Sports

Thank God for the World Cup’s Deeply Intimate PDA

An on-the-ground embrace. A gentle forehead touch. A celebratory mounting.

Bukayo Saka and Jude Bellingham press their foreheads together as they both smile. Saka holds Bellingham's shoulders, and Bellingham cups Saka's face.
Bukayo Saka and Jude Bellingham of England celebrate during the World Cup Qatar 2022 Group B match between England and Iran. Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Offside via Getty Images.

Viewers watching Brazil play South Korea in the World Cup’s Round of 16 last Monday may have witnessed a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment. If you were watching carefully, you saw defensive midfielder Casemiro carefully wipe something off teammate Neymar’s nose. On paper, it sounds like an amusing though unremarkable event. But at the World Cup, it represents a larger theme: In Qatar, there has been moment after moment of tenderness between the players.

The most memorable images of sports’ most-watched global event involve magnificent feats of athleticism and euphoric national celebration. But the high-stakes tournament also generates a great deal of male-on-male contact. Those interactions frequently produce images of indignant flopping, jersey pulling, and even biting. But, while sports can be an outlet for men to prove their masculine bona fides, they are also chock-full of guys getting up close and personal with each other’s bodies, often easily veering into homoeroticism. Intimate displays between male athletes often manifest as fights or other expressions of physical domination, with passion getting sublimated into aggression. So it has been refreshing to instead witness this gentle side of the World Cup.

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No matter whom you are rooting for, we can all agree on one thing: It feels really good to watch the players show genuine affection for one another. Even if you’re not an avid soccer fan, you can bask in the warm and gooey love-fest of teammates and competitors sharing an embrace, celebrating a win, or consoling each other after a loss.

Sure, competing at the World Cup is about love of country and the beauty of the game and the determination to win on the biggest possible stage. But it’s also an opportunity for players and fans to express those warm and fuzzy feelings for one another that aren’t always socially acceptable to demonstrate.

Some types of these public displays of affection have occurred repeatedly. Some are unique moments we will only experience once. For the sake of science and classification, we’ve sorted the tournament’s not-so-random acts of tenderness into more specific categories.

Triumphant Cradling

A collage of 4 photos, from L-R: Olivier Giroud lifts Kylian Mbappé in a hug, with his arms wrapped around Mbappé's upper thighs. Mario Pašalić leaps into the arms of Dominik Livaković. Riley McGree gives a leaping hug to Harry Souttar, with his arm wrapped around Souttar's shoulders and his legs bracketing Souttar's torso. Bryan Mbeumo jumps on on Vincent Aboubakar, piggyback style.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Alex Grimm/Getty Images, Elsa/Getty Images, Stuart Franklin/Getty Images, and Clive Mason/Getty Images.
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On ABC’s reality dating show The Bachelor, a woman jumping into a man’s arms has become so clichéd that the network itself makes fun of it. Not so on the football pitch. This move is reserved for when something monumental happens, and at this year’s World Cup, mountings have followed many monumental moments. There are variants: the piggyback, the joyous swing, the grasping hold—and The Notebook–style embrace.

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The Tender Forehead Touch

A collage of three photos, from L-R: Bukayo Saka and Jude Bellingham press their foreheads together as they both smile. Jan Vertonghen sits on the field with Axel Witsel leaning over him, their heads touching. Luka Modric and Dominik Livakovic gaze into each other's eyes with their foreheads pressed together.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Charlotte Wilson/Offside/Offside via Getty Images, Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images, and Youssef Loulidi/Fantasista/Getty Images.
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What the forehead touch lacks in drama, it makes up for in intimacy. It’s a level of closeness usually reserved for kissing, or for parents whispering encouragement or pride to their children, and it shows just how tight the bonds between players can be. When things get especially emotional, the forehead touch allows the outside world to fall away, and the players can share a private moment to savor their victory or mourn a loss.

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Whatever This Was

A collage of three images, from L-R: Jude Bellingham squats and gestures with his hands while Jordan Henderson runs toward him. Jude Bellingham and Jordan Henderson stand face to face. Jude Bellingham and Jordan Henderson press their bodies against one another, from forehead to knee.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images and Dale MacMilan/Soccrates/Getty Images.
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This celebratory moment between Englishmen Jude Bellingham and Jordan Henderson followed Henderson’s goal in the team’s Round of 16 match against Senegal. It ends in a forehead touch, but it is also so much more than that. It looks like some kind of choreographed pas de deux, filled with genuine emotion. The eye contact! The leg lean! The smooshed noses! One can only sigh, and think, blimey.

An Old-Fashioned (but Sincerely Felt) Hug

A collage of two images, from L-R: Yassine Bounou and Unai Simon hug and clap each other on the back. Josh Sargent hugs a crying Ramin Rezaeian and cups his head.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Alexander Hassenstein/Getty Images and Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images.
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Camaraderie is not only felt between teammates. One minute, opponents may be trying to wrest each other’s arms off; the next they could be laughing jovially together. After all, players of different nationalities are often teammates in their professional leagues. Notably, in the Spain vs. Morocco game, which ended in penalty kicks, goalkeepers Unai Simón and Yassine Bounou embraced both before and after the shootout—the fellowship of men under unimaginable degrees of stress. When Iran lost to the United States, many American players extended hugs to crying defender Ramin Rezaeian, but only Josh Sargent momentarily held Rezaeian’s skull to his own—a sign of the greatest devotion.

The Helpful Adjustment of Accessories

Jules Kounde holds the ball while an official stands behind him and removes a necklace from Kounde's neck.
Justin Setterfield/Getty Images
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Sometimes a gesture is as necessary as it is sweet. In France’s match against Poland in the Round of 16, a referee stopped Jules Koundé of France right before a throw-in to ask him to take off the necklaces he was wearing. Koundé couldn’t get them off himself, so a staff member from the French team came and removed them for him. While he was carefully searching for the jewelry’s tiny clasps, he showed no exasperation, nor aggression, just careful consideration.

On-the-Ground Embrace

A collage of two images, from L-R: Achraf Hakimi lies on his back on the field with Hakim Ziyech kneeling over him as they grab each other's jerseys and smile at each other. Hakim Ziyech lies on his back on the field, while Achraf Hakimi lies on top of him in a hug.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images and Stu Forster/Getty Images.
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Most of us will never compete in anything remotely as high-stakes as the World Cup, but who among us has not been so overcome by emotions that you just want to lie down to soak everything in? The Moroccan team’s magical run at this World Cup is certainly enough to make one weak at the knees. The camaraderie between right-back Achraf Hakimi and midfielder/wing Hakim Ziyech is particularly touching, as the teammates have shared multiple embraces sprawled out on the grass, their poses straight out of a rom-com.

Spreading the Love

A collage of two images, from L-R: Achraf Hakimi kisses his mother's forehead and cups her head with his hand. Achraf Hakimi's mother holds his face and kisses his cheek.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Fadel Senna/AFP via Getty Images.
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The affection on display has not only been between players. Hakimi gets another mention here, as, following Morocco’s win against Belgium in their group-stage match, he went to plant a kiss on his mother’s head. And after Croatia downed Brazil in penalty kicks in the quarterfinals on Friday, a Croatian player’s child even consoled Neymar with a dap, a hug, and a head-touch.

These valiant athletes have traveled thousands of miles to play the world’s favorite sport, televised to billions. They thought they came to conquer, for national and personal glory, but they found something greater: international brotherhood, and the unwavering support of one another’s muscular arms.

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