Wags beget Wams beget Warbles

The trouble with football is that the game lasts only 90 minutes and most of the time not much happe

There was a time when football, even during the World Cup, was confined to the sports pages, except when England actually won the damn thing. Now, though, the Times, for example, publishes 16-page daily sections on "The Game", more than twice the space it devotes to "World News", and football spreads into news and features. Monday morning's Sun gave the World Cup the first five pages of the main paper and even the Independent cleared the front page for it. News-stand browsers needed strong stomachs, too.

As if a picture of David Beckham and Ashley Cole with their mouths wide open wasn't enough, the Mirror added a close-up of the England captain throwing up, with no detail (or no Photoshop manipulation) spared. All this was to celebrate our lads reaching the last eight after famous victories over, er, Trinidad and Tobago, Paraguay and Ecuador.

Just as we now wage war on small, weak countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan, so we now beat small, weak countries at football, and get mightily excited about it. We struggled a bit against Trinidad and Tobago, so perhaps we could persuade them to enter separate teams in future to give us an easier passage.

The trouble with football is that a game lasts only 90 minutes and, most of the time, nothing much happens except players passing a ball around in the middle of the pitch. The challenge, therefore, is to fill all that space. The papers had sent legions of reporters to Germany to cover riots by drunken English fans. But apart from two nights in Stuttgart, which looked and sounded about as bad as a wet Friday evening in Milton Keynes, the fans failed to oblige.

This explains the attention lavished on the Wags (the players' wives and girlfriends), supplemented where necessary by the less glamorous Mads (mums and dads). If politicians are worried about voter apathy, they might try something similar in the Commons public gallery or at party conference time, offering Wams (wives and mistresses), Glads (gay lovers and darlings), or, in the case of the Lib Dems, Warbles (wives and rent boys, lubricants excluded).

The great thing about Wags, from the press point of view, is that not only are they young, slim, leggy and white (much whiter than the players themselves), but also that they behave as women are supposed to be behave: shopping, gossiping, dancing, posing, painting their toenails and having occasional tantrums, in between giving their men what the red tops call nooky.

They are the identikit dumb blondes of every male news editor's dreams. Melanie Slade, Theo Walcott's girlfriend, may have flown back to do A-levels, but she's new to this lark and anyway Walcott didn't make the team. Maria de la Cruz, the wife of Ecuador's star player, may have stayed quietly in the hotel and gone to bed at 10pm, but Ecuador lost. As Suzanne Moore wrote in the Mail on Sunday: "Nothing changes as far as women are concerned."

Bad fix

One of the problems with this World Cup is that newspapers, having invested so many resources in advance, cannot register the truth: that the first two weeks were a bit of a non-event, with the games mostly dull and predictable. But my own flagging interest perked up when I saw the Daily Mirror on 23 June. "The Fix," it proclaimed, in a display covering two-thirds of the front page.

Now that would be a World Cup story. It turned out to be a puff for the 2006-2007 domestic fixture list. Our red tops should learn that, Wags notwithstanding, a proper, straightforward word is sometimes the best one, even if it does have as many as seven letters.

Sprinkling profits

One of the side effects of privatisation - doubtless totally unforeseen by the geniuses who thought it up - is to put many vital British utilities into the hands of overseas capitalists. I have nothing against foreigners (though I don't count any among my best friends), but it seems wrong that those responsible for our water, gas, electricity, transport and so on should be able to ramp up prices, cut supplies and generally make a hash of things without having to suffer hostile stares from neighbours, embarrassment at parties and, above all, harassment from Her Majesty's red-top press.

So credit to the Daily Mail for pursuing Harry Roels, the Dutch chief executive of RWE, the German parent of Thames Water (which lets nearly one-third of its water leak away while imposing a hosepipe ban), to his home in Utrecht.

There, the Mail found brimming pools, immaculate lawns and water sprinklers at full power. At Roels's £2m home, the "large garden is especially lovely and verdant", and he pays only half as much for his water as the average Thames customer. The Mail may be a nasty and bigoted paper, but I am glad to see nastiness and bigotry serving a good cause.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 03 July 2006 issue of the New Statesman, 7/7: one year on