Footballers' wives step into the spotlight

They have barely applied their toenail varnish before their chaps are back from morning training
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Footballers' wives, thanks partly to the cheesy ITV series of the same name – that's cheesy not as in mild cheddar but as in over-ripe gorgonzola – are in the spotlight as never before. On Monday a glamorous posse of them set off for Dubai in the England World Cup preparation party, and in some newspapers generated even more column inches than their Burtons-suited menfolk.

Footballers' wives, thanks partly to the cheesy ITV series of the same name – that's cheesy not as in mild cheddar but as in over-ripe gorgonzola – are in the spotlight as never before. On Monday a glamorous posse of them set off for Dubai in the England World Cup preparation party, and in some newspapers generated even more column inches than their Burtons-suited menfolk.

There were suggestions, moreover, that the in-flight beds provided by British Airways might afford a few of the players and their partners an opportunity to join the Mile High Club. But this was mischievous nonsense. Apart from anything else, no footballer joins a new club these days without his agent being present.

None the less, the fact thatour footballers are being encouraged to maintain connubial relations less than three weeks away from the World Cup shows how conventions have changed. Bill Shankly – the legendary Liverpool manager who told his players to wear boxing gloves in bed on a Friday night, and then, when that didn't seem to work, ordered them to send the wife to her mother on the eve of a match – must be turning in his grave.

Pace Shankly, it seems right that the wives and girlfriends of footballers should step a little closer to centre stage. There was a time, years ago, when they existed mainly as a mild distraction on the day of the FA Cup Final in the wonderfully kitsch television feature Meet The Players' Wives, or as joke fodder, as in a friend's cheeky suggestion that the spouse of the then Everton player Imre Varadi might be called Olive. (Olive Varadi, you see, when said quickly, transmutes perfectly into Oliver Hardy. Of course, you have to drop the aitch ... oh, never mind.)

These days, partners are quite properly taken more seriously. During Brazil's matches in the 1998 World Cup, for example, the television cameras focused repeatedly on the watching girlfriend of the Brazilian star Ronaldo. Not because the cameramen fancied her rotten, as some miserable cynics opined, but because she had been an emotional prop for Ronaldo in the difficult run-up to the World Cup and so deserved our attention. That she happened to be stunningly gorgeous with flowing blonde hair was surely quite incidental.

Nor is it just in football that wives and girlfriends have started to share more of the acclaim. Lucy Henman, wife of Tim, leaning forward yet looking impassive, lips slightly parted, toying with us by wearing her designer sunglasses one minute but not the next, has become an image of Wimbledon no less familiar than the hilarious Centre Court pigeon, the one that always has the crowd laughing fit to burst. And this summer, being pregnant, Lucy is assured more coverage than ever.

Then there are the partners of Ryder Cup golfers, who in recent years have even been kitted out in their own matching jumpers and what used to be called slacks. For me it has been one of the joys of the televised coverage of the Ryder Cup, the wives in their uniforms on the sidelines, bouncing up and down with excitement like contestants in a United Airlines Flight Attendant of the Year contest.

Still, one mustn't mock. If there are any spouses worthy of public appreciation, it is the wives of top golfers and tennis players, whose husbands ply a globe-trotting trade. While the footballers' wives have barely applied the magenta toenail varnish before their chaps are back from morning training, the golf and tennis spouses are forced to cope stoically on their own for days and weeks on end.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that among golfers, in particular, separation and divorce are par for the course. Take the two most successful British players of the last decade. One, Nick Faldo, has just embarked on his third marriage (and that following a tempestuous relationship which ended with his girlfriend smashing up his Porsche with one of his irons), while the other, Colin Montgomerie, recently reflected on the domestic unhappiness caused by his long absences from home.

That said, travelling en famille is not necessarily the answer either. Following golf's World Championships in America last year, the wife and baby son of the Welshman Philip Price were barred from a private charter back to Britain because some players objected to the possibility of their precious sleep being interrupted if the child cried. In sport, the ones throwing their toys out of the pram are not always the youngest members of the family.

Nor, of course, are women always the ones left holding the baby. Look at the current mobile phone commercials featuring Mr and Mrs Steffi Graf. And at least the golfers anxious about their kip have been roundly lambasted for their shameful selfishness. The overbearing machismo of professional sport, unlike those footballers' wives in that Dubai-bound Boeing 777, looks, at last, to be going west.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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