Where do those unique Brazilian soccer names come from?

Brazil's Maicon, right, is congratulated by teammate Elano Brazil's Maicon, right, is congratulated by teammate Elano after he scored during Tuesday's match against North Korea. (June 15, 2010) Photo Credit: AFP / Getty Images

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John Jeansonne Newsday columnist John Jeansonne.

Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since 1970 and has covered 11 Olympic Games and ...

Part of the mystique of Brazilian soccer, like the inconceivable angle from which Maicon scored his team's first World Cup goal against North Korea on Tuesday, are the players' intriguing names.

On the current roster, Kaka, Grafite and Nilmar are among those carrying on a tradition of one-word appellations common in Brazilian culture long before the singular Pele and his contemporaries Edu, Tostao and Vava.

To be on a first-name basis with the public reflects Brazil's general informality (some Brazilian city phone books list people by their nicknames rather than their surnames) as well as the players' celebrity status. Coming from the only country that has participated in all 19 World Cup tournaments, and which has won a record five of them, Brazil's national team members are unavoidably rock stars, and therefore require the appropriate handles.

Some bring their stage names with them from childhood, given by family or friends. Kaka, the dashing luminary of this year's team, was born Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite, but his brother Digao used the shortered tag when still too young to clearly pronounce "Ricardo," and Kaka stuck.

Dunga - actually Carlos Caetano Bledorn Verri - who played for Brazil's 1994 World Cup champion and is coaching this year's team, is so called because playground pals thought he looked like Dopey of the Seven Dwarfs, and the Portuguese word for Dopey is Dunga. Among Dunga's old teammates were Alemao (literally, "German") and Branco ("Whitey").

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Jock humor often is involved. Marcos Evangelista de Moraes, a World Cup member from the past, was called Cafu, which means one who scratches his head. (The modern American translation for Cafu might be "Duh.") Antonio de Oliveira Filho was dubbed Careca, which means bald, even though he wasn't bald; he merely reminded other players of a Bozo-like bald-headed clown.

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It has been postulated that the use of single names in Brazil dates to its historially high illiteracy rate and possibly the country's slave system, which was abolished in the late 1880s. And that, in soccer, the no-last-name treatment has gone to the more charismatic offensive heroes - like "LeBron" in the NBA - while defenders and goalkeepers tend to use a fuller version of their given names. This year's starting goalkeeper, for instance, goes by Julio Cesar and defenders include Dani Alves, Michel Bastos, Gilberto Melo and Thiago Silva.

To some extent, the 2010 lineup carries fewer enigmatic nicknames than past World Cup teams, either because friends and family are running out of creating hooks, or players' real first names (and their diminutives) are sufficient. So Robson de Souza is Robinho. Donieber Alexander Marangon is Doni. Lucimar Ferreira da Silva is Lucio. Anders Luis da Silva is Luisao, "Big Luis." Juan Silveira dos Santos is Juan. Maicon Douglas Sisenando is Maicon.

More imaginative and descriptive monikers litter the nation's soccer history, dating to Brazil's first national team, in 1914, which included a player known as Formiga - "ant," in Portuguese. In the 1950s, along with Pele - even Edson Arantes do Nascimento himself isn't sure of the meaning, though one guess is a liberal translation of "lightfoot" - there was Garrincha ("Little Bird"), Maneca (roughly, "goofy" or "funny"), Vava ("go, go"), Tostao ("penny") and Pinga (a reference to fermented drink).

In the end, it all is part of a special package: The sport's most dominant team gives the world its most memorable names. In the future, there surely will be an Amo - "Master" - or Saliencia - "Boss."

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