Joan Smith: So, the WAGs buy bags. What do you buy, Rio?

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The Independent Online

It's not just bankers. I know it's acceptable these days to hate them, along with derivative traders and hedge-fund managers. But we shouldn't forget all the other people who bought into a hedonistic, spendthrift lifestyle over the past decade; we could start with untalented, overpaid TV presenters, and Premiership footballers whose salaries exceed the health budgets of some African countries. In Freetown last month I met the health minister of Sierra Leone, who has an annual budget of £5m for a population of six million people. Compare that with the £6.2m earned by Manchester United's star players, Rio Ferdinand and Cristiano Ronaldo.

But even these pampered stars have been affected by the new seriousness. On the eve of England's World Cup qualifier against Belarus Ferdinand lashed out against the selfish pleasure-seekers who have done so much damage to the reputation of English football. They show off, they're obsessed with clothes – and that's just the guys. Oh, all right, I made the last bit up: Ferdinand wasn't talking about his fellow players, who made such a hash of the 2006 World Cup. It was all the fault of the WAGs, the wives and girlfriends who shopped for England in Baden-Baden and distracted the team horribly. Ferdinand blames "the whole WAG situation" for turning England's World Cup campaign into a "circus".

It's those subtle distinctions again, isn't it? When Ferdinand and his team mates shop for clothes and watches, it just isn't the same as Victoria Beckham coming out of Prada with half-a-dozen carrier bags on each arm. The WAGs buy frivolous things like shoes and bags, whereas the blokes go for sensible, manly purchases – Porsches, for instance. Actually, Ferdinand has a bit of thing for cars. He's not yet 30 and he's been done for speeding four times, including an occasion when he overtook a police car at 105mph.

Ferdinand's outburst came as he was named England captain for the Belarus game. If you want to impress the boss, the WAGs are an easy target, but it takes some cheek to attack people for encouraging celebrity culture when you're so much part of it yourself. Ferdinand was one of the organisers of a notorious Christmas party in Manchester last year when dozens of young women were invited to celebrate with the club's players. The WAGs were told not to turn up for the 15-hour party, which began at a restaurant, moved briefly to a lap-dancing club – only one player went in after the revellers were spotted by a photographer – and ended in a hotel which had been hired at a reported cost of £25,000. The atmosphere quickly soured, with one young woman claiming the players "were treating girls like pieces of meat". The evening ended with an allegation of rape.

This is celebrity culture at its worst, and Manchester United is not the only club whose players have been accused of using their fame to mistreat young women. But their reckless behaviour is also about money, about the sense of inviolability fostered by the obscene amounts they earn.

Sounds familiar? I can't see that this aspect of their behaviour is so different from the City culture which has brought one British bank after another to its knees. Of course, you might argue that Wayne Rooney is more talented than Sir Fred Goodwin, who's just resigned as chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland. He did at least waive his entitlement to a year's salary of £1.29m. But he could afford to: with bonuses, he took home £4.19m last year.

As it happens, the adult minimum wage is going up this month to a princely £5.73 an hour. Time for a legally enforceable maximum wage?

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