“If you have a girlfriend or a wife, then you need to love her very much. It’s the same with the ball: you need to love it and also take care of it.” Football and love – perhaps not the most obvious of bedfellows at first sight, but for charismatic Argentinian coach Ricardo La Volpe they clearly have much in common. He is far from a lone voice either, with Brazilian forward Ronaldinho eagerly echoing a similar ardour for the spherical star of the game. “It’s my girlfriend, my partner, my fiancée – it’s everything to me,” he has mused. “Without the ball, I’m nothing.”
Everywhere across Planet Football, in fact, links have long been forged between the sport and affairs of the heart. Whether they are speaking to the press, choosing a career path, buying presents or even getting a tattoo, footballers seem to revel in proving how much love colours their choices. Both pursuits feed on passion, of course, and FIFA.com now fans the flames of that passion by looking back at some of the most memorable couplings between romance and the beautiful game. For better or for worse...
Mass and Messi
The ties between love and football were given a semi-official blessing when two Mexican couples decided to marry in Argentina in 2007. Nothing very strange about that perhaps, except that the mock ceremony took place under a portrait of their idol, Diego Maradona, and with a football as a witness. “What the god of football hath joined together, let not man put asunder,” proclaimed the priest of the Iglesia Maradoniana as he blessed the couples.
Argentinians have featured in celebrations of another kind too, with both Gabriel Batistuta and Lionel Messi both dedicating messages of love to their respective partners after scoring a goal. Fresh from spearing in a free-kick against AC Milan in the Italian Super Cup in 1996, Fiorentina forward 'Batigol' raced towards a television camera and announced to the watching world: “Irina, te amo” (Irina, I love you). As for Messi, he followed his strike against Mallorca in the Copa del Rey semi-finals last year by drawing his fiancée an imaginary heart with his hands. The goal, which put Barcelona level at 1-1 on the night, also sealed their place in the showpiece final.
Two-and-a-half years earlier in November 2006, Messi’s Barça team-mate Andres Iniesta made a similar statement of his feelings during a UEFA Champions League tie against Levski Sofia. Having fired in his side’s second strike, he made a point of kissing his left wrist. “I did it to vary things a little bit,” he told reporters, before admitting he had dedicated the goal to his girlfriend, Ana. Over in the Spanish capital, meanwhile, veteran Real Madrid striker Raul has never felt much need to vary his celebrations. A Real stalwart since 1992 and scorer of over 300 goals for Los Merengues, the No7 has enjoyed a long and healthy love affair with the club, but it is to his wife that he swears loyalty when he kisses his wedding ring each time he finds the net.
Promise me the moon
In Italy, several players growing ever more excited as the 2010 FIFA World Cup™ approaches have made vows to loved ones contingent on Gli Azzurri retaining their global crown. “If I win the World Cup, I promise that my wife Pamela and I will have a child,” said Domenico Criscito recently, while his team-mate Federico Marchetti has sworn: “I’ll marry my fiancée and I’ll get a fourth tattoo.” The Cagliari goalkeeper could perhaps follow the example of David Beckham if he ends up returning to the tattoo parlour, as the England midfielder has the name of his wife Victoria and a picture of her inked into his left arm, along with ten roses to commemorate ten years of marriage.
Proving his love has never been a problem for the former Manchester United and Real Madrid star, who also celebrated his tin anniversary by taking Victoria to a luxury hotel for a candle-lit dinner before offering her a magnificent diamond-encrusted jewel. Perhaps he was inspired by the philosophy of his England predecessor Glenn Hoddle, who once said: “The ball is like a diamond: you don’t get rid of it, you give it.” Elaborate gifts are also the domain of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, who bought around 400km² of the moon for his fiancée, slightly putting to shame legendary former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly, who nonetheless took offence when it was suggested he had celebrated his anniversary by taking in some lower-league football fare. “Of course I didn't take my wife to see Rochdale as an anniversary present,” he protested. “It was her birthday. Would I have got married in the football season? Anyway, it was Rochdale reserves."
Numerous wives have had slightly better luck influencing their men down the years. “We don’t talk about it very much, but my wife is of paramount importance in my life,” explained David Ginola in 1992. “I’m convinced that there are no great players without great wives.” World-class talents Sergio Aguero and Mark van Bommel might go along with that, but they would surely balk at the suggestion they owe their career trajectory to their female companions. After all, Aguero’s wife is the daughter of Argentina coach Maradona, while Van Bommel has Netherlands coach Bert van Marwijk as his father-in-law.
Erstwhile Belgium midfielder Marc Wilmots could hardly take offence, on the other hand. An iconic figure in Belgian football in the 1990s, he made his professional debut at Sint-Truiden, where he met his future wife, Katrien, the daughter of the club’s President. A lawyer by profession, she went on to guide the ‘Taureau de Dongelberg’ (Bull of Dongelberg) throughout his career. “I never had an agent,” he explained. Likewise, Portugal’s Fernando Chalana would have been lost without his ever-present spouse, who managed every aspect of his life to the extent that she applied for journalistic accreditation so she could follow him to UEFA EURO 1984. “If Anabela isn’t allowed to accompany me everywhere, I’ll go back to Portugal,” warned the moustachioed winger.
Lev Yashin is known throughout football for his revolutionary impact, not least in the placement of his defence, but the landmark goalkeeper’s tendency to order his team-mates around also got him in regular trouble with his wife, who found that he “shouted too much”. Possibly keen to eradicate any such outside influences, Berti Vogts banned all amorous relations between couples during his time as Germany coach at EURO 1992. That represented a major U-turn on the stance adopted by his predecessor Franz Beckenbauer at the 1990 FIFA World Cup, but while Beckenbauer’s men rose to the summit of the global game in Italy, disappointment awaited them two years later.