World Cup: WAGs to riches - The business of being perfect

Updated 8:15 AM EDT, Tue September 9, 2014

Story highlights

Secret world of a 'WAG' -- wives and girlfriends of football players

Under huge pressure to be "perfect" Barbie doll partners

Some women more successful than their sports star beaus

Is being a 'WAG' seen as a career move for some girls?

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(CNN) —  

Eye-popping physiques, multimillion dollar incomes, celebrity status – and that’s just the women.

When you’re dating one of the top footballers on the planet, the pressure to be “perfect” is huge.

In football’s answer to Hollywood, media scrutiny of elite players is fierce. And the paparazzi is just as hungry for images of their wives and girlfriends – dubbed “WAGs” by the British tabloids.

Lenses are snapped with even more ferocity during the World Cup, as Nancy Dell’Olio, former partner to ex-England team manager Sven-Goran Eriksson, found out to her cost.

“It is quite sexist and in many cases really not quite fair, the way they were looking at partners,” said the glamorous 52-year-old American-Italian lawyer, in her lilting European accent.

“It was quite intrusive, and that was independent of my will,” added Dell’Olio, who for almost a decade watched her high-profile relationship play out across the front and back pages of the press.

“But when you are next to a personality so important in football you become absorbed in that role.”

As with all social groups, there was a WAG hierarchy.

“There’s a difference between if you are the partner of the manager, than if you are the partner of a footballer,” says Dell’Olio in between sips of ginger tea, at London’s swank member’s only Club at the Ivy.

“It was always ‘Nancy Dell’Olio plus any other of what you might call WAGs,’” she adds with a raised eyebrow. “So in this way I was quite distinctive, I was never part of that world.”

She’s got the look

It’s a world of glossy women with shopping habits as expensive as their bodies, if you believe the stereotypes splashed across celebrity magazines.

In truth, partners face enormous pressures to live up to Barbie doll ideals of beauty.

“No one wants to be the ugly WAG,” says author and newspaper columnist “The Secret WAG,” wife of an England player who has kept her identity a mystery, while revealing the inner workings of her lavish lifestyle.

“We’re put under so much pressure to look as perfect as we can. We’re all striving to be the thinnest, the prettiest, the one with the nicest hair.”

Getty Images
Getty Images

The relentless drive for perfection comes from a fear of “being traded in for a newer model” when temptation beckons, she says.

“Mostly it’s our own personal insecurities, because you know footballers don’t have great reputations. There’s so many kiss-and-tell stories in the newspapers, and we all live in fear that this is going to happen to us.

“Footballers today aren’t just guys who kick a ball about. They’re celebrities. They’re dating supermodels, actresses.

“For us normal girls who don’t have careers in the public eye, it’s a massive pressure to live up to.”

Power couple

That’s not to say the partners of footballers are simply pretty accessories – in some cases, they’re even more famous than their sporting beaus.

Victoria Beckham and Shakira needn’t rely on high-profile lovers David Beckham and Gerard Pique for their own successful music careers.

Though it does help.

“Coleen Rooney’s book has sold more copies than her husband Wayne’s,” said Alison Kervin, sports editor of British newspaper the Mail on Sunday, and author of “WAGs at the World Cup.”

“It’s a really interesting phenomenon to get your head around, because she’s only famous because she’s going out with a successful England footballer.”

Cinderella story?

With top players earning over $70 million a year, dating one can be an instant ticket to fame and fortune.

“A footballer could take you from a world where you’re living a basic existence in social housing, to living in a multimillion dollar mansion and traveling the world,” says Kervin.

“It has a Cinderella quality to it, and I think that’s what we find so appealing.”

Already a successful property lawyer in Italy by the time she met Eriksson, Dell’Olio’s is hardly a rags to riches tale.

But since dating the Swede, she has become a British celebrity in her own right, hosting TV program “Footballers Cribs,” appearing on “Strictly Come Dancing,” and soon to perform her own stand-up show at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival.

Getty Images
Getty Images

She admits the relationship “probably did help” raise her public profile.

“But it’s not the only thing,” says the immaculate entrepreneur in a stylish lemon two-piece skirt suit, her raven hair loosely piled high.

As for the suggestion women pursue footballers as a career move – Dell’Olio’s eyes open wide in horror.

“I find it ridiculous this opinion,” she says haughtily, her earrings jangling in agreement.

“And negative, because there’s a lot of jealousy involved probably. But it’s a little bit stupid, if you don’t mind me saying.

“Of course it’s only about love. Every couple together, it should be love.”

Give and take

Dating a footballer is not a relationship for the fainthearted, with women beholden to clubs just as much as their men.

If that means abstaining in the bedroom before big matches, then so be it. “It’s really unfair,” says “The Secret WAG.”

“My whole life has kind of been following my husband around, you have to up and leave countless times when he moves clubs.

“I spent many years studying and I’ve never been in a situation where I could put all those years to good use.

“I feel as though I’m constantly living in the shadow of my husband, and it took a lot of adjustment to accept that.”

British phenomenon?

Nowhere is the spotlight so intense on footballer’s private lives then in the UK – “this is the country of gossip,” says Dell’Olio.

The word “WAG” was dreamed up by the British tabloids during the 2006 World Cup, and has since made its way into the Oxford Dictionary.

At the time, just as much column space was dedicated to Victoria Beckham and Cheryl Cole’s shopping sprees, as England’s lackluster performance in Germany eight years ago.

Cheryl Cole and Victoria Beckham watch the game in 2006. - (Getty Images)
Cheryl Cole and Victoria Beckham watch the game in 2006. - (Getty Images)

“I think it was a mixture of England not doing particularly well, so there was nothing much to report on, and the girls just out partying,” says Kervin.

“You can be very critical of these women and you can analyze what happened to feminism, but the bottom line is, they seem to be having a bloody good time.”

Glamorous as these women may seem, ultimately they are just “normal people trying to be the best mothers and wives they can,” says the “Secret WAG.”

Normal people, that is, with exceptional lives.

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