RECIFE, Brazil -- The best hair in the World Cup does not belong to Neymar, the Brazilian demigod, who dyed his famous, japanime-worthy bangs blonde sometime between the Selecao's first and second games.
It does not belong to the cumulously afro'd Marouane Fellani, Belgium's gangly midfielder, whose late header against Algeria was, I presume, the most pillowy equalizer in soccer history.
It does not even belong to Olivier Giroud, the urbane French striker, whose brush-up -- business on the sides, Bushwick warehouse party on the top -- triggered a multi-pictorial thread on the message board of a website called menshairforum.com.
No, the superlative keratin of this tournament dangles before us in Recife, atop the skull of the unsung anchor of the American midfield, wondrously unshorn in almost a decade. From afar, you might notice, Kyle Beckerman's dreadlocks appropriately resemble the base of the mangrove tree of the Amazon Delta: a feral tangle of long, brown roots. But stand next to Beckerman -- as I did after Sunday's 2-2 draw with Portugal in sweltering Manaus -- and you might also notice that his follicular presence here subverts both art and science.
Every minute he will play against Germany, whipping his tendrils against the heavy air of this city, will be a meteorological rebellion mounted from the shuttered barbershop of Jah.
"And it doesn't smell, you know," Real Salt Lake assistant coach Andy Williams told me over the phone the other day. "If you can have dreads without making it smell, you're doing something right. ... Or else Kyle wouldn't have gotten married, trust me. No girl wants to be with that."
I had been talking to Williams, long-distance, for three reasons. First, he had played with a teenage Beckerman on the Miami Fusion, in the MLS, and now coaches him in Salt Lake City. Second, whereas the 32-year-old midfielder in question is an unshaven white dude from Crofton, Maryland, Williams is actually Jamaican and suited up for the Reggae Boyz from 1997 to 2009. And third, I, myself, hadn't shaved in two weeks. (A stray elbow led to my electric razor flying off a hotel counter and jettisoning its non-removable silver top, a death befitting the world's saddest Decepticon.) After so much sweating in press boxes throughout Brazil, I needed to know whether Beckerman's on-field workload in this climate was really the feat of strength and endurance it appeared.
"There's no chance that I could do it, and I don't know how he does it," Williams said. "It's a credit to Kyle. Sometimes I sit and wonder how he plays with that hair at such a high level. If mine grows a couple inches, it starts annoying the hell out of me."
Yes, as much as the pitch can double as a runway -- see another best-in-Cup contender, Portuguese underwear model Cristiano Ronaldo, who has now debuted three hairstyles in three games -- there is no question that the bond between one's mop and one's performance can be adversarial in nature. In the scorching summer of the 1994 World Cup, for instance, the Belgian national team resorted to dousing their coiffures in what was supposedly sun-reflecting hair gel in the desperate hopes of staying cool in the United States. "This gel keeps our heads fresh for a very long time," midfielder Franky Van der Elst explained to reporters. "We put it on before the game and again at halftime. It is not something that we would use in Europe."
It is worth noting here that the audience for one of Belgium's games that year -- against Saudi Arabia, in Washington, D.C. -- included a 12-year-old American boy and future midfielder who'd long been signing yearbooks as "KYLE BECKERMAN USA #15." And judging by this child's play for his own national team 20 years later -- in a city three degrees south of the equator -- it is safe to say that he emerged uninspired by that Belgian gel offensive.
In the nearly 90 percent humidity of Manaus, Beckerman played the entire game absent any miracle product. He quelled counterattacks and body-checked and allegedly elbowed the bearded, mohawked Raul Meireles -- an encounter that will go down in the annals of hair-on-hair crime. With all those dreads bouncing, trailing him in the Amazon, Beckerman even hit a top speed (15.7 miles per hour) that was faster than Ronaldo's (15.5).
"He's there for his teammates, he's cleaning up in front of the back line, he's there when you need him," U.S. coach Jurgen Klinsmann has said. "And those are very rare players in the way that Kyle is doing it."
Or, as fellow midfielder Jermaine Jones put it last week, "Kyle loves to make the s--- work for the team."
It may be no coincidence that the 5-foot-10, 165-pound Beckerman has grown into this role alongside his mane, which he has yet to cut since 2005. When he first arrived in the MLS in 2000, out of high school, he showed up sans dreads -- as a kid, his mother had told him to excise the knots in his curly hair -- and was hardly the ballast Klinsmann describes now. Williams can recall a young Beckerman setting off on the path of a frustrated playmaker: Someone who wanted to score and deliver no-look passes closer to the box, but seldom received the mandate to move up.
But over the past decade, he has come to figure out precisely who he is. After years of being snubbed by the national team, Klinsmann plucked Beckerman from Real Salt Lake because he'd embraced his status as the premier defensive midfielder in the MLS. At the late age of 32, he does the generally thankless tasks that can help keep a team alive in a World Cup. "He's a giver," Klinsmann said earlier this month in Brazil. "We always discuss that."
And that instinct is not just limited to this sport. Beckerman -- who loves Rastafarian culture so genuinely that the logo of his blog shows him in silhouette, hair flying, against the colors red, yellow and green -- now introduces new reggae artists to Williams, the Jamaican, even alerting him to worthwhile concerts around Salt Lake. On his website, Beckerman also posted the guitar tabs for Bob Marley's "Ambush in the Night," one of his favorite songs, for his fans. "I thought I'd throw this online so you could learn how to play," he wrote. "It's really only a few chords to learn."
See them fighting for power (ooh-wee, ooh-wee, ooh-wa!)
But they know not the hour (ooh-wee, ooh-wee, ooh-wa!)
So they bribing with their guns, spare-parts and money
Trying to belittle our integrity now
"He knows his stuff," Williams told me, chuckling. "I don't know anybody like Kyle, or anybody even close. He's not trying to be anyone else but himself. That's why a lot of people like him. He's laid-back. He's being his own person."
That's the part of Beckerman you can smell from a mile away.