Casts of Characters: Why Nicknames Matter and Why I Support La Celeste

Selección Celeste

Life is a drama, a comedy and a tragedy. To make the best of it, you need a damn good cast of characters. People in Uruguay may not be overly individualistic in the sense of personal achievement and distinction–though they aren’t as communal as say Confucian societies–but they still have strong personalities, and in any group, great characters emerge. Especially in the interior, a person takes on a name, and thus a legend. Apodos (“nicknames) bearing little resemblance to one’s actual name such as El Cono, El Chicho, or El Jabalí (“the boar”) are significantly more common for males. Females often have nicknames too, but it’s nearly always a corruption of their given name(s) (Maria Eugenia becomes Maru, Florencia becomes Flopi, etc). It’s common to not just call, but also know people exclusively by their nicknames. To illustrate, there are people I know quite well, who actual names I’m not sure of.

In Uruguay, la Celeste is the ultimate cast of characters, and the world is its stage. The team as a whole and each individual player take on the persona of the nation when they put on the shirt. They are not only Luis Alberto Suarez Diaz (b. 1987, Salto) or Diego Roberto Godín Leál (b. 1986, Rosario) but also El Pistolero and El Faraón. A cartoon by Uruguayan graphic artist Trias from the 2010 World Cup captures this perfectly. For example, Diego “Ruso” (“Russian”) Perez holds a hammer in one hand, sickle in the other (both drenched in blood) and wears a communist hat. Maxi “Mono” (“monkey) Pereira is appropriately sporting a tail on his rear and a peeled banana in his left hand ready to make opposing wingers slip and fall in his presence. When calling games, Uruguayan commentators almost exclusively rely on nicknames to identify players. For every “y González con la pelota”, you hear four “y ahora El Tata”. It’s something practically unconscious that makes a broadcast flow so much better and emblematic of a system that allows the individuals to flourish in their roles, while the team remains paramount. The fans (all 3.3 million of them) are more likely to have a healthy relationship with the team as a result.

Two nations whose recent woes most notably contrast with La Celeste’s resurgence are Brazil and England. The former had a significant minority of their populace actively root against the Seleção during the 2014 World Cup. Though nomenclature certainly wasn’t to blame for play less than bonito, and utter collapse at the hands of Germany, it is something deeply ingrained in the nation’s football psyche. Historically a far less literate—and literal–nation than Uruguay, Brazil has only recently seen full names become as important as given names and nicknames. In the footballing world, players take on nicknames as the names they formally use as professionals. Most often they go by one or both of their given names (e.g. Neymar, Oscar, David Luiz, Filipe Luis), a diminutive (Ronaldinho), augmentative (Ronaldão) of the given name, or some other corruption (Fred’s real name is Federico). Some times they will take on a nickname based on story (Kaká, Pelé, Roberto Dinamite) or geography (Juninho Paulista v Juninho Pernambucano). Most strangely, yet perhaps most befitting a creative nation like Brazil, players will take names of famous people real (Alan Kardec, Sócrates) and fictional (Hulk) or other footballers (Müller). While this is great for commentators having fun with pronunciation, I’m not sure it always pays its dividends on the pitch. Rather than having two fluid identities—i.e. Suarez the man and Pistolero the legend—Brazil’s players seemed to be missing a balanced duality and unity in this year’s world cup. Neymar was merely Neymar. The Da Silva Santos Júnior had long ago disappeared.

England tells a radically different story. Nicknames are almost entirely absent to the consensus visions of footballers. Perhaps players wouldn’t be so scrutinised if they had an identity beyond their surname and given name to let them loose a bit. Not since Gazza has a nickname been central to the identity of a major England international. Unfortunately, this controversial Geordie’s moniker said as much about his antics off the pitch than on it. A country noted for its sense of irony fails to bring this aspect of its humor to the football pitch. Even in the relative irony desert of Uruguay, a mangy haired left-back is nicknamed Pelado (“bald”). To my knowledge Wayne “Shaggy” Rooney, Gary “Ginger” Neville or Leighton “Crazyman” Baines have never caught on. Unfortunately, English fans are more likely to impose wordplay on footballers in an insulting manner. A fattened photoshopped Frank “Lump-o-lard” Lampard was a common gag of rival fans in the mid 2000s. In a game I went to at The Hawthorns, a vocal and rotund West Brom fan repeatedly yelled “Jelly-tits” every time opposing Everton striker Nikica Jelavic touched the ball.

The Uruguayan media is very intense when it comes to football. But unlike the English media, their main job is to protect and exalt the players rather than shame or isolate them. Uruguayan journalists joke about la Celeste players and take them seriously at the same time, presenting them as approachable humans rather than distant celebrities. Stories about their lives off the pitch are generally about them being good family men, or looking forward to returning from Europe to play for Peñarol or Nacional so they can spend more time on their ranch or at the beach like most sensible Uruguayans. In advertisements they tend to endorse things like yerba mate and state-owned enterprises and not Nike’s latest product line or a bet shop. Advertisements often include the players’ families illustrating that they play a role beyond that of footballer and commercial fodder.

