Once upon a time, a South African footballer’s full name was as useless to a football fanatic as the G in lasagne because they went by their nicknames. It was almost unheard of to see the whole team being called by their full names, even by journalists, television and radio commentators.
These nicknames resulted from these players endearing themselves into the hearts of the supporters, journalists and commentators alike, through their consistent and eye-catching displays. Sometimes players didn’t even know their own nicknames because they were never consulted before being ‘christened’. You pretty much got what you deserved. The nickname would stick so much that it became more popular than the player’s real name. Whether you liked the nickname or not, you had no choice but to accept and embrace it. Knowing where it was coming from, you’d embrace it and feel good about yourself. Think of a player like former Bafana Bafana and Kaizer Chiefs captain, Neil Tovey. At face value, the legendary Mokoko didn’t look anything like the typical Chiefs player that he would turn out to be. He has admitted that much even in his biography. He had to earn the supporters’ trust and belief by delivering consistently on the field of play. His ability to screen and protect the back four earned him the nickname “Mokoko” as he was likened to a hen protecting its children with the way he protected the team’s back four and dictated terms in Amakhosi’s midfield.
Chiefs, at the time, were a team that comprised of skilful and flashy players. Not every Tom, Dick and Harry could wear that famous Black and Gold jersey. It was only a select few. Some players were great in their own right, at their respective teams, but were still not considered good enough for Amakhosi. That’s because playing for that team came with huge pressure and responsibility to the millions of their supporters. The 57-year-old South African Football Association’s Technical Director knows too well about the importance of earning the supporters’ trust, belief and respect as he once found himself in an unfamiliar territory despite having proved his worth at previous clubs. The nickname didn’t just come from the nice sound of your name, it was more like the supporters giving you a thumbs-up, a sign of approval. What happened to that? Have the supporters stopped caring about giving players nicknames? Have they become less creative in making these nicknames up? Are most of the current players not worthy of being nicknamed? Have nicknames in football reached their sell-by date? These are just some of the questions that come to mind trying to figure out why and how we got to this point. I’m talking about original nicknames, not the regurgitated ones passed from one generation to the next.
Not all South African footballers will be known as "Teenage", "Jomo", "Chippa" or "Ace", but we still find these nicknames among the favourites given to some of the current favourite players. What does that say about the current crop? Are the supporters trying to ‘flog a dead horse’ by using the previous generations’ nicknames to awaken something in the current crop? If you don’t understand the importance of a nickname in a football match, then you don’t really know love. Being called by a nickname means a lot more than your real name because it means someone recognises something you’re doing. Unfortunately, you can’t have a nice nickname without regular great performances. They go hand-in-hand. If you don’t deliver, then you run the risk of being given a nickname that will not make you or anyone in your family proud. A strong personality or presence on the field goes a long way in securing a nickname. A case in point is the earlier example of the former Chiefs and Bafana captain who had to ‘force’ himself into an unfamiliar territory where the colour of his skin was enough to put him at a disadvantage. He didn’t have Doctor Khumalo’s flair, nor did he have Fani Madida’s pace, so he had to work double as hard to please the supporters who had their own mental idea of the kind of players who were worthy of wearing their favourite team’s colours. At the same time, he had to win the trust of his coach and equally so his teammates. You can’t do that without a strong personality and keeping it simple will always work in your favour.
The love with which friends express in calling each other by nicknames is a sign of the relationship that exists between them. If we are to use that logic, the lack of nicknames for most of the current players would simply mean there’s a gap that exists between them and their supporters. That could be because the supporters have stopped caring as they don’t feel their efforts are being reciprocated. No one can say most players don’t care about nicknames and no one can safely say the supporters don’t care anymore because they still go to the stadium. However, where is the disconnect? Why are so many of our players without nicknames?