The Death of the Brazilian Football Nickname

Marcus AlvesFeatured Columnist INovember 15, 2018


Sometimes, he wore the No. 9 jersey. Other times, the No. 10. But usually he could be found running on the pitch in youth football games and leaving defenders for dead with the No. 11 shirt on his back. His name on the teamsheet was Gabriel Fernando de Jesus, but few would have recognised that name, not even inside his own dressing room.

"For us, he had always been Borel. 'Borel, do this,' 'Borel, do that...' We all used to call him that, his team-mates, everybody," Erasmo Damiani, Palmeiras' former academy director, tells Bleacher Report.

"Honestly, I'm not sure when exactly that changed."

Gabriel Jesus is now an international superstar for Manchester City and Brazil. But back then, he was Borel, so named because he resembled Brazilian funk hitmaker Nego do Borel, who has since become a good friend.

Pele, Garrincha, Zico—the list of iconic Brazilian football nicknames goes on and on, but no matter how many goals Jesus scores for club and country, the name Borel will never join that list.

That is because the City striker was advised by his entourage to abandon the moniker and adopt his surname. They argued it sounded catchier. In the beginning of 2015, Palmeiras' media department came up with one last suggestion: Why not hand him the No. 33 shirt, too?

After all, that's the age at which Jesus Christ is said to have died—the move worked out so well for Gabriel Jesus that he also took that number at Manchester City.

The Gabriel Jesus brand was created; the Borel nickname was dead.

Jesus' No.33 shirt is part of his brand but he was know as "Borel" as a youth player
Jesus' No.33 shirt is part of his brand but he was know as "Borel" as a youth playerLINDSEY PARNABY/Getty Images

If he considered the stats, Jesus might have thought twice about dropping his informal name—10 of Brazil's top 15 all-time scorers are better known by nicknames (Romario, Neymar, Roberto Rivellino, Ademir de Menezes and Rivaldo being the exceptions).

But Jesus' decision to drop his moniker is not an anomaly. While it might not be an issue that causes the Brazilian football community to lose sleep at night, the death of nickname culture seems to be an ongoing process.

When Brazil boss Tite announced his 23-man squad for the World Cup in Russia, there was no Borel in the list, no Pele (he used to call himself Bile, but his friends couldn't pronounce it), no Garrincha (little bird). In fact, there were no nicknames at all.

The man who became Tite because his former coach Luiz Felipe Scolari said his original nicknameAde (from his given name Adenor Bacchi)wasn't a footballer's name, found himself alone.

For the first time since 1974, Brazil had no player most commonly known by his nickname in their World Cup roster. It seems to be the new reality.

On November 16, Brazil take on Uruguay in an international friendly at the Emirates Stadium in London. Four days later, they face Cameroon at Stadium MK in Milton Keynes.

Once again, the vast majority of the team will go with their given names on their shirts. Cruzeiro centre-back Dede (diminutive of Anderson) will be the sole ambassador of an increasingly rare breed in his homeland.

Among the 22 footballers who featured recently in a clash between Brasileirao title favourites Palmeiras and Flamengo, just three of them had monikers: Flamengo duo Para (born in Para state) and Lucas Paqueta (raised in Paqueta island in the heart of Guanabara Bay in Rio de Janeiro) and Palmeiras' Dudu (diminutive of Eduardo).

The future does not look much brighter for fans of the nickname either—none of the youngsters called up for the latest U20 Brazil squad has a widely known nickname.

Of course, it's still possible to find the suffix "-inho" here and there (adding it to a name means "little" while "-ao" means "big"), but it's not the same.

Fabinho, Marquinhos and Paulinho do not have the same charm as Cafu (he got his label from Cafuringa, a former right-winger from Fluminense and Botafogo) and Zico (diminutive of Arthurzico).

The nickname truly is a dying phenomenon in the country.

One of Santos' greatest players of all time, Pepe, who lifted two World Cup trophies in 1958 and 1962, claims Brazilian culture has always been informal and relaxed and doesn't understand why that should now change on the pitch.

Pepe with his former Santos team-mate Pele in 2015
Pepe with his former Santos team-mate Pele in 2015NELSON ALMEIDA/Getty Images

The former left-winger and Pele's main goalscoring partner at Santos for over a decade argues the demise of the nickname will only raise barriers for fans hoping to enjoy a more intimate relationship with their heroes.

"I played in a beautiful time for Brazilian football, the 1958, 1962 and 1970 World Cups, when there were so many nicknamed players around. But it's not like that anymore. Nowadays, they would rather be called by their given names. It will make it a lot more difficult for fans to establish a bond with new idols," Pepe tells B/R.

"I'm proud of being known as Pepe. Like me, my dad was called Jose Macia and also dubbed Pepe.

"It's much easier for supporters to admire footballers with nicknames like Pele and Garrincha than saying, 'My favorite player is Manuel Francisco [Garrincha's name].' Everything has become more formal."

Despite that, the use of monikers still contributes to the romance of the five-time world champions.

Brazilians can't help it; they give nicknames to almost everyone, from the doorman to the president.

When former Atletico Madrid and Middlesbrough midfielder Juninho arrived at Vasco da Gama on loan in the early 2000s, he became known as Juninho Paulista (little Junior from Sao Paulo) because there was already another Juninho, a fan favourite and free-kick specialist, reigning at Sao Januario stadium.

He would have Pernambucano added to his name, meaning he was from the state of Pernambuco, before moving to Lyon later that season.

Not every nickname accurately describes a footballer's background, though.

