Meet the flea, the rabbit, the noodle, and the beast
Nicknames are part of every culture, especially in sports, but the world of Argentine soccer has takes it to new and hilarious extremes. They can be very particular and original and derive from physical appearances, personalities, or a player’s style.
Many of Argentina’s greatest players seem to have gotten their nicknames from wildlife. Let’s start with—who else?—Lionel “La Pulga” Messi. “La Pulga” (the flea) was given to him due to the growth deficiency he suffered as a child. His legs were so short that his feet wouldn’t touch the ground when he sat on the bench (a spot, granted, that he’s been unfamiliar with for the last decade or so).
Ariel Ortega, River Plate legend, talented dribbler, and infamously temperamental player was given the name “El Burrito” (the little donkey), the origin of which is unclear. Some say he inherited it from his father who was called “Burro,” while others think it’s because he has, um, certain attributes.
Javier Saviola, who once played for both FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, was given the name “El Conejo” (the rabbit) by another animal, Germán “El Mono” (the monkey) Burgos, a former teammate of Saviola’s who found him so fast that sometimes Burgos couldn’t see him coming.
Claudio Caniggia, who once played for both River Plate and Boca Juniors, became a hero when he scored in the round of 16 at the 1990 World Cup taking out our archrivals Brazil. His nickname was “El Pájaro” (the bird) because he ran so fast it appeared he was flying
Not all Argentine player’s nicknames come from the zoo, though. Of the current players, Gonzalo Higuaín is known as “Pipita,” after his father “Pipa” for his big nose; Ángel Di Maria is called “Fideo” (noodle) for his skinny physique; Maxi Rodríguez is “La Fiera” (the beast); and Sergio Romero is “Chiquito” (tiny) even though he isn’t so little anymore. (Think Tiny Archibald.)
Many believe that Javier Mascherano is the reason for team’s success at this World Cup. The Argentine sports newspaper Olé granted him the nickname “El Jefecito” (the little chief) after legendary River Plate man Leonardo Astrada who was “El Jefe.”
One player who has had a hard time staying on the pitch is Sergio Agüero. Known as “El Kun,” Agüero got his nickname from a mischievous Japanese cartoon character named “Kum Kum,” who Agüero enjoyed watching as a child. The current coach Alejandro Sabella is actually known in as “Pachorra” (lazy) for his slow demeanor.
Then there are past greats. Javier Zanetti’s Argentine nickname is “Pupi,” but his nicknames in Italy, a country where he is considered a role model and icon for all of his seasons at Inter Milan, are “El Tractor” (the tractor) and “Il Capitano” (the captain).
Gabriel Batistuta was “Batigol” for the slew of goals he scored in the Italy. (He is still the 11th top goalscorer in Serie A history.) “El Cholo” was given to Diego Simeone, now the coach of Atletico Madrid, as a young player because his tenacity reminded his youth coach of a former Boca Juniors player Carmelo “Cholo” Simeone (no relation).
When Mario Kempes, 1978’s World Cup Golden Boot winner, went to play for Valencia, the Spaniards called him “El Matador” for his ability to finish off his rivals. Jorge Valdano’s crossover from football into the cultural world made him “El Filosofo.” Alfredo Di Stéfano, one of the most impactful players of all time, got his nickname from his incredible speed and blonde locks.
The one and only Diego Maradona has been called many, many things over the decades: “Pelusa” (fluff), due to his long curly hair; “Barrilete Cósmico” (cosmic kite); “El Diez” (ten, for his number); “El Pibe de Oro” (the golden boy); and “Dios” (God). But if Leo Messi wins the World Cup, which will be Argentina’s first since 1986, he may well share that last one with his fellow number 10.