It's fitting that the World Cup hosted by Brazil, a country with such a unique anthroponomastic culture, is lousy with guys bearing interesting names and sobriquets. And while hearing these names and wondering where they came from offers one source of enjoyment, we've tried to actually find out what was in the minds of some of the world's most creative parents and school children when they decided on Axel and Edinson and Hulk and Nani.
There's no better place to start than with the Brazilians themselves. This team, however, is a little low on the sorts of iconic single names we've come to expect. Sure, there are an abundance of one-named players like Neymar, Oscar, Ramires, Dante, and Fernandinho, but in each of those cases, the players simply go by their real first names. In some cases, names that you expect to have an interesting backstory actually don't. Fred's given name is just Frederico.
(In case you're wondering why so many Brazilian soccer players go by only one name, there are many articles out there on the subject. Basically, it's a combination of Portuguese names being really long, the Brazilian culture as a whole—the single name phenomenon is not limited to athletes there—being pretty intimate, and a historical byproduct of widespread illiteracy coupled with those lengthy names making Hernanes an easier thing to remember and spell than Anderson Hernandes de Carvalho Viana Lima.)
There is yet one member of the Seleção keeping the flag waving for Garrincha, Sócrates, Kaká, and the like. That man is called Hulk. The internet has differing explanations for where this nickname originated. Some claim it was given to the barrel-chested winger while playing in the green jersey of Tokyo Verdy. Others say it goes back further, to when the young Givanildo Vieira de Souza loved imitating his favorite comic book character, and his father started calling him by the name full time. This Guardian article attributes it to his dad's love of Lou Ferrigno. Either way, from this TV interview with the man (translated using my extremely limited Portuguese) and his Portuguese Wiki entry, it does appear to be something his father adorned him with. Great choice.
Alas, also thanks to the internet, we know that Brazilian full back Maicon's name does not originate how it is often alleged. Despite having the full name of Maicon Douglas Sisenando, he apparently was not named after the actor Michael Douglas. Still, according to Wikipedia, Maicon as a given name in Brazil came into prominence in the '80s as a Portuguesified version of Michael, as in Michael Jackson, so in a roundabout way, you could say he's named after the King of Pop.
Michael Jackson's influence of these World Cup participants goes beyond the Maicon connection. If you assumed the first half of Jackson Martínez's name was an homage to the late Hoosier, you were correct. Among the revelations in this profile of the Colombian is that Martínez's parents were big fans of the singer and decided to bequeath their son that hame. As he grew older, the striker would often imitate MJ's dance moves. (Another interesting tidbit from the profile: Martínez's first "soccer balls" were the disembodied heads of his sisters' dolls. How quaint!)
The practice of naming children after greats of the past is well represented in this World Cup, even outside the realm of pop music. The most famous example is Cristiano Ronaldo (dos Santos Aveiro in it's entirety), the Ronaldo part of his name a reference to Ronald Reagan. In an interview with GQ España, Ronaldo clears up some of the confusion behind this fact by saying it was his mother, not his father, that came up with the Reagan shoutout because she was a fan of the then President. Ronaldo probably didn't take too much influence from his namesake, though, as he goes on to say that he would've voted for Obama over Romney in the 2012 Presidential election.
Edinson Cavani also sports a name inspired by a famous American, though his parents made an unfortunate mistake. Mom and dad Cavani tried to christen their son in honor of Thomas Edison, but must have read their history book with the lights turned off because they thought it was spelled "Edinson." It seems like Ecuador's Édison Méndez had better spelling parents, but I couldn't find anything that made the connection definitive.
Boris Yeltsin is commemorated in this field, though not by the nation you'd expect. Costa Rica's Yeltsin Tejeda was named after the former Russian President, a fact that lead at least one Russian publication to run a profile on the midfielder:
On June 1, Costa Rica's national team roster for the World Cup was officially announced. Among the 23 players who will travel to Brazil, one of the players immediately attracted the attention of Russians with his sonorous name and surname. In the center of midfield, the Costa Ricans will play the 22-year-old Yeltsin Tejeda.
This name, Yeltsin, was in honor of the first president of Russia. The Costa Rican footballer was born March 17, 1992 - when our country was in its democratic infancy. Yeltsin Tejeda Antonio Valverde started playing football at five. "Mom, well, you let me go? This is my chance!" - Yeltsin begged his mother Rocio Valverde as a child, dreaming of becoming a professional player and moving to the Costa Rican capital of San José.
Yeltsin received his name due to his mother, but the love of football - from his father Ignacio Tejeda. At 14 years old, the future national team player moved to the capital in order to study at university and in the process train.
That Russian reporter got some great access. Now the world can properly thank Mrs. Tejeda for coming up with the wonderful name and for allowing her son to develop into the player he is today by moving to San José.
On a less prestigious though infinitely more hilarious turn of events, you will be happy to know that Axel Witsel was indeed named after Axel Foley, Eddie Murphy's character from Beverly Hills Cop. And Brazil's influence on naming players extends past their own national team, all the way to Ivory Coast's Gervais Yao Kouassi. While under the tutelage of a Brazilian coach at ASEC Abidjan youth academy, Yao Kouassi was given a Brazilian-style nickname that stuck for life: Gervinho. Oh, and Nani is what Portugal's Luis Carlo Almeida da Cunha was nicknamed by his sister as a child, and it took.
Sadly, there aren't answers for all of the great names in this World Cup. Was Fidel Martínez born to a pro-Cuban household? Where did Mr. and Mrs. Erazo come up with Frickson? All I could find is this interesting response to an interviewer's question about whether or not he had a nickname:
[My nickname is] Patterson, my family tells me because that was going to be my name from childhood, but the Civil Registry did not allow it, as it was a gringo name. And, well, my wife calls me "black," but she never calls me by my name.
Even without uncovering every little story, it's good to know parents around the world are coming up with unique ways of naming their kids. I look forward to seeing Gosling da Silva and Drake Ramírez in the 2026 edition.