Hair affords soccer players the opportunity to express themselves. It lets them transcend the anonymizing effects of their uniforms. When you watch Euro 2016, you will marvel at the amount of time and the quantity of product required to hold Stephan El Shaarawy’s Super Saiyan–esque blowout in place; you will dip your chin against your chest in a reflexive sign of respect for the swag-drenched, bleach-outlined “POGBOOM” razor script adorning Paul Pogba’s head; and you will understand the unhappiness that caused Wayne Rooney to get hair plugs.
This is natural. Hair has history. The Venus of Willendorf statuette, one of the oldest depictions of the human form, has looping details covering its head, which suggest hairstyling or perhaps some kind of rad headdress made of seashells. Hair replenishes itself, making it a natural metaphor for rebirth and renewal. There have been entire musicals written about hair and several operas written about barbers. That our deep instinct for adornment carries over to sports should not be a surprise.
The meaning of a hairstyle changes over time. In 2001, Allen Iverson’s braids scared the shit out of your parents and got David Stern interested in conservative menswear. In 2016, Kawhi Leonard’s braids say: “I have no personality. I drive a 20-year-old car. Eye contact makes me uncomfortable. Please talk to Tim Duncan.”
This is a new era, though. The proliferation of high-definition cameras and social media means an athlete’s image can circle the globe in pin-sharp definition in the blink of an eye. Such conditions would cause even the most humble apostle to discover the vanity lurking within.
For soccer players, though, looking fly is more than just peacocking; it’s a rational economic response. In a 2012 paper titled “Talent and/or Popularity: What Does It Take to Be a Superstar?,” economists Egon Franck and Stephan Nüesch found “clear evidence that both a player’s talent and his nonperformance-related popularity increase his market value.”
Soccer — unlike basketball, the world’s other great helmetless sport — does not produce reams of raw statistical data that might be printed on the back of a Wheaties box and quoted easily in casual company. The aforementioned Pogba is one of the most dynamic young players in the world, but he averaged about 0.24 goals and 0.36 assists per game this season in Serie A. Seen through the lens of Franck and Nüesch, though, Pogba’s variously wild haircuts can be thought of as a hedge in the market against a paucity of easily ingestible stats. The guy simply looks like a superstar. To paraphrase a popular saying: Get your hair cut for the job you want, not the job you have. Pogba is one of the most sought-after young players in the world; it’s working.
Perhaps you’re thinking, “Nice use of Google Scholar, but isn’t this really just an excuse to bust on dudes’ haircuts?” Of course it is. I consulted with barbers Eli and Mike from New York’s On the Mark Barber Shop (along with my friend Myles) to bring you the Euro 2016 Barbershop Awards.