By Harold Olmos

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil - Brazilians seem to have trouble holding on to their official names. Sports stars, politicians and other celebrities in this vibrant, freewheeling country are mostly known by nicknames. Legal names become practically irrelevant.

Take Ronaldo de Assis Moreira and Carlos Alberto Libanio Christo. Both play important roles in Brazilian society, but few here would know them by those names.

Ask about Ronaldinho Gaucho, as Moreira is called, and eyes will light up. He's a soccer superstar who was named the world's best player for 2004 and pictures of his trademark bucktoothed smile are all over the sports pages.

Christo is better known as Frei Beto, a leftist Roman Catholic priest who has written dozens of books on subjects from theology to science to cooking and until recently was a top aide to President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Even today, not many people would associate Edson Arantes do Nascimento to the man whose nickname has become a universal symbol of Brazil - Pele.

For years as a labour leader, President Silva was known simply as "Lula" - Portuguese for squid. He was so widely known that way, in fact, that years ago he legally changed his formal name to incorporate Lula.

The president's name brings out another quirk Brazilians have with their names: There isn't much consistency.

After the president's election in 2002, Associated Press reporters asked his aides what he wanted to be called on second reference. They said: "Just Silva." Despite the president's preference, some foreign journalists decided to use "da Silva". The Brazilian press is able to avoid that question because it still uses Lula.

Brazilians don't call their leaders by common nicknames - there are no equivalents to Harry, Ike, Jack or Bill. And if a leader doesn't have an offbeat nickname, people refer to them by just a single name. Everyone knows Janio is former President Janio Quadros and Sarney is former President Jose Sarney.

Nicknames aren't reserved to celebrities. Calling Brazilians by pet names is a long-standing practice. Francisco usually becomes Chico (SHEE-coo), Raimundo becomes "Mundico" (Moon-DJEE-coo) or the even shorter "Dico" (DJI-coo), Edmar is "Edinho" (Ed-DJEEN-yoo) and Jose is "Ze" (zeh).

If father and son are both named Luiz, the older one becomes "Luizao" (Loo-ee-ZOWN), for big Luiz, while the younger is known as "Luizinho" (Loo-ee-ZEEN-yoo), for little Luiz.

Other nicknames are derived from the last syllables of a formal name. Celestina becomes "Tina", and Aparecida turns into "Cida". The popularity of Cida is one reason that Brazilians refer to Aids by the disease's English initials, rather than the acronym Sida that is common in Spanish and Portuguese.

Brazilians further muddle identities with widely varying spellings of names. They often write them using phonetics rather than with a standardised spelling.

Sometimes a single source isn't even consistent.

A restaurant in Rio's famous Ipenema neighborhood, for instance, uses different spellings in paying homage to the late Vinicius de Moraes, the poet and diplomat who is considered a "founding father" of bossa nova. Going by the napkins, tablecloths and T-shirts, it's a toss-up whether his surname is Moraes or Morais.

Eduardo Martins, an editor at O Estado de S Paulo, one of the country's most respected newspapers, recalls the time his paper tried to set uniform spellings for the names of performers in Brazil's popular television soap operas.

"We took the lists given by TV stations and began working. But soon we had to give up the task. The spelling of names changed every time. One day a list had Ivette, the next it had become Yvete. It was impossible," he says.

For a while this year, there were two ways of spelling the first name of the new Brazilian coach for the Spanish soccer club Real Madrid. Some had him as Wanderley Luxemburgo, others as Vanderlei Luxemburgo.

It was discovered that Luxemburgo had both spellings officially registered. After a legal inquiry, he settled on Vanderlei - a phonetic spelling according to the Portuguese language, which doesn't have "w" or "y".

"Since then we decided to call him the way he wanted: Vanderlei," Martins says. - Sapa-AP