A member of Brazil's squad in 1986 and 1990 World Cups, defensive midfielder Alemao (German) was dubbed as such because he was blonde and blue-eyed, not because of any Germanic roots. The same goes with Russo (Russian), a former international right-back.

Besides their places of birth, Brazilian players can be named after superheroes (Hulk), pop stars (Adriano Michael Jackson), Pokemon (Yago Pikachu), the Seven Dwarfs (Dunga, which means Dopey in Portuguese), famous clowns (Careca, from Brazilian clown Carequinha), dog breeds (Claudio Pitbull) and the size of their heads (Ruy Cabecao, literally Ruy Big Head).

Brazil's 1994 World Cup winning captain Dunga is named after Seven Dwarf "Dopey"
Brazil's 1994 World Cup winning captain Dunga is named after Seven Dwarf "Dopey"Mike Hewitt/Getty Images

Oftentimes, the player has little choice in the name he is given. If your coach feels you don't have a footballer's name, he can change it to a different one. Just ask former Bayern Munich and Inter Milan defender Lucio, whose given name is Lucimar. Or Gremio centre-back Paulo Miranda, who was born as Jonathan Doin.

Grafite (graphite) was Bundesliga top scorer and player of the year when he helped Wolfsburg win the 2008/09 title. He told Bleacher Report how he got his nickname early in his career.

"When I got to Matonense for a trial, the coach called me aside and said, 'Grafite, come here.' I was like, 'Grafite? Why Grafite?' And he explained, 'I played with a tall guy known as Grafite who looked like you. But what's your name?' I said, 'Ednaldo.' He laughed at me, 'Don't you have a nickname?' I told him my friends call me Dina. He said: 'It's too nice for football, it won't work out,'" Grafite recalls.

"At first, I didn't like it, but what else could I have done? I had to accept it, and I'm glad I did. In a way, it ended up helping my game. It's a remarkable nickname, people don't forget it.

"When I arrived to South Korea in 2003 [for a short spell at FC Seoul], I had to abandon it for a while because they couldn't pronounce it—they started calling me by my surname, Batista. In Germany, people struggled a little bit too and dubbed me 'Graffa.' I enjoyed it so much that my social media pages are named after it."

He is aware that few players and entourages share the same perspective when it comes to monikers these days.

"I will not go as far to say that everything now is robotised, but football is getting more boring day after day. Even coaches who didn't go by their given names back in their playing days, now do," Grafite argues.

Grafite (Graphite) was a big hit at Wolfsburg

Tostao, a World Cup winner in 1970 and considered one of the wisest voices in Brazilian football, believes European influence is contributing to the death of the nickname

"I wonder if Pele had been known by his name, Edson Arantes, would he have been as great as was? Probably yes. But surely less popular. I can't even imagine people calling him Arantes," he says, laughing.

"If you turn on the TV, there might be a match between Premier League sides being broadcast right now in Brazil. The same goes for La Liga, Bundesliga and Serie A. And, as we know, most of their athletes wear their last names on their shirts. Brazilian football has gone with the flow and incorporated it too, but I can't see how it helps us.

"Unfortunately, a politically correct mindset has taken over.

"Sometimes, I can't even remember their surnames. It's not just that they don't have monikers anymore; it's worse, they go with two names—Thiago Silva, Thiago Neves, Thiago Ribeiro...That's sad.

"When I was a kid, I used to play with the older boys and they were all much stronger than me. So, they started calling me Tostao (little coin) because I was the shortest one. It never bothered me."

Brazil legend Tostao (Little Coin) is sad to see the demise of the nickname
Brazil legend Tostao (Little Coin) is sad to see the demise of the nicknameUncredited/Associated Press

Some big Brazilian clubs, such as Internacional and Sao Paulo, have also expedited the nickname's demise.

A few years ago, Inter told their graduates with surnames that identified them as European descendants to adopt them. One afternoon, former club president Fernando Carvalho approached journalists and asked them to call the new kids coming from the academy by their given names.

Around that time, the club also signed a promising youngster called Goteira (water drip) and immediately changed his name to Leo Avila when he was unveiled.

Sao Paulo adopted the same approach with players such as Foguete (rocket), Chumbinho (pellet) and Marcelinho (because he used to train at Marcelinho Carioca's football school). Those three became known as Wellington Cabral, Da Silva and Lucas Moura, respectively.

"Brazilians refusing nicknames and denying their past is an issue that should be studied by psychologists," Tostao argues.

The Brazil national team holds a romantic place in the hearts of football fans around the world. Just look at the team that played in the 1958 World Cup final—Zito, Didi, Garrincha, Vava, Pele—iconic names that jump off the page.

Brazil's 1958 team was heavy on nicknames and much loved for it
Brazil's 1958 team was heavy on nicknames and much loved for itAssociated Press

However, back then the monikers were so strange and unusual to European ears that Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet wrote that the South Americans would line up with the following XI against Austria: Dudu; Dada and Dudu; Dodo, Dudi and Duda; Didi, Dida, Dadi, Deda and Dade.

By the end of the tournament, though, the world had learned to distinguish Pele from Garrincha, Pepe from Vava, and they loved the team even more because of it.

Brazilian football remains obsessed with the World Cup and the pursuit of the title that would put a sixth star on their shirt.

Come Qatar 2022, it could come. Maybe it will be Gabriel Jesus who scores the winning goal, and of course it will be special to Brazilians, but perhaps it would be even more romantic if it was Borel instead who sealed the moment of glory.

Brazilian football lives on, but it seems a little part of what made it so globally popular is on the way out.


The latest in the sports world, emailed daily.