Ronaldo’s abs to Marta’s lipstick: The growing importance of image in football

“Maximo” was the word Roberto Firmino used when telling dentist Dr Robbie Hughes what shade of white he wanted his teeth to be. The Liverpool forward was in the market for a new smile and Hughes was the man to deliver it, leaving Firmino with a set of pearly whites that garnered as much attention as his goals.

“White is white but they’re over-white, man,” was the verdict of BT Sport pundit Ian Wright after watching Firmino celebrate scoring Liverpool’s fourth goal in a 4-2 win over Crystal Palace.

That was October 2016, when Philippe Coutinho was pulling the strings for Liverpool and Jurgen Klopp’s own teeth were au naturel. A year later, the Liverpool manager also sported a new smile — a few shades down from maximo but noticeable enough for some fans to describe Klopp’s new teeth as “like a new signing”.

Jurgen KloppJurgen Klopp in September 2022 (Photo: ANP via Getty Images)

Fast forward to 2022 and the list of players who’ve had their teeth whitened/straightened/changed beyond all recognition has become almost as lengthy as those who’ve bleached their hair or turned limbs into art.

Why the focus on image? Well, it has always been a form of currency for some footballers. David Beckham’s haircuts made headlines. Cristiano Ronaldo’s abdominals sold products promising transformed physiques. Earlier this year, The Athletic revealed that Jack Grealish’s boyish good looks helped capture the attention of Italian fashion house Gucci, which made him a brand ambassador in a million-pound deal.

But just how important is image to footballers? Does it go beyond the surface level of simply wanting to look good? Can it actually help them perform on the pitch? And how much of a difference does it make to their earning potential beyond the sport?

“It’s very individual so there’s no one reason why people do it,” says former professional footballer Fraser Franks, who retired at the age of 28 due to a heart defect and now runs mentoring firm B5 Consultancy, working with clubs and players. “For me, whether it was the boots I wore, how I wore my socks or how my kit fitted, that to me, mentally more than anything, made me feel good.

“There is a phrase: look good, feel good. I think sometimes taking pride in your appearance might clear your mind a bit, whereas if you feel scruffy or haven’t looked after yourself, maybe you feel that your performance will be a bit like that.”

Gary Lineker was known for reacting to a bad run by getting his hair cut. “It makes no sense,” he told the High Performance Podcast. “Except it’s amazing how many times it worked. It probably kicks out the negative vibes that you’ve got in your head.”

Gary LinekerGary Lineker as a Barcelona player in 1986 (Photo: David Cannon /Allsport)

Perhaps that explains why many clubs will allow barbers into the training ground in the days before a match. And why one Premier League club came under pressure from players to secure a COVID-19 testing kit for their barber at a time when national lockdown restrictions were only just starting to ease.

While many might suspect this preoccupation is due to oversized egos, Franks believes it can be a sign of insecurity. “Particularly in the Premier League, there are so many cameras on these players, they’re in magazines, everyone’s appearance is up for comment. A lot of these are just young guys who are quite insecure.

“If you’re in a changing room — and I’ve seen this plenty of times — and someone has an insecurity, that is often picked on a bit. Someone’s hairline, their teeth possibly… Multiply that by millions of people watching you.”

Franks mentions Luke Chadwick, who told The Athletic about the impact that the very public ridiculing of his looks on a primetime BBC comedy panel show had on him as a young player. And Manchester United’s Phil Jones, who has been ridiculed for a face he has pulled while playing.

“He’s got memes and Twitter accounts, people commenting all the time,” says Franks. “Social media doesn’t help because everyone has an opinion and you can hide behind anonymity.

“You can say something really hurtful to someone but if it doesn’t come under the Twitter policy of what offence really is then there’s no real consequence to it. As much of a beautiful place as social media can be it’s also a very toxic place. So there’s more to it than being a bit flash or wanting to look a certain way.”

Feeling confident when walking out onto the pitch is crucial to performance. According to sports psychologist Dan Abrahams, a player lacking confidence will be inhibited: “Players not showing for the ball, players hiding, players a bit slower off the mark, not finding that bit of space, being a bit weaker in the challenge.”

Building that confidence can entail different things for different players. For Real Madrid’s Caroline Weir, at least part of it comes from her pre-match makeup routine. “Training will always come first in terms of making you the player that you are,” she said in an interview last year. “But I’m one of those players who likes a strong image. From my lashes to my nails — my makeup routine is different on a matchday to normal days. For me, that just makes me feel good and I think that helps me feel confident.”

