Nicknames are part of the culture of Brazilian football more so than in other countries. The origins of calling Brazilian soccer players by a nickname instead of their given name remains somewhat of a historical and anthropological mystery. Many sports journalists argue that nicknaming enables Brazilian fans to connect to their players with a greater intensity of connection than through their given names. In a football culture that prizes individuality more than teamwork, nicknames enable Brazilian fans to enjoy a more focused form of admiration or idolatry with respect to their favorite players because fans are on a first name, friendship level basis with their players. That said, the practice of nicknaming in Brazil pertains not only to football, but all spheres of life in Brazil more generally. President Lula Inacio Lula da Silvo is globally known as Lula, for example. Similarly, in Brazilian corporate circles, it is common to refer to your boss by either a nickname or Mr./Ms. followed by a first name or a nickname.
Part of the popularity of the use of one name to refer to a person may simply involve the reality that Brazilian names often feature four names: two first names (one of which is usually the name of a saint), the mother's last name and the father's last name. One name is easier to deal with than four. And then are there other, more elaborate explanations of nicknaming amongst Brazil: that the gentry began playing the sport in the 1920s and 1930s, and when the aristocracy discovered its popularity, they wanted to play too, albeit without being identified with the gentry, thereby adopting one name that enabled them to preserve their anonymity. The practice spread to the gentry itself and eventually, almost all Brazilian football players took one name or, minimally, a transformation of their given name. Another explanation attributes nicknaming to the history of slavery in Brazil and its convention of referring to slaves by either their first name or their first name followed by the region in Africa from which they were imported.
In the context of Brazilian football, nicknaming occurs at two levels insofar as almost every player has a nickname of a certain kind.
The first level is simply a transformation of a player's given name into something else. Pele, Tostao, Romario, Bebeto, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Kaka are all nicknames, for example, admittedly, of different kinds and variations. In his autobiography, Pele claims not to know from where his nickname originated, although some scholars associate it with his childhood mispronunciation of his favorite goalkeeper, Bile. Kaka is the name coined by his younger brother Digao, for Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, as a result of his inability to pronounce his brother's name "Ricardo".
For more on the history of nicknames in Brazilian football, see Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life by Alex Bellos.
Part 2 features a particularly evocative selection of nicknames in the world of Brazilian football. The names in this selection titillate the imagination and create a bond between the fan and the player rooted in the fan's experience, outside of soccer, with names such as The Hulk, The Beast and The Emperor. The bold text in Part 2 denotes the nickname while the description that follows tells something about the player.
For specific examples of colorful nicknames in Brazilian football, see:
Bringing Back the Beautiful Game: The Hulk, The Beast and The Emperor: Nicknames in Brazilian Football (Part 2)