The phonetic joy of saying soccer players’ names out loud

An inexhaustive look at the most delightful names in soccer.

Often, while watching soccer games, I find myself repeating out loud the names of certain players for no reason other than I find them delightful to say. Over the weekend, while watching a terrible game between Tottenham Spurs and Everton, I tweeted out some names that I particularly enjoy:

The fun of each name is different. Some, like Ndombele, seem to embody the player himself — powerful, yet smooth. Others, like Maximilian Arnold, are refined. The image it suggests is a man seated at a long table in his country estate as a servant whispers a message into his ear.

According to linguistic theory, “any particular linguistic sign — a sound, a mark on the page, a gesture – is arbitrary, and dictated solely by social convention.” In other words, the name Ndombele may only sound powerful and smooth because I know the player is, and Maximilian Arnold comes off as stately because the origin of his name combines two Roman generals, Maximus and Scipio Aemilianus. The way that names embody social conventions is part of what makes them enjoyable. They not only suggest attributes often removed from the reality of the players, but reveal the world through what we associate with different types of names.

For other names, the enjoyment is less about what they may represent and more about how playfully their sounds go together. The pleasure of saying Alderweireld is that the second half of it forces an almost slurring action, like elongating the word “world.”

Marco Reus feels fast, because the pronunciation of “Reus” is close to “Royce,” hence his nickname, “Rolls Reus.” The alliteration of Zinedine Zidane, the verve of the Zs and gentleness of Zinedine, makes it like it should always be written in cursive as a testament to how stylish it is. Keisuke Honda is as cool as the man. Ben Chilwell is actually cold. Hasan Salihamidzic demands a lot of work, but it’s satisfying because of that difficulty. Dries Mertens slides through the mouth, and you can say it without really parting your lips. Bastian Schweinsteiger also slides, but staggers at the end. Iker Casillas is classy and above the nonsense of us plebs. Gigi Buffon goes from endearing to a mispronounced insult.

Though it isn’t necessary, a hyphen always helps elevate the status of surnames to Maximilian Arnold levels, as in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Jeff Reine-Adélaïde, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, and Callum Hudson-Odoi.

Other regal names include: Alessandro Del Piero, who is an actual knight in accordance with such an esteemed name; Hidetoshi Nakata, who is presumably also knighted for that name; Esteban Cambiasso, who takes pride in being a self-made man; Delphine Cascarino, which could be the name of France’s Olympic logo; John Pierre Papin, which one has to say with a pinky raised; Magnus Rasmussen, who I’m sure is an oil-magnate; Benoît Assou-Ekotto, who should have been a philosopher; and Ubaldo Matildo Fillol, a name that would be fitting for one of the greatest writers in the South American canon.

An appointment is needed three weeks in advance to be in Jefferson Farfán’s company. Pier Luigi Querubino is spending his retirement from the art world in his house by the sea. Stelios Giannokopoulos died with Leonidas in the Battle of Thermopylae. Allan Saint-Maximin is an angel dressed in a Gucci robe. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is a professor of post-colonial philosophy. And Rafael van der Vaart is a humble renaissance man.

Esteban Cambiasso also slides into what I call the “Big B” names — names that are big, bold, and beautiful. They don’t necessarily have to start with a “B” but the “B” in the name adds stature and power. “Cam” is straightforward, but then “Biasso” has to be said with the chest puffed out. It demands force. Big B names are the grown man names.

Other Big B names include: Didier Drogba, which contrasts the endearing, almost childlike manner of “Didier” with the power and intimidating effect of “Drogba”; Gabriel Batistuta, who is only 6’1 but that’s the name of a giant; Brede Hangeland, who I knew was 6’6 by the name alone; Marco Van Basten, which also combines high-class refinement Big B force; Demba Ba, which should be a kiai shouted during a martial arts fight. The Dybala in Paulo Dybala sounds so big and diabolical that it’s hilarious to see it attached to someone so lovable and nice. At least Mario Balotelli lives up to the strength of his surname.

Then there are the names that are fun purely for their musicality: Claude Makélélé, Eric Djemba-Djemba, Siphiwe Tshabalala, Paolo Pasquale Peschisolido, Blaise Matuidi, Kalidou Koulibaly, Sokratis Papastathopoulos, Ali Al-Habsi, and Mitchy Batshuayi. Bixente Lizarazu slithers all over the place like a snake. Roberto Donadoni is the name of the summer fling during a trip to Italy in a new coming of age movie.

There are so many fun names in soccer, it’s impossible to be comprehensive about the different reasons why they are so enjoyable And though they do not have a direct impact on the field, they all enhance the idea of a player. You just don’t easily forget a Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink.

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