Tabloid journalism is peripheral to Uruguay’s media world. Uruguayans simply don’t read slanderous or shallow media at the same rate as the English (though I would also argue they also don’t consume healthier kinds of media as much as the English). Partly this is because Uruguay is a small market and much of what shows up at magazine kiosks and on late night TV is imported from Argentina. Conveniently, the shallow nature of much of said content gives Uruguayans yet another means for to experience schaudenfreude about Argentina’s cultural decline. The Argies have Marcelo Tinelli. Uruguay has Jorge Piñerua. In a country that is still more predicated on physical communities rather than virtual ones, Uruguayans are more likely to gossip about their neighbor El Vasco or La Vieja Rubia down the street than a television actor they never have nor never will meet. While Uruguay has a remarkably strong media for a country of it’s size, it’s not an industry that puts on spectacles where people react instantly to rapidly changing—and often unimportant–information. Though it has it’s share of domestically produced game shows and talk shows that are not imported from Argentina, Spain, or Brasil, Uruguay is not an X-Factor infused world where today’s heroes can too easily become tomorrow’s villains.

In Uruguay, having heroes one can identify with and feel connected to reinforces people’s positive sense of self-worth. La Celeste are the nation’s foremost heroes and the media has crafted their communal—and common–image, which is aided in no small part due to nicknames. The national team represents everyone, not just certain segments of society. It is the only thing Uruguay has making it competitive in international sports. This is a nation that has never won an Olympic gold medal in any individual or team event other than football, yet has won two World Cups and 15 Copa Americas. Athletes in any other sport are beyond an afterthought. The nation specializes in football the way Detroit specialized in cars. This monoculture of football has its consequences, but its greatest benefit is producing an exceptional squad whose purpose truly is to represent a nation’s people. In a small country, dense social networks also help greatly, such that 23 players and a coach representing 3.3 million people means that there is one member of La Celeste for every 140,000 Uruguayans. Thus citizens are far more likely to actually know the players and their families. Merely from degrees of separation, the fans are more connected to their idols.

Back in England, shy, humble, family-first players such as Leighton Baines and Paul Scholes are seen as much as a curiosity by the media simply because they don’t whine, carouse or get into trouble. Players of lesser pedigree, such as Joey Barton get far more media attention simply because they’ve sometimes screwed up in life and on the pitch. The English media capitalizes on the fact that readers don’t want to consume stories about boring or normal people. Even stories literally about Britain’s Dullest Men are actually quite fascinating and hilarious. Truly mundane is the man with nothing to be passionate about. This is coming from a culture where boredom is a negative trait rather than a virtue, and normalness a knock on the distinction of one’s character. In England, it’s seeing other people fail or succumb to idleness that reinforces people’s positive sense of self-worth. This takes many forms. A perpetually losing football team and celebrities cheating on their spouses are on the lighter end of the spectrum. More serious to society is the dramatization and fetishization of poverty in popular media exemplified by the Thatcher regime and the increasing stigmatization of unemployment and non-intellectual work. This is a significant and unhealthy contradiction in aspirational societies like England and something that was poorly understood in the Luis Suarez biting saga during this year’s World Cup. If an England star had committed a similar infraction (say Rooney biting Godin on a corner kick after Suarez’s second goal), I don’t think the vast majority of English journalists would have defended their countryman. Rather than the Uruguayan attitude akin to of one of their children forced into a brief timeout for a minor indiscretion, the English painted Suarez like a criminal and a thug from a council estate in a dire, remote Northern town who deserves a lifetime prison sentence.

The best experiences in my life are defined by being part of a cast of characters. If I think about work, if I think about classes, if I think about music, if I think about friends, the times I remember most fondly are those when I’ve been part of a group where someone brings something slightly different to the table that everyone else benefits from and appreciates. In choosing what sports teams to root for, the same principles apply. As an American without any historic or family reasons to be married to a club for life, and living in a world of incessant player and manager transfers, my preferences have come and gone. But the teams I’ve loved have been ones where it’s the cast that matters most. Locals and foreigners. Talisman and one year-wonders. An AS Roma led by the faithful trio of Totti, de Rossi and Perrotta. A Gerrard and Carragher inspired Liverpool surrounded by the most global of crews. Athletic Bilbao, and the consistency that comes with their Basque-only policy. The Bordeaux team in the late 2000s that overtook the Lyon dynasty with a healthy mix of unheralded Frenchman, Brazilians and Argentines. In baseball, the ’03 and ’04 Red Sox or rather Cowboy Up!? and The Idiots captured my imagination and showed that good characters must lend themselves to be caricatured.

As a cast of good guys that don’t mind caricature, La Celeste will always represent something greater than the sum of its parts. It has a glorious past, yet it also has the forces of the world against it. Paradoxically, it’s an underdog while being one of the world’s all time greats. It’s not in the hands of a Russian oligarch or T. Boone Pickens. It isn’t split between Bayern and its feeder clubs, or the immigrants and the natives. It’s cosmopolitan and provincial. It’s supposed to win, but not to dominate. An shrewd win means far more than a pretty win. It has its world beaters but “that little bald guy in midfield breaking England apart” is no less important than the guy who scores two goals with two chances. This is why La Celeste are my favorite team. In all of sports.

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