If British sporting legends were made on the pitch at Wembley in 1966, World Cup myths of equal magnitude were forged off the pitch in Baden Baden twelve years ago. 2006 was the year that the term WAG entered the popular consciousness, thanks to the tabloid whirlwind that followed the England football team’s ‘wives and girlfriends’ on every morning run in full make-up, every designer shopping trip and every Moet-fuelled night end that ended with dancing on tables and screaming karaoke.
Baden Baden, a well-heeled but sleepy spa town on the edge of Germany’s Black Forest best known as Queen Victoria’s favourite holiday resort, became the playground of a new Queen, Victoria Beckham. As wife of the captain, she was undisputedly at the top of the WAG hierarchy, closely followed by Cheryl Tweedy (then a ‘girlfriend’ rather than a ‘wife’), who, as a fellow girl group graduate, VB seemed to take under her wing, letting her sit alongside the Beckham brood in the England box and introducing her to Roberto Cavalli. Then there was Alex Curran (wife of Steven Gerrard), Elen Rivas (then married to Frank Lampard), Carly Zucker (girlfriend of Joe Cole) and their de facto leader, Coleen McLoughlin (then fiancé of Wayne Rooney), all staying at the £1,000 a night Brenner’s Park Hotel. Like every good soap opera, there were some brilliant micro-dramas at play. Victoria (rumoured to have flown 30 pairs of jeans - or was it sunglasses? - over from Madrid) was said to ‘look down’ on the other WAGs, socialising only with Cheryl while the other wives embarked on group shopping sprees. Elen Rivas missed her flight to Germany, having attempted to take five pieces of (presumably LV-monogrammed) hand luggage on board. Melanie Slade, the girlfriend of Theo Walcott, was studying for her A-Levels and staying at a cheaper hotel down the round. And, in a master stroke straight out of ITV’s Footballers’ Wives, Coleen had insisted on bringing her spray tanning expert with her.
It was, of course, utterly ridiculous, a hilariously larger-than-life parody of every 'girls trip' cliche that seemed tailor made for the Sun and the Mail. Tabloid culture was then at the height of its power, and reached its apotheosis in the WAG phenomenon, crowing over the women's extravagances, their fondness for €200 bottles of champagne and their nights out at Garibaldi's, one of Baden Baden's few clubs. It wasn’t just the British papers that were caught up in the WAG saga that summer, either. The foreign press, too, became increasingly invested, gleefully contrasting the England camp’s antics with the more demure behaviour of other teams’ spouses. Spanish paper ABC memorably damned Victoria and co as ‘hooligans with Visas,’ their shopping trips re-imagined as ‘daily attacks’ on Baden Baden’s designer boutiques (in a case of pot-kettle irony, the Daily Mail branded these reports as ‘vitriolic,’ having crowed over the same behaviour in terms only slightly less combative).
Looking back now at dispatches from the tournament, what’s particularly glaring is the sneery nexus of gender and class lurking beneath the newsprint. With their big heels, bigger sunglasses, Birkin bags and caramel hair extensions, the WAGs were guilty of corrupting a generation of young girls, warping their ambitions until they could surely only aspire to endless Cricket shopping sprees on a Premier League player’s credit card – or so certain corners of the press would have us believe. But while they were, on one hand, supposedly encapsulating everything that’s regressive about gender roles, telling us that women were only valuable as adjuncts to more important men, they were also being criticised for not being the right kind of wives.
Most of the tabloid ire stemmed from the fact that, with their label fixations, their dancing on tables and their vodka and Red Bull, the WAGs weren’t playing the wifely role in the right way. They weren’t acting like docile help-meets for our boys, doing their important work on the pitch. They weren’t quite ladylike– that was the subtext: they’d had the gall to be young, largely working class women having a nice, if ostentatious, time on holiday, so they were ‘distracting,’ or worse, ‘tasteless.’ They'd got a little above themselves, and were in need of being put back in their place.
As a former Spice Girl - not to mention the wife of England's captain - Victoria Beckham was the group's undisputed Queen Bee...
... with Cheryl Tweedy just below her in the unofficial hierarchy.
The two even started to dress alike.
Meanwhile, the rest of the WAGs preferred to hang out en masses, sticking together for shopping trips, nights out and _Reservoir Dogs-_esque photo opportunities like this one...
The lazy misogyny with which footballer commentators, looking back at England’s failures on the pitch, blamed (and still blame) the WAG ‘circus’ for their defeat is the same lazy, class-infused misogyny we still now: just think of the gleeful photo stories of women falling over at Aintree races on Ladies' Day, or celebrating New Year’s Eve in town centres. Look at two recent headlines discussing the impending World Cup in Russia, and you’ll see it again. ‘The England WAGs who WON’T be shaming the nation with wild World Cup antics!’ screams one Daily Mail piece, promising details on the ‘childhood sweethearts and ever-so steady graduate wives and girlfriends who are unlikely to dance on Russian tables.’ ITV, a little less salaciously, claims that this year’s cohort is ‘expected to tone down the antics as England keep eyes on the prize.’ These ladies, we’re led to hope, have learned the lessons of their brash 2006 forebears, and are better, classier women for it.
Many members of our Class of 2006 had, or went on to have, careers in their own right. Victoria Beckham has worked hard to shrug off the footballer’s wife label to establish her eponymous brand as one of the biggest names in British fashion; Cheryl had her music, and it’d certainly be nice to see tabloids devote as much space to the North-West charities that Coleen Rooney supports as they do to counting how many holidays she takes. I’m not attempting to re-package the WAGs as feminist heroines. By definition, these women were celebrated for who they were married to: that felt uncomfortably anachronistic back in 2006, and it’s even more discordant in our current cultural climate. But they certainly deserved better than the unabashed vitriol that they were met with. Misogyny is still misogyny, even when its targets wear fake tan and like shopping - and, let’s face it, Coleen’s tanning assistant did not cost us that Jules Rimet trophy.