Caroline WeirCaroline Weir playing for Real Madrid in August 2022 (Photo: Oscar J Barroso/Europa Press via Getty Images)

She’s not alone. Before this summer’s Euros, England’s Ella Toone made sure she had her nails and false eyelashes done. By the time the Lionesses had battled their way to the final, neither had survived. Though Toone later said she was “gutted” not to have them in place for the big game, it had no noticeable effect on the Manchester United forward who scored England’s wondrous opening goal. But getting them re-done was top of her to-do list following that historic win at Wembley.

For Liverpool’s Shanice van de Sanden, applying her trademark lipstick is a crucial part of her matchday preparation. “I will never play any game without it,” she said during the 2019 World Cup. “It’s what makes me feel the most comfortable.” At the same tournament, Brazil legend Marta emerged for a game against Italy wearing bright red lipstick. When asked about it after the game she explained: “I always wear lipstick. Not that colour, but today I said, ‘I’m going to dare’. The colour is of blood because we had to leave blood on the pitch. Now I’m going to use it in every game.”

MartaMarta playing for Brazil in February 2022 (Photo: Sameer Al-Doumy/AFP via Getty Images)

Perhaps it’s as much about self-expression as it is about confidence, then? An innate desire for players to be understood for who they are as well as what they are?

“All of us, if we look good will probably feel good about ourselves,” says Gary Bloom, sports performance psychotherapist at Oxford United Football Club and author of Keep Your Head in the Game. “That includes being at the gym or whatever we need to do. There’s a famous philosopher called Jacques Lacan who reckoned that all of us have a desire to be understood by the world. And it’s an impossible thing — nobody can ever understand us. We can’t even understand ourselves.

“But that is a very strong desire: to be understood by the world, and hoping that somebody will understand how we feel by our appearance is a very strong thing.”

Johnny Gorman is a former professional footballer who played for Northern Ireland at the age of 17. When his playing career unravelled faster than anyone expected, he pursued a new path in psychology, completing his master’s degree this summer. “In every dressing room I’ve been in there’s always been a few players who have been obsessed with how they look,” he says. “And that’s right down to what socks they wear, what tape they put around their socks to what boots they wear, how large or small their shorts are, how their hair looks, if they put a wristband on or not.

“I’ve seen players sit in front of a mirror before they’re about to go out and play to get their appearance right. And there are some players who just do not care. They don’t care if their shin pads look like cricket pads. They’ll go out and perform and their image will not come into it at all. I think Paul Scholes once went and got a pair of boots from Sports Direct before a game for Manchester United. So I’m sure he didn’t give any consideration to how he looked when he was playing football.”

Paul Scholes, David BeckhamPaul Scholes and David Beckham had a different approach to their image (Photo: Adam Davy/EMPICS via Getty Images)

Gorman says that perhaps in some cases the difference can come down to playing position, and by extension, personality type. “I was a winger — anywhere attacking — and for me the game was always about confidence. I know from people I’ve played with that if, as a kid, someone wanted to be an attacker and score goals and be a flair player, their personality type is maybe someone who’s more interested in standing out for other reasons, as well as for their footballing ability.

“You’re more likely to get a winger, attacking midfielder or flair player who is interested in expressing themselves because that’s just the way they are as a person. And if you’re in an environment where your manager and the club you play for are quite disciplined, one of the ways you can express yourself is through your image and how you look.”

Fraser Franks was part of the Chelsea academy setup as a young player and recalls the day he turned up to training in a pair of white boots. “I was a defender and not the most technically gifted. I remember a coach looking at my boots and going, ‘Cor, you’ve got to be some player to wear those’. I took them back to the shop the next day and got a black pair because I didn’t want to be seen as flash.

“But I think things have evolved. If you want a player to feel good on the pitch, you have to let them express themselves, whatever that looks like. If you want a creative player, let the person be creative — let them wear whatever colour boots they want or have their hair however they want.

“We’ve often labelled that as being a bit of a ‘fancy dan’ or ‘he cares too much about his image’, but I don’t see any real relevance in that. If you feel good, you’ll play better. If that means looking good, taking pride in your appearance, then I’d be all for it.”

Jack GrealishJack Grealish is filmed by fans after signing for Manchester City in 2021 (Photo: Lindsey Parnaby/AFP via Getty Images)

For sports psychologist Jeremy Snape, the extreme level of scrutiny placed on players is part of the equation for those who place high importance on their image. “There are 30 cameras around the stadium and tens of millions of ‘reporters’ on their phones waiting to pass judgment, so the scrutiny feels greater than it’s ever been in sport or in life. The consequences of making a mistake can be viral and career-defining.

“So anything that a player can do to make themselves feel more comfortable, confident and prepared going out onto the pitch — whether that’s their hair being straight or their shirt being tucked in — is going to be important because they’re walking out into the spotlight.”

