Every four years, the FIFA World Cup brings together more than 700 players from 32 countries as the centerpiece of a frenzied global block party. While its participants share the same goal, they’re also differentiated by unique backstories that go beyond matters of race, culture, and language. Here are a few interesting tidbits about some of the stars set to shine this summer in Brazil:
Fernando Torres Has His Name Tattooed in a Fantasy Language
Like many of his national teammates, Spanish striker Fernando Torres possesses a mix of athletic abilities and fashion sense that makes him seem like the epitome of cool. So who knew that "El Niño" was also a big fantasy nerd? That's what the public realized upon the discovery that the tattoo of strange symbols on his left forearm actually spells out Fernando in Tengwar, a language invented by J.R.R. Tolkien. Tengwar figures prominently in the Lord of the Rings universe; casual fans would recognize it from the inscription on Frodo's evil ring. One goal to rule them all, one goal to find them...
Cristiano Ronaldo Once Had a Dangerous Heart Condition
Arguably the best soccer player in the world, Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo is known for his amazing goal-scoring abilities and movie-star looks that recently landed him on the cover of Vogue in his birthday suit. However, his decorated career nearly ended before it took off due to a condition called tachycardia, or "racing heart." Stymied by alarming symptoms that included an elevated resting heart rate, the up-and-coming star underwent a delicate laser procedure to fix the problem at age 15. He was back on the practice field within days, able to resume a career that would eventually inspire an equal mix of admiration and jealousy from couch potatoes everywhere.
Manuel Neuer Voices a Character in an Animated Film
It's common to see a professional athlete portray himself in a cameo TV or movie appearance, but goalkeeper Manuel Neuer covered new ground with his voicework for "Frightening" Frank McCay in the German-dubbed version of Pixar's Monsters University. Originally voiced by The Office's Jon Krasinski, McCay is an octopus-like blue monster who specializes in scaring the bejesus out of people. And it seems Neuer took to the role a little too well; in a poll conducted by the British publication The Mirror, fans voted Neuer the "most-feared" penalty shootout goalie in the sport.
Lionel Messi Inspired an Entry in a Spanish Dictionary
Soccer writers often run out of superlatives when describing the skills of Lionel Messi, the Argentine who rose to superstardom with Spain’s FC Barcelona club. Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that the pint-sized striker inspired the creation of a new word by Spanish publishing house Santillana. A recent edition of the publisher’s dictionary included an entry for “inmessionante,” an adjective that translates to: 1) The perfect way to play football, an unlimited ability to self-improve; and 2) Describes the best player of all time. Keep in mind that Messi plays for his native country in the World Cup, so no word on Santillana's editorial plans if Argentina knocks Spain out of the tournament.
Rio Mavuba Has No Official Birth Country
Like the hero of Edward Everett Hale's 150-year-old short story, “The Man Without a Country,” the devastation of civil war rendered French midfielder Rio Mavuba a man without a country. The son of a former Zaire national team star, Mavuba was born on a ship off the coast of West Africa in 1984 as his family sought to escape the conflict in Angola. They found refuge in France, with Mavuba becoming an acclaimed club soccer pro before eventually earning citizenship in 2004. However, his passport offers a reminder of his troubled roots by listing no birth country, only the mysterious "born at sea."
Neymar Was the First Brazilian Athlete to Appear on TIME
The gifted Neymar da Silva Santos Júnior, simply known as Neymar, became the first Brazilian athlete to grace the cover of the long-running magazine when his face accompanied the headline "The Next Pelé" on the March 4, 2013, issue. This was unusual considering the lengthy list of soccer stars that came from this South American country, such as ... well, Pelé. There was also Garrincha, Zico, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, Kaká, Romário and Roberto Carlos (yes, some of them have two names!), to name a few. So what makes the latest Brazilian soccer sensation cover-boy material? Maybe it was just fortuitous timing. Or maybe it's the hair.
Wayne Rooney’s Favorite Movie Is Grease
With his temperamental behavior on the pitch and made-for-the-tabloids personal life, England striker Wayne Rooney has developed a reputation as one of soccer's bad boys. So surely his favorite movie is something gritty like Pulp Fiction, or maybe a classic shoot-'em-up like Scarface, right? Nope. In a 2011 interview with Sky Sports, the Manchester United star confessed to being hopelessly devoted to Grease, while also giving props to Dreamgirls and Hairspray. So there you have it—this swaggering tough guy has a soft spot for dance numbers and tender ballads. Danny Zuko himself would be proud.