Nancy Dell'Olio: La prima donna

Feared by men, scorned by women, two-timed by Sven. Will her loyalty be rewarded at last?
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It is hard to imagine how things panned out chez Olio on the Sunday morning before last. Lying in bed with the radio switched on ready for The Archers, did she catch a familiar name on the news? Did a well-meaning friend call to forewarn the sleeping Nancy: "I hate to say this, dear, but he's all over the tabloids again"? Or, did she tiptoe down for breakfast in her marabou slingbacks and glimpse a dreaded headline on the mat: the words "Dirty", "Sven" and "Secrets" combined one more sickening time?

When Nancy Dell'Olio found out about the latest Sven Goran Eriksson scandal, she must have thought it was all happening again. Twice before she has been woken by the news of her putative husband's treachery. The first was in 2002, when news reached her via Ulrika Jonsson's children's nanny's boyfriend that Sven had been caught catching up on his Swedish over at the television presenter's house. She did not crumble. "Sven and I are far too busy to read newspapers," she announced, airily. "Who are we talking about again? I don't even know this woman. She is obviously jealous."

The second time, she was better prepared. As news of Sven's affair with the FA secretary Faria Alam oozed out, Nancy all but disappeared. Delphic and contradictory statements emerged from her parents ("I've spoken to Nancy today and she seemed fine. She didn't mention anything about splitting up from Sven"); her publicist ("Miss Nancy Dell'Olio has decided in light of recent problems to spend some time apart from Mr Sven Goran Eriksson"); and her hairdresser ("She's great. She's wonderful.")

After the betrayals and bust-ups, this latest scandal must have come almost as a relief. When she found out that Mr Eriksson had been tricked by the News of the World's "fake sheikh", how did she feel? When it was revealed he had betrayed his players and his club, was she disappointed? When it became obvious that Sven would have to quit as the England coach, did she regret it? It's unlikely. She probably waited until the end of the headline and breathed a sigh of relief that, this time he had cheated on somebody other than her.

There is no question that Ms Dell'Olio will rise to the challenge once again. She knew what she was getting into when she announced to the Italian press: "A relationship like ours is a major undertaking. I will do everything I can to defend it."

Their love affair was not an accident. When they met, she was not an airhead footballer's wife with an eye for the main chance. She had qualified with a law degree and had dabbled in politics, helping out with Silvio Berlusconi's 1994 campaign. More important, she was the dreamboat trophy wife of Giancarlo Mazza, a major shareholder in the Lazio football team and, as such, Sven's boss.

He was the new coach and had been dazzling the Italians with his laconic expression and fantastic results. The two met at a team dinner. They played footsie under both the table and the nose of her husband. Apparently, they fell in love at first sight.

Her next move was a stroke of Italian genius. Knowing that her countrymen would not be impressed by a scarlet woman (and perhaps guessing that they might find it difficult to understand how she could ditch her macho Italian husband for mousy Swedish Sven), she arranged for a showdown. "My Sven is anything but a Swede," she said. "He seems a Sicilian. He's mega-jealous." She arranged for him to take her husband out to lunch and break the news of their affair. Italians were taken aback.

In Italy, Nancy became their mascot, their beloved La Dama Nera. "Her caresses have succeeded in melting the heart of the icy magician of football," proclaimed Il Messaggero. "If Lazio continue to win, the fans will build a monument to Nancy. Sven, since falling in love, communicates even better with his players." To fans, she was a magic charm. She went to every match for luck, drinking a glass of champagne beforehand "to calm my nerves". He dedicated every goal to his muse in the crowd.

Her trouble started when they moved to England. The British did not approve of her. The more she trumpeted her fabulous sex life and trowelled on the mascara, the more uncomfortable she made us feel. Women found her vulgar; men were slightly afraid of her. If Barbara Cartland's eyes apparently resembled two crows that had crashed into the white cliffs of Dover, Nancy's were like crushed olives in a slightly overbaked ciabatta. Sven's Nordic reserve we could understand; Nancy's over-the-top self-confidence baffled us. "Like many Italian women, she is not inhibited by a political correctness which torments many British women," said a friend. The more she told us she would give herself "11 out of 10 for looks", obfuscated about her age (she was 36 for years but recently admitted to 45) and announced she never had fat days, the more we felt sorry for her partner.

So, it seems, did he. Sven's results on the pitch were inconsistent, but his prowess at that other favourite male spectator sport, poor-me competitiveness, was world-beating. Ulrika helped, informing tabloid readers that he wanted to leave "the Italian" but that he was "scared". Faria concurred. Nancy had no option but to come out on the offensive.

She had no end of help. When the affair with Ulrika hit the headlines, the battle was hammered out by their "friends". Nancy's hairdresser, parents, celebrity agent, publicist, masseuse and Victoria Beckham lined up to comment. They were on; they were off again. He dumped her; she was the one who finished with him. Sven retreated to Stockholm. When Faria came forward with her allegations, Nancy appeared on the Jonathan Ross show. Giggling sweetly about their flamboyant sex life, she showed off an enormous diamond ring: "You can say it is an engagement ring if you like." Sven was said to be mortified.

This time it is different. Since the fake sheikh scandal broke, Ms Dell'Olio has said nothing. Her celebrity agent has been silent. Her supposed publisher refused to say whether she had nearly finished her book. Her publicist would only confirm the spelling of her name. A friend said: "I can tell you she is very sweet, very caring of her friends and has a great sense of fun. She's very together. And not the sort of person who would deny herself a piece of cake for the sake of a dress." But she would not speculate on where Sven and Nancy might end up next. Gone are the friends who ganged up to pass judgement on Sven. With the world against him, finally she can be the one to be on his side.

Whether he now stays in England, where she has said she is unhappy, or, more likely, returns to one of the European capitals she loves, you can bet she will stay there. Loving, supportive, the only friend the cheating Sven has left - it looks as if Nancy has got her man. Maybe now he will ask her to marry him. Maybe, if he is lucky, she might accept.