As well as being important for players mentally, it’s hard to ignore the fact that their image can also be important for them commercially. In Memphis Depay’s book Heart of a Lion, the Barcelona forward writes that in his PSV days, he’d do 200 abdominal exercises every day. “Based on the idea that it’s a double-sided sword: a strong body is essential at top-level football and looking good helps with winning commercial deals.”

“There’s no question there is,” says Steve Martin, global CEO of M&C Saatchi, when asked if there is a link between a player’s commercial earning potential and the way they look. “That’s been around for 50 years really. You hark back to when footballers started to look at their image and transcend the sport, to become more iconic figures rather than just footballers playing for a certain team in a more narrow market. You can go back to George Best on that, he was the trigger point for it.”

George BestGeorge Best and fiancee Eva Haraldsted outside his clothes shop in Manchester in 1969 (Photo: PA Images via Getty Images)

Martin spent the early part of his career working at Adidas, where he was involved in signing David Beckham to the brand — someone he says is probably the biggest example in recent times of a player whose image was carefully curated and planned with the specific aim of elevating him beyond football.

Not that it stopped Beckham from being himself.

It was April 2001 when he shaved his hair into a Mohican that made headlines around the world. Initially planned as a one-off for a cover shoot in The Face magazine, which would be shaved off the next day, Beckham decided he quite liked it. Brian Clough was among those to feel otherwise, claiming the Manchester United man looked “more like a bloody convict than an England captain”.

So, why did he do it? “This is me,” he told The Face. “I am not doing it to create attention. It’s just me.”

“At that time, he was prepared to take risks,” Martin tells The Athletic. “He didn’t care because he believed in fashion. He loved it. That wasn’t a forced conversation. There was a lot of other stuff planned out that was maybe a bit more contrived, but actually, it evolved pretty organically.”

Martin believes that image is measured differently these days, and that the emphasis on looks has lessened as a result. “Maybe in the old days, it was all about looks and a bit more cliched. Now, there’s much more depth to it. There’s always going to be that fashion, lifestyle and looks element, but it’s way more than that now. For any player, there needs to be a much greater social purpose aligned to how they go about their business which means they’re more commercially viable to a club. And as a result, the individual can benefit.”

The key, agrees Misha Sher, who is global head of sport, entertainment and culture at MediaCom, is for players to recognise that image has evolved beyond just aesthetics. “Ultimately, it’s about what that individual represents in popular culture,” he says. “Brands are interested in working with talent as a conduit to connecting with people. And the way you connect with people is through individuals who have cultural relevance.

“Because of the way society has evolved — social media, the way that talent can connect with audiences around interests — all of that has elevated the need to go beyond aesthetics. Being known, loved and admired for the types of things people can connect with is directly linked to talent’s ability to generate commercial revenue today.”

Looks are still important, says Sher, but while they were once a major factor behind commercial success, there are now many more elements that drive marketability.

Martin uses the example of Marcus Rashford as someone who has “changed the game significantly” with his campaigning to help fund free school meals throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and his ongoing work to help tackle child poverty.

Marcus Rashford muralMarcus Rashford’s image transcends football (Photo: Lindsey Parnaby/AFP via Getty Images)

“If I was advising a player now, I’d say to be very smart in how you create your image; make sure it’s managed, but also make sure it’s real and that it comes from the heart. That’s why Rashford’s was so good because it was so real. And that created an image around him that changed everything for him. In every commercial conversation that we were having around some of our big football partners, we were talking about him. We’d never have done that before.”

Rashford’s role in persuading the Government to reverse its decision not to extend its free school meals voucher scheme over the summer holidays was front-page news and ensured he was one of the most talked about individuals in the country. “He walks into a room and people want to be around that, want to hear his story,” says Martin. “Brands can get in behind that and project it.

“I know that there were a lot of players briefing agents after that to say, ‘I need to stand up for something. I want a cause I can get behind’, whether it’s a social cause, or whatever because they’ve seen the impact that can create. So it’s definitely changed the game. It’s not just about looking like a great clothes horse, there’s way more depth to it — four dimensions as opposed to one.”

Where Beckham succeeded was in having an image that has endured — even now, nine years into his retirement. “It can’t just be a flash in the pan,” says Martin. “In terms of commercial impact, if you were to have a plan and an ability to stand out and get behind something, it is going to make your commercial value better to your club, which allows you to negotiate better contracts etc. You also then put yourself in the shop window for brands.

“But image now is not just about how you look, it’s more about what you stand for, how you behave, how articulate you are, how organic and real you are, how transparent, and all those great values of why brands and clubs want to associate with you.”

Before everything else, though, comes performance on the pitch. And for some, new teeth, freshly cropped hair or false eyelashes are precisely what it takes to be their best.


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