Why do we have such naff nicknames?
European footballers are called ‘The Divine Ponytail’ or ‘The Vulture’. We have Gazza and Scholesy. We need a Nickname Tsar.
Last week saw the death of Hungarian football legend Ferenc Puskás. Like our own Peter Crouch, people laughed at Puskás because he didn’t possess an orthodox footballer’s physique. ‘Look at that little fat chap. We’ll murder this lot’, an England player is reported to have quipped before the game against Hungary at Wembley in 1953. But the laughing stopped as soon as Puskás touched the ball (sadly, the same cannot be said for Crouch). Puskás ran rings round the England defence and inspired the Magical Magyars to a 6-3 victory.
Puskás, as many obituarists have noted, was known as the Galloping Major because he played for the Hungarian army team Honved and held the honorary rank of major. That got me thinking. The Galloping Major isn’t the sort of nickname you’d get in England, is it? When Puskás moved to Real Madrid he gained a new nickname, Cañoncito Pum (‘The Booming Cannon’). Not bad either. But, what if Puskás had plied his trade in England? He would have probably been pelted with chocolate bars and greeted with chants of ‘You fat bastard’ and ‘Who ate all the pies?’ (or, in his case, ‘Who ate all the goulash?’). That’s how we treated the greatest fat footballer of our generation, Paul Gascoigne. And what nickname did we give England’s own roly-poly hero? Nothing so lyrical as the Weeping Magpie or the Tearful Magician. We simply called him Gazza.
Worse still, Gazzamania prompted the copycat nicknaming of prominent public figures. So Michael Heseltine became Hezza, John Prescott was Prezza, Boris Johnson was Bozza, and Morrissey became Mozza. And now Wayne Rooney, our latest footballing messiah, is known as Wazza to his England teammates. It’s just as well Ferenc Puskás defected to Spain rather than England, otherwise he’d have ended up being called Fezza.
My theory is that the historic underachievement of the England football team is inextricably linked to the poor quality of our footballers’ nicknames. If you want to know why England didn’t win the World Cup this year you only have to look at the players’ monikers. English nicknames are one-dimensional and unimaginative – just like the way we play football. Take, for example, David Beckham, the former England captain. For the last decade he’s been the poster boy of English football, the most recognisable sporting icon in the world. And yet we simply call him Becks. It’s not good enough, is it? Beckham said he wanted to be remembered as a great footballer but, leaving aside his shortcomings as a player, he never stood a chance with a nickname like Becks.
Other England players have similarly mundane nicknames. Paul Scholes is Scholesy; Frank Lampard is Lamps; John Terry is JT; Peter Crouch is Crouchy; and Steven Gerrard is Stevie G. These aren’t superstar sobriquets; they’re merely schoolyard tags. If you want proper nicknames you need to look abroad. In Brazil footballers are known primarily by their colourful nicknames. Garrincha, Pele, Jairzinho, Zico, Socrates, Ronaldinho: all great players with memorable nicknames to match. During this summer’s World Cup finals, a popular chain email whizzing round cyberspace contained a link to a Brazilian nickname generator. You just type in your name, hit return and hey presto, you’re rebranded with a name befitting the glamorous stepover wizard that you aspire to be. So, plain old James Smith becomes Jamildo, or, to take a figure from public life, David Cameron is Camerezo.
Brazilian nicknames certainly beat Wazza or Gazza hands down, but for sheer lyricism you can’t beat Italian and Spanish nicknames. Names are often inspired by a player’s physical appearance. Fabrizio Ravenelli was dubbed Penna Bianca (‘The White Feather’), while Italian playmaker Roberto Baggio was known as Il Divin Codino (‘The Divine Ponytail’). If a striker scores lots of goals he can expect a fitting title. Prolific Argentine striker Gabriel Batistuta was dubbed Batigol at Fiorentina; Real Madrid striker Emilio Butragueño was known as El Buitre (‘The Vulture’), and Deportivo La Coruna frontman Walter Pandiani was nicknamed El Rifle (‘The Rifle’) for his deadly finishing - though he was renamed El Firo Blanks’ and The Walter Pistol after his unproductive spell at Birmingham City.
Destructive players often have appropriately ferocious metaphors for nicknames. Argentina’s 1978 World Cup winning captain Daniel Passarella was called El Guerrero (‘The Warrior’), while legendary Basque hardman Andoni Goikoetxea was given the fearsome nickname El Carnicero de Bilbao (‘The Butcher of Bilbao’). As a defender myself I’d love a similarly threatening nickname; something like El Cazador (‘The Hunter’) or El Asesino (‘The Assassin’) – though, if truth be told, it’s more likely to be El Caballo de tiro (‘The Carthorse’).
England may be in the Top 10 of the FIFA rankings but we’re at the foot of the table when it comes to nicknames. We need a root and branch overhaul of our sobriquets. Simply adding ‘y’ to the end of a surname (Giggsy, Scholesy) is not acceptable. Neither is the ‘zz’ form (Gazza, Wazza), abbreviated names (Lamps, Becks), or the use of initials (JT, AJ). Our top players need far nobler nicknames if we want to be taken seriously as a footballing power. I reckon that FA chief Brian Barwick should appoint a Nickname Tsar to direct this process. And, in my mind, the ideal candidate for the job is Big Ron Atkinson. He’s the king of the football catchphrase and he’s currently ‘in between jobs’. Big Ron is the man who can make English nicknames great again – just as long as he doesn’t call anyone a ‘fucking lazy thick nigger’ that is.