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Cristiano Ronaldo in May 2018 with bleached tips.
Photo: Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

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How Soccer Players’ Hair Became So Influential

Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba are the heads to watch during the 2018 World Cup.

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Paul Ullrich, a 33-year-old assistant registrar from South Bend, Indiana, doesn’t think about hairstyles very often, but he has twice brought pictures of professional soccer players into his local salon as inspiration for cuts.

One of the pictures was of David De Gea, a goalkeeper from Spain. De Gea’s hair is short and tight on the sides, longer and slicked back with a generous dollop of product on top. He’s been accessorizing it lately with a beard and a scowl. “It was a pretty clean look but also felt like it added an imposing nature, which I felt could be helpful in goal,” says Ullrich, who plays goalie in an indoor soccer league. He lived in England for several years as a child and developed a lifelong love for the sport.

Olivier Giroud in May 2018.
Photo: Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images
David De Gea in August 2017.
Photo: Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Ullrich’s second soccer haircut inspiration came from French player and confirmed dreamboat Olivier Giroud. Lately, Giroud is also wearing his hair in a buzz cut on the sides and a tasteful flop to one side on the top, with a dense beard. Ullrich wanted Giroud’s cut — sans beard — at the time because “his hairstyle was clean, looked professional enough for my work, and frankly, because he was regularly identified as attractive, hot, gorgeous, etc. by female fans of soccer, and probably anyone who saw him.” Ullrich had the style for about two years, though he isn’t wearing any soccer-inspired haircuts now “due to the preferences of my fiancée.”

As the World Cup gets underway in Russia, all eyes will be on the players for the next month; fans will be admiring their grace, gaping at their athleticism, and, yes, coveting their hair. We will be presented with 32 teams’ worth of hairstyles that may eventually show up on the heads of everyday guys, possibly to their significant others’ dismay. Soccer hair — and dissecting it publicly — is now as much of a beloved tradition in the sport as screaming, “GOAAAAAL,” in whatever language you speak.

Why is soccer hair a phenomenon?

Male athletes don’t generally get a lot of attention for their hair, unless people mock it or are dissecting how long it is. And let’s not even get into hockey mullets. Generally, when conversations happen around hair, it’s usually about a player standing out in some way. But soccer is different. First, and most crucially, players do not wear hats or helmets. Their hair is on display for a full 90 minutes.

Then, of course, there’s the fact that it’s a sport played around the world in pretty much every country, so no matter what a fan’s hair texture, there is likely someone playing the game whose head they can relate or aspire to. Because of the sheer diversity of humanity, the game’s popularity and ubiquity, and the ability to showcase their heads, soccer players, more than any other athletes in the world, are well positioned to be influential to fans.

Lionel Messi and Neymar in September 2016, with bleached tops.
Photo: David Ramos/Getty Images

Because the players all look the same in their (mostly red) jerseys, hair is a way to stand out. “Players have decreasing opportunities for flamboyance and self-expression when they’re doing their job, so hair is a great way for them to exert a little creativity,” explains Simon Doonan, the creative ambassador at Barneys, a lifelong soccer fan, and the author of the just-released book Soccer Style: The Magic and Madness. “Why not? You’re young, you’re making plenty of money — why wouldn’t you have a crazy haircut?”

If a player thinks he looks good, he’s likely to feel more confident in his play on the field too. Dennis Mero, a hairstylist in Orlando, counts several professional athletes as clients, including the soccer player Dom Dwyer, who plays on the Orlando City team and the US men’s national team. “Looking good makes them feel good, and they’re then going to play well,” he says.

Finally, let’s not discount the effect of knowing you’re going to end up on millions of screens every day for a month, both on and off the field; vanity is a strong motivator, according to Nikky Okyere, a London barber. He counts as clients Christian Benteke, Bakary Sako, and Timothy Fosu-Mensah (who all played on the London Crystal Palace team and are not going to the World Cup), plus multiple players on the Nigerian and Senegalese teams. A cut he gave to Sako, featuring a fade with twists on top, was his most requested after he posted it on social media last year.

