When it comes to Generation Zero, the late 1980s, and the contemporaneous making of soccer in America, there is no getting around the mullet. Oft mocked but never ignored, this seminal coiffure was everywhere during this period. National team defender and three-time World Cupper Marcelo Balboa summed it up best, when we spoke to me in 2018: “We wanted to leave something behind, a legacy — and I think it was the mullet. We tore it up on the mullet front.”
Happily, the legacies of Balboa and his colleagues on the 1989-90 U.S. Men’s National Team have proved more numerous and sweeping than “business in front, party in the back.” In fact, my book argues that nearly everything we enjoy today in our mature, first-world futbol culture we can trace back to his particular cohort, Generation Zero, the first authentically homegrown player and fan population this country produced.
Accordingly, when we look back at this period in detail, the mullet is well nigh inescapable. What’s more, in 2022, this particular haircut would appear to be enjoying yet another moment. Not just in salons and atop runways in hipster New York City, according to The NYTimes, but in Australia.
“It is quite controversial,” reports my college housemate and newly minted Aussie citizen Dave Rose, a former mulleter himself who splits time between urban(e) Melbourne and rural Beechworth, Victoria. “A friend of ours (normally a fairly level-headed person) thought it outrageous that kids in his son’s school had mullets. His son went through a Beiberish phase and now is kind of Beiber + bed head, or something. Neither seemed to phase him, but the mullet clearly crosses a line.”
When I’m not writing books on soccer, I confect media/content in the golf realm. The Australian pro Cameron Smith sports a stunning mullet, something one doesn’t see anywhere else on the PGA Tour. This prepared me somewhat for Rose’s update from Down Under. But not fully. Check out these cheeky examples of sporting excess here and here.
“Lately one sees a variant where the sides are really shaved,” Rose continues. “I think this riff, and the mullet more broadly, is kind of meant ironically; they don’t think it looks good. It looks bad in an amusing way. There is also a kind of norm-core thing one sees in, for example, Melbourne baristas. I think the mullet is an outgrowth of that, in part.”
All the Antipodean examples linked here feature Australian Rules Football players (poor Cam Smith; not even ranked in the top 10). While modern soccer hasn’t yet bought in quite so enthusiastically or broadly — Neymar being the noted exception — one might anticipate a similar evolution:
Neymar’s mullet, circa 2017
Professional footballers continue to be most enamored of the all-purpose fade, a coif reliant upon a closely shaved noggin on three sides, where a thicker growth on top is often combed into rigid submission via copious hair product. Shaving the sides of one’s head isn’t difficult. Close-cropping the back, however, is another matter. In other words, as fades grow out, mulletization can be difficult to avoid.
My 23-year-old daughter Clara resides in Brooklyn, the most hipster of all NYC boroughs. She reports a bumper crop of mullets on the streets of Bushwick and Williamsburg, most prominently among the population of butch lesbians. To what exactly does she attribute this trend?
“I don’t know. Maybe Stranger Things?” Clara ventured, referring to the hit Netflix series set in the 1980s. “I know of at least two clubs that draw big crowds with regular Eighties dance parties. The Eighties are sorta big right now.”
As someone who came of age during the Reagan Era, let me say that I never partook of this trend. My overall idiom was too preppy, and my dark hair far too curly. Rose had a similar issue, but a way better origin story:
“I had what would be considered a mullet, but I didn’t know the term and didn’t set out to get one. It came from going with Chris Fusco to the Blaine Hair School in Boston, where you could get a cheap cut from a stylist in training. He got a cool spiky cut but I could never do that because my hair was curly, so I got a kind of flat mullet thing. He also told me I didn’t have to worry about the three parking tickets we got on the trip; I remember him crumpling one up and sticking it into the tire treads of a big truck we stopped beside, at the light on the corner of Boylston and Tremont. My mother was not pleased when they were later re-issued by mail.”