The World Cup shows off its better half
The well-worn cliche describes football as a game of two halves, but it never used to refer to the players and their glamorous partners. Yet at the World Cup in Germany it's the other half who are making all the running.
Since the first ball was kicked, almost as much attention has been focused on the off-field antics of players' wives and girlfriends, or WAGs as the British press has dubbed them.
So far the English contingent - unlike their menfolk - has impressed most, with a string of commanding performances in trendy boutiques and nightspots. With at least two being accompanied by personal fake-tan therapists, little has been done to dispel the stereotype of shopaholic dolly birds for whom looks are paramount.
'Maybe, some years from now, the day will come when an England player marries a woman who is marginally on the homely side, or is just the tiniest bit uninterested in shopping and fashion, or has, say, an A-level,' wrote newspaper columnist Carole Cadwalladr. 'But the 2006 World Cup is not the moment to indulge in such far-fetched flights of fancy.'
A quick glance at the off-field exploits of the tournament's top players shows a mutual attraction between footballers and models.
Brazil's Ronaldo, Ukrainian star Andriy Shevchenko and Portugal's Luis Figo are either married to or dating leading lingerie, swimwear or catwalk models.
Czech Republic star Thomas Rosicky and South Korea's Ahn Jung-hwan have opted for beauty queens, while Italian pin-up boy Francesco Totti is going out with another blonde pin-up, Ilary Blasi.
Although most women in Britain thought footballers' wives were bad role models, a recent survey suggested one in 10 would ditch their partners to become one. The seemingly exotic lifestyle of mansions, holidays and indulgent beauty treatments were the main attractions.
It may be a superficial image, but it has been strengthened in recent days by stories emanating from the spa town of Baden-Baden, where the English WAGs are staying.
Upmarket boutiques there are said to have ordered around GBP200,000 ($2.8 million) of extra designer stock in anticipation of their arrival, and have not been disappointed.
In one hour, six wives and girlfriends reportedly spent GBP57,000 on clothes and shoes, an astonishing sum that would not have made the tiniest of dents in their partners' multimillion-dollar salaries.
But today's WAGs could hardly be accused of simply seeking a free meal ticket.
For some it can be a lucrative career choice. Take Colleen McLoughlin, fiancee of English star Wayne Rooney, who has already earned GBP5 million this year from modelling contracts and a book deal. 'It's the newest form of stardom,' said British publicity guru Max Clifford. 'There were movie stars, then there were pop stars, TV stars, and now there are stars who are stars because of what their boyfriend or husband does.'
The mass of photographers covering every move the English women make in Baden-Baden say they have been invited into bars and restaurants to snap attention-seeking Wags. At the exclusive Brenner's Hotel, where all the women are staying, there was a commotion after some bikini-clad wives sunbathing by the pool objected to the attention of distant paparazzi lenses. No sooner had staff erected a tarpaulin screen to protect their privacy than other, publicity-conscious WAGs asked for it to be taken down. The screen eventually stayed as the views of reportedly older, and more modest, wives finally prevailed.
They have, of course, only the most experienced member of their group to blame for the frenzy of interest and intrusion.
Nine years ago it was David Beckham and Posh Spice who filled the yawning publicity vacuum left by the death of Princess Diana.
They quickly became the favoured 'royal couple' of the voracious British press, and Victoria Beckham shrewdly cashed in on the lucrative sponsorships, endorsements and other comer- cial opportunities the attention created.
In Germany, the so-called 'Queen of the WAGs' has kept a low profile, leaving the every move and fashion faux pas of her colleagues to be analysed and criticised back home in excruciating detail.
With Beckham possibly playing in his last major competition, and Victoria the wrong side of 30, observers are now predicting they will soon be usurped by the brash Rooney/McLoughlin combination.
For the formerly shell-suit-clad McLoughlin, that is great news.
'They are influencing people,' said Clifford. 'A lot of them are young girls between 17 and 21 who don't have a lot to spend, but there are millions of them and they are a big market.'