William Troost-Ekong practices with the Nigerian team in Russia in June 2018.
Photo: Pius Utomi Ekpei/Getty Images

“Every man is very particular about their hairline, not only footballers. Everybody wants to keep their image up because image is very important,” Okyere says. “And [footballers] know they’re going to be on camera, so they want to look good.” He also brings up the point that if you’re wearing $2,000 worth of designer fashion after the game, as many of these guys do, the quality of your cut better match up.

In a BBC video featuring Okyere, one of his pro soccer clients says earnestly, “Barbers are so important!” Okyere says he is planning to travel to Russia for week two of the World Cup, to freshen up cuts.

Soccer hair has meaning, okay?

Hair is almost never just superficial, a thing Ullrich consciously picked up on when choosing De Gea’s “imposing” goalie cut. Doonan points to Sweden’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whose slick, middle-parted man bun is a signature for the player, who just released his own grooming line. “His hair speaks volumes about the way he approaches the game, with a sort of ninja warrior attitude,” Doonan says.

Brazil’s Ronaldo infamously showed up to the 2002 World Cup with his whole head shaved except for a small triangle in the front. He revealed recently that he did it because he'd had an injury and he wanted people to focus on his bizarre hair and not his bad leg. And yes, kids copied it at the time, including current Brazilian player Roberto Firmino.

Some players use their hair as literal symbolism, like France’s Paul Pogba. He’s known for his frequent hairstyle and color changes. He’s had flames, stripes, and stars, all in a rainbow of colors. In April, he dyed it blue in honor of playing a match on the French national team (nicknamed “Les Bleus”) but was then mocked for leaving it blue when his Manchester United team played a rival whose jersey color was … blue. Going into the World Cup, his hair is cropped short, a natural color, and features some subtle carving on one side. Perhaps a message that he’s taking it all seriously?

Paul Pogba in March 2018.
Photo: C. Steenkeste/Getty Images
Paul Pogba in June 2018.
Photo: NurPhoto/Getty Images

Hair can definitely project a certain gravity. Robin Yee, a 31-year-old data analyst from Chicago who also does not follow hair or fashion trends and once chopped his hair to look like Germany’s Marco Reus, says Lionel Messi’s hair evolution projects personal growth as he became his team’s leader. “He started off with long hair and now he’s pretty groomed. It signifies maturity in a sense,” Yee says of the Argentinian.

Facial hair can function in the same way. Okyere says that he has young players who are purposely trying to look older. He tells a story about a Nigerian player whose mother had been hounding him to cut off his beard, but he didn’t want to shave because he thought he looked too young without facial hair. (Hipster beards, also a big soccer trend, are a discussion for another time, however.) The player ultimately defied his mom and kept the beard.

The David Beckham effect

The player named overwhelmingly as the original soccer hair influencer by people consulted for this story is, not surprisingly, David Beckham. The man has had multitudes of hairstyles, including mohawks, mullets, and man buns. (He’s also had a few missteps, like wearing cornrows to meet Nelson Mandela in 2003.)

Jillian Halouska, a celebrity hairstylist and groomer who has styled Jared Leto, John Mayer, Nick Offerman, and Paul Bettany, says Beckham is a frequent request of both the famous and non-famous. “He just has such good style that it’s an easy reference for most men,” she says.

David Beckham in January 2018.
Photo: Bertrand Rindoff Petroff/Getty Images
David Beckham in 2002.
Photo: John Peters/Getty Images

In its 2015 oral history of Beckham’s hair, GQ even credits the player with making soccer in the UK cool again in the 1990s, basically because of the dazzling force of his hair. Doonan agrees. “David Beckham is the patron saint of soccer style. It’s absolutely impossible to express the vastness of his influence, starting with little kids back in the ’90s running into the local barbershop clutching a picture of his latest haircut right away,” he says. While a lot of the world’s players had been famous for their expressive hair (see: Colombia’s Carlos Valderrama and his bleached coils in the ’80s and early ’90s), Beckham loosened up the American and English audience.

Those ’90s kids are grown up now and still asking for the Beckham, which is a bit of a nebulous request these days. He, too, has matured and rarely sports a cut that is too showy or outrageous. But Beckham’s now become a style touchstone, an amalgam of bleach and undercuts and faux-hawks all tossed together — a living totem of the Platonic soccer hair ideal, at least for white men or those with straighter hair textures.

