Celebrity Culture: How Moving Away Moved England On

On 3 October 2010, News of the World became the second national newspaper in just a few months to print an apology to French model Vanessa Perroncel for publishing personal information about her. The former girlfriend of Wayne Bridge had reportedly had a four-month affair with his England teammate John Terry.

Looking back, it was just about the last in a very, very long line of stories relating to the England national team’s players that had found itself plucked from the back pages and rehomed across a number of sections in a number of newspapers for a number of years. The tiresome years of celebrity culture within the England team ended here. The reason for its petering out will never be black and white. But a number of very influential people — footballers and otherwise — had been left behind in what we can ‘fondly’ call the Beckham-cum-booze-cum-Baden-Baden years. In 2010-ish, Wembley and England and everything attached finally became about football again. The celeb saga was over.

A quite considerable factor in all of this was sex. Football and sex have been intertwined since the sport first became glamourous, but the glamour years were these. A few years after her relationship with ex-England international Stan Collymore was over, Swedish UK television presenter Ulrika Jonsson was having an affair with the England manager, Sven-Göran Eriksson. Both parties were in serious relationships at the time. Jonsson was soon snapped up by the News of the World, for whom she wrote a fiery column, regularly revealing private information about Eriksson, until 2007. By this time, England had a new manager — Steve McClaren. Short-lived.

And then? Fabio Capello. The Italian disciplinarian, brought in to help England’s celebrity players knuckle down, train harder than they’d ever trained before, take international football seriously, and finally win a ‘much-deserved’ and much-desired trophy. That didn’t work. Even the calmer figures in the squad like goalkeeper Robert Green didn’t really like being told they couldn’t spread any margarine on bread (strictly low-fat wholemeal bread), or ever have tomato ketchup under any circumstances.

The 2010 World Cup in South Africa saw England confined within the perimeter of their Rustenberg training base for the duration. They didn’t do any sightseeing. Nor, as it turned out, did they play much football. In four matches, only Slovenia fell to Capello’s underachieving ‘superstars’ — Joachim Löw’s young Germany side smarter, fitter and better than dismal England at the round of 16 stage.

But while not living life to the max is what the Three Lions were doing wrong in 2010, the story four years earlier had been almost the total opposite. The spa town of Baden-Baden was England’s idyllic setting in Germany for the 2006 World Cup. While David Beckham didn’t decide that this would be the destination for England’s training camp, he probably could have had the casting vote had he asked politely enough. For the power Beckham possessed — helped of course by his cult status as a supermodel as well as for being England captain — could have bought him a lot of things during Eriksson’s reign.

One thing it did secure him, and his giddy teammates, was that their wives and girlfriends could travel out with them for the tournament. Wives And Girlfriends… WAGs. Remember, now? Eriksson’s side lined up for 2006 World Cup fixtures with Cheryl (weeks away from becoming Cheryl Cole) sat next to Victoria Beckham, and Coleen Rooney close by.

The WAGs and players had first mingled together at the Beckhams’ ‘World Cup farewell party’ ­— a huge summer bash held by David and Victoria in the May before the 2006 finals. Gordon Ramsay cooked, Robbie Williams sang, Graham Norton auctioned off a £1m diamond neckless.

Joining EastEnders actor Ross Kemp at the glitzy event was his wife at the time, Rebekah Wade (now Brooks), then editor of Labour-backing tabloid The Sun. Wade’s guest couple: David Cameron and his wife Samantha. By the next World Cup, Cameron was Prime Minister. Other attendees included Jensen Button, Freddie Flintoff, Ben Elton and Jade Jagger. And just about every X Factor or Britain’s Got Talent judge under the sun.

The Three Lions shouldn’t have been partying with ITV presenters. They should have been training, or at least getting their minds in the right headspace so as to conquer the world at the FIFA World Cup. Parties aren’t known to provide clarity.

For all their innocence — and England’s failure in Germany was due to the players, make no mistake — the WAGs did cause an almighty distraction. Yes, they wrongly took the blame for tournament failure, but this was nonetheless a farce. Football was never supposed to be about catwalks and the UK’s Top 40.

Sex tapes in Ayia Napa and phone-ins to defend break-ups on LBC. Gareth Southgate wouldn’t put up with that from his players. Indeed, he wouldn’t need to. The fact is, England’s players acquired so much fame during the 2010s that they made the news regularly as celebrities, and not just as footballers.

The most recent news stories involving England stars today include that Raheem Sterling publicly questioned the racial objectivity of mainstream journalists when they report on the spending habits of young footballers, and that 22-year-old Marcus Rashford raised over £20m for a child poverty charity and managed through lobbying to reinstate the government’s free school meals initiative.

Not even the harshest sceptic would attribute that almighty swing of the pendulum to ‘better PR’ or to ‘a more censored national media’. No. The England team today comprises level-headed individuals in touch with society and willing to make a difference using their immense fame and incomprehensible wealth.

They have succeeded a generation with all the talent in the world, but a generation with less nous, less character and less in common with the average England fan.


All Photos: Getty Images

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