one player on Brazil's 2006 team was called, simply, Fred. And why Edson Arantes do Nascimento is just some guy until you realize he's Pele, international icon.

"Through the ages, people have been known by their first names or their nicknames," said Alex Bellos, author of "Futebol, the Brazilian Way of Life." ''They're seen as slightly charming and Brazilians are quite proud of it. You can see it from the football team."

The use of first names and nicknames stems from Brazil's days as a Portuguese colony. In the Portuguese tradition, Wiedemann said many people have four names: their given name, which is often two to include a saint's name; the mother's last name; and then the father's.

Learning just one name can be tough on a kid, so imagine the meltdown that mouthful could cause.

"If you were to use the last name, it's kind of more complicated," Wiedemann said.

So, too, when there's more than one person with the same name. Sometimes they're distinguished by using second names — look at Brazil's roster for South Africa, there's a Gilberto and a Gilberto Silva. Other times, an "inho" (meaning small) or an "ao" (meaning big) is tacked on to a name.

That's how there came to be a Ronaldo, a Little Ronaldo and a Little Ronaldo from southern Brazil.

Back when Ronaldo, he of the record for most goals scored in the World Cup, joined the Brazilian team, the squad already had a Ronaldo, a defender. So Ronaldo became Ronaldinho. Then another Ronaldinho came along, and they called him Ronaldinho Gaucho, for the area in Brazil where he was from.

When the first Ronaldo was done playing, Ronaldinho became Ronaldo again and Ronaldinho Gaucho lost the Gaucho. (For everyday use, that is. He's often listed as Ronaldinho Gaucho on rosters, and his official website is www.ronaldinhogaucho.com.)

But Brazil's colorful monikers aren't limited to what's on a birth certificate. Brazilians often pick up nicknames as kids, and they stick for life. Many are diminutives of first names, like the president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is known to all as Lula. Others are more random. Kaka got his nickname from his little brother, who couldn't pronounce Ricardo.

And some, well, you know how nicknames go.

"It's quite jocular, sort of an informal culture," said Bellos, who lived in Brazil for five years as The Guardian newspaper's South American correspondent. "If they were called something horrible, they wouldn't like it. But they don't see something that we would see as pejorative as pejorative."

Can you imagine Bill Belichick answering to "Dopey?" Brazil's coach does. "Dunga" is Portuguese for the seventh dwarf in "Snow White," and Dunga's uncle saddled him with the nickname when he was a kid and they didn't think he'd grow to be very tall.

While Brazilians don't see anything unusual in their use of first names and nicknames, it makes Brazil's team all the more appealing to those not used to being on such familiar terms. There's something about cheering for a team of regular Joes — and Michaels and Luises — rather than one filled with sterile-sounding last names.

"It feels like they're friends," Bellos said. "It feels like they're one of your gang."

Which is exactly the point, Wiedemann said. When you look at Brazil's team, she said, it reflects the country's makeup, whether the measure is socio-economic status or race or geography.

"Nicknames, of course you would use them mostly with the people that you are very familiar with," Wiedemann added. "We feel we are so familiar with the national team because it's us. It's the poor, the rich, the south, the north.

"It's very personal for a Brazilian."