Individuality is important, but a lot of soccer cuts do look awfully similar

This year, there will be as many dramatic flops on players’ heads as on the pitch. While there are still many cultural divides in this world, there are two haircuts out there that work on practically every hair texture, giving a sense of human commonality to the proceedings. Expect to see them everywhere on the field.

Belgium’s Toby Alderweireld, wearing a fadey undercut.
Photo: Peter Lous/Getty Images

These cuts are the fade and its lazier yet more dramatic sibling, the undercut. There’s a blurry line — sometimes literally — between them: The fade, as its name suggests, is a gradient cut that gives the impression of going from lighter to darker from the ears to the top of the head, where there is usually more volume. Doonan charmingly calls this cut “the cockatiel.” An undercut is usually uniformly shaved on the bottom and has an obvious line that separates it from whatever is happening on top. The fade is a more technical cut that requires a lot of experience to execute correctly, according to both Mero and Halouska. (Please see basketball player Kevin Love to experience what happens when a fade goes bad.)

The top is where the individuality happens in both cuts. Twists, bleaching, pompadours, rampant hair product abuse — the possibilities are endless. Mero even has a female soccer player client, Ashlyn Harris, who has the cut. He calls it “unisexy.”

Neither version of the cut is new. Newspapers of record have been documenting modern versions of the cuts since the early 2010s, when it gained the name “the Hitler youth” cut, as sported by white men. The fade and undercut have roots dating back to Victorian England; apparently the cut made it easier for men to wear hats. And yes, undercuts were also adopted by Hitler and the Nazi army.

The cuts became more close-cropped in later years; the military called it a “high-and-tight.” Black barbers then elevated the undercut and fade to an art form in the ’80s and ’90s, when it became a common style in hip-hop, and it still is. But it looks like high, flat-top fades (think Kid ’n Play) have died out.

Another technique you’ll see a lot on the pitch are super-sharp geometric edges and lines razored in. Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, who is arguably next in line for David Beckham’s hair crown, currently has an “edged” part. A part is made and then razored to appear more prominent, according to Mero. Okyere is known for precision cutting and very straight lines in his barbering. It’s a look that requires upkeep, and that means a fresh cut every week or two for his players. “Nobody wants their hairline to be wonky,” he asserts.

Christiano Ronaldo with an edged-in part.
Photo: Francisco Leong/Getty Images

Whose cuts will you start seeing in your neighborhood?

Cristiano Ronaldo and Paul Pogba are definitely heads to watch, if only because they can be delightfully unpredictable with their cuts. “We’ll be talking about whatever boy-band look Ronaldo wants to do this year,” says Ullrich. Yee says that Ronaldo has “defined what masculinity can be worldwide.”

Okyere says a cut that Pogba, who is not a client, wore last year, featuring a fade, bleached top and a line razored in, was one of his top requests from everyday men. Doonan thinks the Brazilians are a team to watch, saying they “always deliver in the style department.”

You also can’t ignore the players who have signature styles but don’t traffic much in trendiness: the glorious natural curls of Mohamed Salah, Marouane Fellaini, and David Luiz; the floppiness of Luka Modric; the man bun of Gareth Bale.

One certainty is that soccer hair will remain influential, because while you can’t buy talent, you can buy a haircut. As one of the hairstylists in the Beckham oral hair history said: “I’m sure there are many straight men who were having bromances in their heads with him before they’d even invented bromances, and his hair is one of the things they could mimic.” This still holds true now.

Doonan writes in his book: “Footie players are nothing if not influential. Legions of young supporters think nothing of chopping and changing and bleaching their locks in a frenzied attempt to keep pace with the changing styles of their idols.”

The whole thing has a purity and earnestness to it that adds to the universal narrative of soccer as the world’s favorite game.

“It’s very fun. If a player feels that his hair looks on point, he plays better, he feels better,” says Doonan. “Obviously if a hairdo goes horribly wrong then it could have the reverse effect, but in most instances, vanity for sportsmen is a very life-affirming thing.”


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