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Friday, April 9, 2010
Updated: April 11, 10:35 AM ET
Highlights of a different kind

By Roger Bennett & David Hirshey
Special to

Lionel Messi has been rightfully lauded as one of the greatest players ever to take the field in the wake of his four-goal deconstruction of a discombobulated Arsenal. One of the more remarkable but rarely discussed aspects of his game is his achievement of this feat without ever developing a signature haircut. Each one of his favored styles, be it limp and long, an impish bob, or his current journey deep into mullet territory, look as if he has sheepishly emerged from a local Supercuts.

Messi's superior abilities allow him to get away with this. His peers are not so lucky. Merely mortal and less skill-kissed, they have just more than 60 days to finalize their World Cup looks. The styles they commit to can either be very good or very, very bad. It matters not as long as they stand out. The World Cup is many things: A sporting spectacle, multinational marketing frenzy and political signifier in equal measure. But it is also the largest talent showcase in the soccer world and one in which almost every player can audition. The key is to grab the spotlight and be noticed. All it takes is one stabbing run or gravity-defying goal. Failing that, a distinctive haircut may do just as well. In this era of lucrative image rights, many players have cottoned on to the fact a hairdresser with a courageous imagination (or failing that, a sense of humor) can be more useful than a crack fitness coach in the run-up to kickoff.

David Beckham is the pathfinder in this regard. He has braided it, shaved it, dyed it, layered it, blown it out, fauxhawked it -- pretty much everything but bent it -- aware that his shape-shifting extreme makeovers are sufficient to throw the world's media off the stench of his declining skills.

It should be noted, not everyone appreciates this kind of unfettered creativity. Nigerian government minister Otunba Olusegun Runsewe lambasted his country's top stars, including then-captain Jay-Jay Okocha and lanky striker Nwankwo Kanu, on national television in 2004: "Our youths are now taking after our great football stars ... don't forget that in the developing world that the braiding of hair and earrings have a sense of homosexuality." His criticism fell on deaf ears. Which is just as well. If it had not, we would have been unable to celebrate the innovative spirit of the gentlemen below who leveraged their unique manes to enter the pantheon of World Cup legends.

Does this look like one of England's greatest players ever?

Hair Club Poster Boy
Bobby Charlton, England, 1962, 1966, 1970

This England legend would not go gently into the bald night. Long deluded about his hair loss, he preferred to sport a comb over which slapped against his forehead like a piece of flapping skin as he charged box to box.

Paul Breitner
That's Breitner on the left and Kevin Keegan on the right, undoubtedly discussing hair products.

Der Afro
Paul Breitner, West Germany, 1974, 1982

Breitner's free-living 'do was a tangible manifestation of his radical political outlook and "attack from the back" style that set him apart from the rest of his more conservative teammates on the 1974 World Cup-winning team. While legendary captain Franz Beckenbauer was known as "Der Kaiser," Breitner was "Der Afro."

Graeme Souness
It's a shame the mustache has largely disappeared from the World Cup.

Aloha Magnum
Graeme Souness, Scotland, 1978, 1982, 1986

Nowadays, this look screams Smooth Jazz DJ. Back in the '80s, it signaled tough-tackling midfielder by day, sex symbol by night. Adoring fans of his club side, Liverpool, used to refer affectionately to Souness' signature moustache as his "womb broom."

Well Conditioned
Rudi Voeller, Germany, 1986, 1990, 1994, 2002 (as coach)

Rudi Voller
Perms, short-shorts and plaid plants. Thank god the '80s are long gone.

Proud owner of a perm so brittle that when Dutch star Frank Rijkaard saw fit to spit in the German's hairdo in 1990, his deposit failed to break the surface, sitting limply on top of the curls like a telephone wire wilting between two poles.

Leonel Alvarez
The hair was a good distraction while juking defenders.

On The Good Ship Lollipop
Leonel Alvarez, Colombia, 1990, 1994

Playing in front of eccentric permed goalkeeper Rene Higuita, Alvarez contributed to one of the hairiest defenses in World Cup history. Physical and tough, his aggressive play was belied by his soft, sweet curls. He racked up the MLS single-season record for yellow cards received sporting this haircut more fitting of Shirley Temple.

Joe Dirt
Roberto Baggio, Italy, 1990, 1994, 1998

Roberto Baggio
Who can forget Baggio's ponytail from 1994? Or his failed shootout PK, which gave the title to Brazil?

Known as the Divine Ponytail, Baggio was always a contradiction: an Italian Buddhist, a brilliant striking talent on a team obsessed with defense and a serene presence on a physical squad. An Italian pop song written in homage to his inimitable style contained the line, "When you watch Baggio play, you hear children," which was fitting as his rattails are more commonly seen on a kindergarten playground.

Let There Be Light
Carlos Valderrama, Colombia, 1990, 1994, 1998

What can you say other than, "That's a lot of hair."

If Helios, the Greek god of the sun, played soccer, he would look like Valderrama with his golden mane: resplendent, brazen and singular.

Trifon Ivanov
Bulgarian soccer player or early '90s Canadian hockey player?

Trifon Ivanov, Bulgaria, 1994, 1998

The defender was an intimidating presence when the World Cup came to the United States and his Bulgarian team claimed fourth place in 1994. Soccer lovers awarded him the nickname "The Bulgarian Wolf." Most Americans preferred to call him "Tootsie."

Marshall Mathers
Romania, 1998

Romania World Cup
Don't knock the power of team unity: Romania won its group in 1998.

The 1990s was a decade in which a bottle of bleach was many a footballer's best friend. English stars Beckham, Robbie Fowler and David James all employed one to varying degrees of success. The apogee of the style was Romania's 1998 squad, which dyed their hair en masse to take the field resembling a team of real Slim Shadys.

Worst ever? Hard to disagree.

Pythagoras In Cleats
Ronaldo, Brazil, 1998, 2002, 2006

This 2002 triangular hairstyle was voted the worst cut of all time by English tabloid The Sun, an award that no doubt takes pride of place on the Brazilian's mantelpiece alongside the World Cup winners medal he also earned that year.

A true innovator.

Taribo West, Nigeria, 1998, 2002

Too many style lists hate on Taribo and his double sets of dreds. The Internet is awash with theorists decoding what he wound into his hair, be it "bits of My Little Pony" or "pipe cleaners." Taribo was one of the game's characters, known by his teammates as the "Pastor" for his dedication to the church. Simply put, if he had a basic short back and sides, we would not still be talking about him.

Punk's Not Dead
Jan Polak, Czech Republic, 2006

A back view best shows off Jan Polak's, umm, unique style.

Handled with care, the Skunk and the Mohawk are soccer haircuts of distinction. Ignoring both tonsorial and medical advice, Czech midfielder Polak attempted to fuse the two elements and emerged resembling the victim of some self-inflicted science experiment.

Roger Bennett and David Hirshey are the co-authors of the forthcoming "ESPN World Cup Companion," your guide to everything you need to know to enjoy the 2010 World Cup.