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The Deep Meaning of the World Cup's Flashy Hairstyles

Soccer players have long groomed themselves to look unusual. Why?

In this, our first truly social World Cup, certain images have branded themselves on the nation's consciousness with a viral indelibility: the facepalming trophy, the unfortunately pointed teeth of Luis Suarez, and—most unpredictably—the glorious, airborne dreadlocks of U.S. midfielder Kyle Beckerman as he belts across the pitch like a 21st-century Merovingian warrior. Whatever the USMNT does on Tuesday, Beckerman will return home from Brazil with legions of new fans, not entirely thanks to his skills on the field (the second search result for his name on Google right now after "kyle beckerman hair" is "kyle beckerman wife").

This is all despite the fact that the word that most frequently seems to accompany Beckerman’s name in social-media mentions is "patchouli." The 32-year-old's hair—which he first started growing into dreads as a teenager—is arguably more talked about than his fearsome speed (he can reach upwards of 15 mph during a game), his successful passing rate (88.6 percent), and even his temerity when it comes to tackling (here's a nice gif of him elbowing Portugal's Raul Meireles in the face). And he isn't alone. Cristiano Ronaldo, for example, sported three separate, unique hairstyles for his three games this tournament, while Brazil's Neymar recently summoned a stylist to Brazil's training camp so that he could have his bangs bleached before facing off against Mexico.

Cristiano Ronaldo (Reuters)

With a tournament that brings a new generation of strutting, entitled peacocks every four years, it’s easy to get carried away on a wave of follicular curiosity/mirth, and to forget that the likes of Neymar and Bosnia’s Ermin Bicakcic (the higher the hair, the closer to goal?) are merely following in the footsteps of the genuinely bizarre hairstyles that dribbled before them. “I love people who are just discovering that footballers have stupid haircuts,” tweeted The London Times’ Matt Spence during the USA/Portugal game. In reality, it was ever thus, or at least it has been ever since ‘70s legend Kevin Keegan discovered the bubble perm.

Kevin Keegan (AP)

In a sport that depends entirely on teamwork (which is why Ann Coulter isn't a fan), hair has always enabled soccer players to establish their own unique identities as individuals, often with ridiculous results. For the UEFA European cup in 1996, troubled England midfielder Paul Gascoigne memorably bleached the top half of his head, leaving the bottom a mousy brown (it was emulated to varying wonky degrees of success by fans). Around the same time, Colombian midfielder Carlos Valderrama was a household name not so much for his mad skills as for a mop of extravagant orange ringlets that presumably made Richard Simmons jealous.

“For many players, their hairstyle is the only feature that can be altered to give them uniqueness and character,” says Dr. Vivian Diller, a psychologist who specializes in issues that relate to physical appearances. “They’re all wearing the same uniform, so it’s an opportunity to express themselves, and when they’re center stage, unusual styles can grab the attention of millions. Players in other sports take opportunities to brand themselves with piercings and tattoos, but soccer is all about feet and heads, since that’s all that can touch the ball.”

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Sophie Gilbert is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees The Atlantic Weekly. She was previously the arts editor at The Washingtonian.

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