What’s in a name? With football clubs it would seem to be straightforward. The town or city will be first, and then there may be an identifier pointing to some kind of historical event. If two clubs merged the new one may be a ‘United’. If the club moved around and played at a number of different grounds in their early years they could be a ‘Wanderers’. If the people who formed the club were just plain unimaginative they may be a ‘City’. Club names are all-important but are usually pretty functional, at least in England.
In other parts of the world there are clubs with fantastical names; for example Bearfight FC in the US, Prague Raptors in the Czech Republic, or Mighty Oak in Ghana. These types of names are routinely patronised and looked at as ridiculous by ‘traditional’ English football fans who conveniently forget that Arsenal, Aston Villa and Nottingham Forest could be seen as equally ludicrous names. But it is South America that is home to some of the most inventive, surprising, and downright mysterious club names in the world.
Due to the footballing missionary work and Brits travelling the world looking for work, there are familiar references in club names, kits and badges across the globe – and South America is no different. No doubt there are fans on Merseyside who have taken at least a passing interest in how their club’s namesakes – Everton and Liverpool – have fared in the Chilean and Uruguayan leagues. It’s not just English clubs names that have inspired the founders of South American sides though. Barcelona SC are the most successful football club in Ecuador and are regular Copa Libertadores qualifiers.
But it is when club founders have stepped away from borrowing heavily from Europe that South American names become more interesting. A cursory glance at the Bolivian Primera Division throws up the wonderfully titled The Strongest from La Paz and the headline writers dream – Blooming, who are the fifth most successful club in the country. Santa Cruz’s Destroyers seem to have more fearsome name than their results suggest though and Sport Boys just seem like they haven’t bothered to put much thought into their name, although they do have an excellent claim to fame in that current Bolivian President Evo Morales signed a contract with them in 2010 and became the oldest active professional football player in the world.
One aspect of South American football that highlights the close correlation with politics – no matter what Sepp Blatter might want to say – is clubs named after famous dates in their country’s history. Due to instability on the continent caused largely by European powers claiming large swathes of this area of the world, revolutions, uprisings and battles for independence have been familiar reactions to corruption, imperialism and fascism. But on the flip side, there have been some astoundingly good names given to professional football clubs. Club Atlético 9 de Julio is named after the Argentinian day of independence for example. Paraguayan side Club Atlético 3 de Febrero is not quite as revolutionary as it sounds, however, as they are simply named after St Blas Day – a national holiday.
An interesting inspiration for South American football club names are historical figures. This is not something that is very common in northern Europe but seems to have taken hold in a big way in Latin and Hispanic countries.
A famous name from the Brazilian leagues is Vasco da Gama, one of Rio de Janeiro’s biggest clubs. They are named after the famous Portuguese explorer who sailed around the world in the 15th and 16th centuries generally acting like imperialist explorers did in those days. The football club was actually formed as part of an existing rowing club and that explains why not only were they inspired to be named after such a man but also include an impressive ship on their badge. Vasco da Gama – the football arm of the club – were actually one of the first sides to field a racially diverse team which led to other Rio-based clubs attempting to get them kicked out of the league.
Vasco da Gama’s fight for inclusion when it comes to football may not have gone down well with their namesake though, who – along with exploring the seven seas – was known for inflicting great cruelty on other traders and the unfortunate local inhabitants of the ports he ‘explored’. One story tells of Da Gama accusing a local priest of being a spy and in punishment ordering the holy man’s lips and ears to be cut off and – after sewing a pair of dog’s ears to his head – sending him on his way. Perhaps we can just be happy that they went with the boat as a badge and not a dog-eared vicar.
Not all South American clubs named after famous names in history are associated with such barbarism, however. Due to Spanish colonisation, South America has gone through many battles of independence and, naturally, some of the football clubs have wanted to celebrate that fact. Club Bolivar immediately springs to mind, named after Simón Bolívar who liberated modern-day Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Panama.
Far more intriguingly named is the O’Higgins Fútbol Club from Chile who was founded in 1955 and took their wonderful title from the equally wonderfully named Bernardo O’Higgins, the illegitimate son of Ambrosio O’Higgins who led the way in the Chilean War of Independence. Seen as the country’s founding father, O’Higgins is an excellent name for a football club and – taking in the obvious Irish connections – it seems fitting that their big rivalry is with a side called Rangers.
Naval and military leaders are popular in South America; with Admiral William Brown lending his name to Argentine side Almirante Brown. Seen as the father of the Argentinian navy, he – like Bernardo O’Higgins – was also born in Ireland and it is strange to think that all over South America there are football fans wearing shirts bearing the names of these historical figures and pledging their undying love and support to the clubs named after them.
While we’re on the subject of military leaders lending their names to football clubs we cannot forget fellow Argentine side Club Atlético Douglas Haig. The Field Marshal was a senior commander of the British army in World War One and is regularly referred to as ‘the Butcher of the Somme’. This seems like a person that would not immediately be thought of when founding a football club but the story goes that a group of British railroad workers in Buenos Aires decided that they wanted to form a team to play in a local league. The chief of the railway at the time was one Ronald Leslie who had to give his blessing to such an enterprise and would only do so if they named it after the military leader. The fact that the Allied forces had just claimed victory in Europe goes a long way to explaining Mr Leslie’s curious deal breaker.
Moving away from military muscle and heinous imperialist practices, aviation pioneers have also made their mark on the football culture of South America. Both Bolivia’s Club Deportivo Jorge Wilstermann and Paraguay’s Club Silvio Pettirossi take their names from famous pilots of the early 20th century. Wilstermann was the first Bolivian commercial pilot and a well-loved man whose untimely death inspired the players of a Cochabamba club to change their name in his honour. Silvio Petrossi actually has three football clubs named after him, as well as a brigade in the Paraguayan air force, an air force base, a street in Asunción, the Paraguayan Institute of Aviation History, a school, and various other esteemed institutions.
Obscure and fantastically named football clubs will always intrigue the curious and it always seems somewhat of a cheap laugh to ridicule international sides purely on their titles. Football traditionalists may think that these clubs sound strange but they all have their own history and culture and that should be applauded and celebrated. That is the main reason why I have made it this far before mentioning Deportivo Wanka of Peru. A cult favourite for obvious reasons, their name actually celebrates the Wankas people of the Huancayo region – but a stifled laugh seems understandable in this case.
By Dan Roberts for the SOUTH AMERICA series