In the epic battle between Batman and Superman…they both lose, because those are the lamest superhero names ever (you turn into a bat, you’re super; neither of you are creative). Soccer players’ nicknames, on the other hand, run the gamut from adorable (and not just your preternaturally young face, Kaká) to adorably menacing.
Ah, Kaká. We could talk about his time with Reál Madrid as the player with the second highest transfer fee (behind Zinedine Zidane, whose nickname is the unimaginative Zizou, so we’ll leave him out of this). We could discuss his inclusion in Brazil’s 2002 World Cup-winning squad, his status as MLS’s Orlando City’s first Designated Player (and the highest paid player in MLS history), even his decades-long humanitarian work.
But we’re not going to linger on any of that, worthy though those topics may be. Instead, let’s talk about Kaká, the name, the origin story. Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite could easily have been screen-printed onto millions of futból jerseys as Ricardinho, in the grand tradition of his Brazilian compatriots. However, his younger brother, fútbol player Digão, couldn’t pronounce “Ricardo,” and instead called his big brother “Caca” when the boys were growing up.
Somehow, perhaps anticipating that “Caca” would lead to a few too many giggles in a few too many immature New Jersey households (oh stop; before you get insulted, I’m talking about my mother), the spelling was changed to Kaká and an iconic footballer was born. Now someone needs to ask the majestically named Jorge Resurección Merodio if his sobriquet, Koke, came from a similarly vocally-challenged younger sibling, and we can have our very own Kaká v Koke battle…
A little bit to the south and a few grocery aisles closer to the produce section, we find Uruguayan left-winger Cristián “Cebolla” Rodriguez, currently running the pitch for Argentina’s Independiente and Uruguay’s national team for this summer’s Copa America and World Cup Qualifiers (I’ll take a pause here while you all pray any way you’re able to for our injury-laden, appendicitis-hit national team. Amen.).
El Cebolla, The Onion, earned his pantry-staple nickname playing for Montevideo’s Peñarol. His speed and wily runs with the ball so confounded opposing defenders that his father christened his son Cebolla, after the homely root vegetable that makes people cry. (Fun fact: Papá Rodriguez was known as Cabeza, the Head, and was clearly using his own when he came up with this uniquely stinky nickname.) After three years with Peñarol, during which he led them to a title win, Cebolla went on to play in Portugal, for Porto and Benfica, and in Paris for PSG. Pockets of these European stadiums filled up with his childhood friends from his Uruguayan hometown of Juan Lacaze, cheering on their Cebolla.
Cebolla’s passion for the game comes through in his stubborn refusal to give up even after a play has ended; he will twist and turn, chase down a defender, and contort his seemingly uncontortable body in retrieval of a ball. Speaking of that body (don’t worry! It’s not about to get weird! Or at least, any weirder than it already is!), Cebolla’s is tatted with all kinds of ink, but the most patriotic of these designs is the shield of his very first club, Peñarol, emblazoned on his right calf.
In our battle of the Rio de la Plata Wingers Nicknamed After Food (what, it’s totally a thing), we pit Cebolla Rodriguez against Ángel di María, the Argentinian national team member, Paris Saint-Germain scoring, noodle.
That’s right, El Fidéo. With his skinny body loping across the pitch, limbs seemingly moving at cross-purposes with his frame, di María “Also Known as the Argentinian Peter Crouch” (disclaimer: not actually his nickname) nonetheless manages an al-dente combination of flexibility and sturdiness that makes his moniker the perfect fit. Four years at Real Madrid saw moments of brilliance interspersed with dry spells that eventually led di María to leave for England as part of an expensive swap for Colombia’s golden boy, James Rodríguez, and gave us an open letter from El Fideo claiming that his style football wasn’t to the Madrileños’ owners’ tastes.
After a season spent, for the most part, moldering on the shelf at Louis Van Gaal’s Manchester United (pantry puns are fun!), di María shipped off for PSG, where he quickly became a club and crowd favorite, slotting in seamlessly with Zlatan “I Sometimes Have a Hard Time Playing Well With Others” Ibrahimović (also not actually his nickname), setting up his teammates for goals and scoring them himself. Finally, it seems as if the Noodle’s found his perfect recipe in Paris.
From the kitchen to the zoo we go, to the plethora of players with animal pet names. Perhaps the most well-known in this category is Lionel Messi, famous for both of his monikers: La Pulga, the flea, and The Best Player in The World. Since these handles are self-explanatory, let’s move on to some other players with names inspired by the animal kingdom.
If you were ever to find yourself face-to-calf with Peruvian forward Jefferson Farfán, you may find yourself wondering at the tattoo of a seal heading a soccer ball on his right leg (you may also wonder what you were doing with your face near Farfán’s calf, but that’s your business; this is a judgment-free site). Farfán, after seven years with German club Schalke, took a 6 million euro buyout to move to Emirati club Al Jazira last season. 2015 also saw him taking his Peruvian side to a surprise third-place finish in the Copa América, and scoring the winning goal in a World Cup qualifier over rival Paraguay.
You’re still wondering about that seal? Hold your- oh well, horses would be muddling the metaphor. Farfán is known as La Foquita, the Little Seal, a nickname passed down through the ranks of Peruvian footballing hierarchy from his uncle, former Peruvian forward Roberto Farfán, who was known as La Foca for his exuberant goal-scoring celebrations. When La Foquita Farfán began to display a talent rivaling his famous uncle’s, Tío Roberto was quick to bestow upon his nephew the mantle that made all of Peru applaud along with their beloved seal.
Back up to Brazil, a spider lurks in the Palmeiras goal. (A warning not to google “Brazilian spider,” or you’ll get some truly terrifying results.) Mário Lúcio Costa Duarte has been known as Aranha, Spider, since taking his place between the sticks at Pronte Preta’s youth club. Interestingly, this frightening (okay, fine, you’ve got me, I’m afraid of spiders) nickname was born not because of Costa’s tall, leggy frame, capable of stretching from one end of the net to the other, but because of another famous goalkeeper, Lev Yashin, whose famous all-black uniform during his tenure with Dynamo Moscow and the Soviet national team earned him the nickname the Black Spider. Playing in a similarly-hued kit, Aranha’s youth coach told his goalie that every good player must have a good nickname, and his arachnid-christened prodigy has been Spider ever since.
Perhaps if Bruce Wayne or Clark Kent had spent some time on the soccer pitch, or even in South America, they would have come up with nicknames a bit more inspired than Batman versus Superman (and I’m not taking shots at the movie, cinemaphiles). In our nickname-off, where we’ve got everyone from a Noodle to a Seal, everyone wins. Until the next round of World Cup qualifiers, and then it’s every animal for himself!