I’ve been hearing about the 2019 World Cup for months now, but I still wasn’t ready. My wife, Lydia, a former Division I soccer player herself, is a huge fan of the U.S. women’s national team, and if it weren’t for her, I don’t know that I would have watched a single game. (I watched a few in 2015, but this time it’s in France, and the games are on at weird times! I don’t know!) But here we are, so I did, and I soon noticed something strange: everybody, and I mean everybody, was hot. Every player, every referee. Lydia was mildly affronted by my latecomer realization, and went on to essentially claim personal responsibility for the sport’s overwhelming good looks.
Then, last weekend, several friends and I watched the United States women’s national soccer team beat the Chilean team 3-0. For journalism purposes, I asked my friends to speak aloud their every thought about the players’ attractiveness. As good feminists they were, at first, hesitant, but soon enough it came naturally, and then maybe too comfortably. “It’s their ponytails,” said one friend. “They remind me of girls I had crushes on as a teenager.”
“They’ve got thick and muscular thighs,” said another. “I second that,” said a third. Over the course of the game, another fell in love with the Chilean goalie, who almost single-handedly saved her team from losing by several more goals. “She’s hot,” said my friend. “She looks like she could destroy me.” By the end of the game, she’d posted a picture of the goalie to Instagram, with hearts drawn around her face.
While my viewing party just happened to be super gay, it’s not just queer women who’ve noticed the unusually high ratio of super-attractive people in the professional women’s soccer world. (Though we do, I think, deserve credit for noticing first.) Lots of sports teams have some hot people on them; being a professional athlete typically means being skilled, physically fit, and even rich (unless you’re a woman, LOL), all of which are generally agreed to be attractive characteristics. Still, there is something strange about how many women soccer players are hot. Given any group of 25 or 30 people, you might expect, like, five of them to be objectively good-looking. The number of objectively hot people on the USWNT defies statistical logic.
While there appears to be no research on this exact phenomenon as of yet, there have been studies that suggest that perceived facial attractiveness increases with athletic ability, and that women athletes are perceived as more facially attractive than men. (I knew it.) What we don’t know is why: most relevant academic literature in recent years finds that the link between facial attractiveness and “biological quality” — i.e. a person’s health, genetic makeup, fertility — is weak, which is to say that we likely can’t know with any real certainty, in looking at a picture of someone’s face, whether they are fit, healthy, or otherwise biologically “suitable” as mates. Still, that tendency to find skilled athletes more attractive on average is there.
According to Erik Postma, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Exeter, there may be some evolutionary reason why soccer players, in particular, are considered to be so attractive, and it has to do with how demanding soccer itself is relative to other sports. Professional cyclists, he says, may have exceptionally high endurance, but their upper body strength is limited, and while a weightlifter may be very strong, they probably can’t run very far, or very fast. “Soccer is different because it requires a combination of endurance, strength, skill, and tactics,” says Postma. “This might make soccer players particularly ‘complete’ athletes.” Could it be that soccer is called the most beautiful game not for the sport itself, but for its players, and their peak human forms?? (Fine, it’s about the game.)
This theory tracks for me and my friends, at least. It’s about the sheer endurance required to play a 90-minute game (“I read that a soccer player runs five miles per game,” said one friend, which everyone believed and no one looked up), and the strength required to sexily but legally push an opposing player off you, and the general muscular compactness of their bodies. Then there is the fact that they don’t wear hats or helmets, leaving their beautiful faces and incredible hairstyles fully visible. There are other sports that allow for this much ogling (basketball, track, gymnastics), but in basketball they play indoors (less hot), and score too much for it to feel magical; in the others, they don’t play as a team that smacks each other on the butt and tackles each other when someone scores.
There is also, I think, something sexy about the soccer player archetype: she is loyal, and perceptive, and community-minded; she is competitive and driven and tough. It’s been ten-plus years since my wife played soccer competitively, but I still see ways being part of those teams informed her character. The way she talks about her former teammates and their locker-room hijinks is appealing to me even now, and though I find it ridiculous that she won’t wash her USWNT jersey until the World Cup is over (lest they lose as a protest to laundry…?), I also find it cute. That whole rah-rah, team-sports world is unfamiliar and unrelatable to me, and that’s what makes it so appealing.
Much of this theorizing remains speculative. I was annoyed if unsurprised to find that all the available research on evolutionary biology and attraction is extremely heteronormative, and thus very little applied directly to the USWNT’s hordes of thirsty women fans, queer and straight. Postma confirms that most of the research done in this area is on female perception of male attractiveness (lol), though it’s obvious there’s much more to say. For his study on the attractiveness of Tour de France cyclists, he says, “While I received many emails from men claiming they were unable to judge the attractiveness of other men, the data suggest that they can.”
There is something (or many somethings) which make certain people attractive to us, but we don’t yet totally understand what they are, or what any of it really means. Which I think is fine. But there really is something going on with women who play professional soccer, and I am going to watch as many games as it takes until I figure it out.