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how footballers became today’s dandies

Cristiano Ronaldo offers a new vision of alpha masculinity in 2014, one that allegedly takes its inspiration from sports and porn. But are footballers secretly dreaming of turning into WAGs?

Footballers love fashion don’t they? Cristiano Ronaldo sells his own range of hardly-there CR7 underwear and shows off his hard waxed body in all its campaigns. Hidetoshi Nakata is an Editor-at-Large at Monocle and he’s always papped hanging out with Nicolas Ghesquière. Daniel Sturridge wears Hood By Air to Sketch and a pork pie hat to the Storm Models party. But, of course, fashion loves footballers too. Lanvin are Arsenal’s official suit partners. Dolce & Gabbana used Lionel Messi in their campaigns. This year Brazilian Vogue have shot Neymar and Gisele for their cover while Spanish Vogue have shot Ronaldo alongside his swimsuit model girlfriend Irina Shayk for their cover. This is all very well and good, and rather sweet, but is it really appropriate alpha-male activity: attending fashion shows, designing underwear, having a bikini wax? Is this what dads are dreaming of when they kick about a ball with their son in the park in the rain, that they’ll hopefully become a fashion cover-boy? Are today’s footballers the heroic and alluring role models of an enlightened age, or sad clowns conjured up by a worldwide crisis of masculinity?  

Although often portrayed as boorish misogynists, as the worst sorts of overgrown boy-children – having it off with granny-prostitutes and in-laws, throwing up on hairdressers in taxis, bottling innocents in nightclubs, breaking into women’s prisons out of pure curiosity – the unreal levels of self-confidence possessed by a lot of footballers, not to mention their vast reserves of spare time and cash, allow them to constantly challenge heteronormative visions of masculinity. They’re today’s dandies, even sexual heretics of sorts. This summer the writer Mark Simpson, inventor of the term “metrosexual” in a 1994 article in the Independent, identified a new model of manliness as exemplified by Cristiano Ronaldo: the “spornosexual”. What’s it all about though? How have we ended up here? And are you a spornosexual?

The metrosexual was a metropolitan heterosexual, now a 90s relic. Apparently like me they enjoy scented candles and moisturiser; unlike me they desire designer jeans and bright dress shirts. These metrosexuals like shopping and the gym, and they love themselves, really, really love themselves. Such were the symptoms of a modern man in an urban, post-industrialist capitalist culture: shopping and fucking yourself. In 2002 Mark Simpson identified David Beckham as the epitome of this trend, a handsome “über-metrosexual” leaping from mountaintop to mountaintop like a brave Nietzschean superman. Now I can totally understand this as I once snuck into another, rival fashion magazine’s party and found myself face-to-face with Beckham, standing sheepishly to the side of the tiny dance-floor on his own, looking happy and sad at the same time as he watched his wife partying. For whatever reason I’ve never been so star-struck in my life, and as I stood in the darkness all I could think of was that goal he scored from the half-way line in 1996.

The process of identifying new models of (often highly sexualised) masculinity appears to be intrinsically tied to major tournaments. They’re times when the world’s most famous and fittest men are eagerly peacocking around in the latest haircuts and clothes; in a triumph of metrosexual aplomb, a young David Beckham wore his Jean Paul Gaultier sarong on a night out with Victoria in the immediate run-up to France ‘98 (a tournament that ended in disgrace after he was sent off against Argentina and England lost). They’re also those rarest of times when the world’s media turns to the objectification of men’s bodies rather than women’s. The idea of metrosexuality emerged after World Cup ‘94 in America; its beer-swilling opposite, the “new lad”, reached its apogee at Euro ‘96 in England; and David Beckham was anointed the über-metrosexual after World Cup ‘02 in South Korea and Japan. All things considered it’s unsurprising that this summer’s tournament should herald a new manliness. World Cup fashion offers an overview of contemporary manhood, and it’s about a lot more than footballers in un-matching pink and blue boots that look like toothpaste.

Mark Simpson’s original 1994 article was titled, “Here Come The Mirror Men: Why The Future Is Metrosexual.” What of these mirror men now though, when everyone from school-kids to world leaders is taking selfies? In the England camp this summer the popular kids – Daniel Sturridge, Raheem Sterling, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain – snapped selfies together on the beach, just like anyone else would. Today the mild narcissism of the metrosexual appears delightfully nostalgic, and in no way sexually transgressive. Vanity is everywhere, it’s a comforting entertainment of the post-Joey-Essex years; the latest addition to Select Model Management’s special bookings roster can’t tell the time despite owning a £70,000 Rolex watch, and wears leopard-print to match his Bengal cat, whose Twitter handle is @PrinceEssex. Our role models are odd, which helps explain why I’ve witnessed gangs of lads shopping in Bicester Village wearing a strange uniform of boy Uggs and jeggings. What are these other models of masculinity that have appeared after the metrosexuals and the new lads?

One development has been the rise of the creatine-soaked gym monsters that appear in Clive Martin’s melancholic tale of “How sad young douchebags took over modern Britain”: “Their heads are too small for their bodies, their shoulders are wider than a pub television and they have shit Robbie Williams tattoos.” You’ll probably recognise them as the buff stars of the Holy Guido Trinity of Jersey Shore, Geordie Shore and TOWIE. They’ve invented their own witching hour, T-shirt time, which is literally just walking around topless and then putting on a T-shirt; they’re all custard cousins; the boys look like Greek sculptures, the girls like Rubens paintings. 

In their obsession with working out and showing off, they fit the definition of spornosexual men as described by Simpson: ”these pumped-up offspring of those Ronaldo and Beckham lunch-box ads, where sport got into bed with porn.” They’re no longer interested in aromatherapy or shopping for clothes or even wearing clothes really, rather they want a perfect body and a perfect soul. They don’t moisturise, they wax. They don’t tone, they rip. Men suddenly want to show their bodies off again, and this is reflected in the skin-tight World Cup kits that cling to them. Alexis Sanchez likes to pull his shorts up and show off his under-bum; Sulley Muntari likes to pull his down and play with his ass hanging out; Hulk just has a huge butt, like a Renault Mégane. In one unexpected turn of events after the Croatia v Cameroon match, former Sevilla teammates Ivan Rakitic and Stephane Mbia swapped not only their shirts but also their shorts, stripping down to their underwear in a touching scene of bromantic intimacy that took the edge off an otherwise exceedingly violent encounter.

Have another look at the poster-boy of spornosexuality, Cristiano Ronaldo, shot naked on the cover of Vogue by Mario Testino. He stands with his hands on his hips, facing us front-on in the now unmistakeable stance of the arrogant footballer. In this summer’s Champions League final he took off his shirt and struck that same confrontational pose, except screaming, after scoring in injury time. Mario Balotelli also performed an almost identical celebration for Italy at Euro 2012, and afterwards commissioned a topless statue of himself for his house. It’s all very classical. Of course footballers already provided echoes of the ancient world through their enthusiasm for group sex – consider, for instance, the Sun headline from 2007, “Ronaldo orgy with five hookers” – but now it’s appearing in their very physicality. On his Vogue cover Cristiano’s modesty is protected only by his girlfriend, Irina Shayk, who’s draped over his body like a designer toga. He’s undressed and she’s not. It’s obviously a very homoerotic image, and one that evokes classical sculpture and the worship of the body; all Ancient Greek athletes competed naked in order to celebrate masculine beauty and please the gods. So maybe everyone should throw away their Nike running clobber and streak around Vicky Park in nothing at all? 

Is nudity the new fashion, or just another case of the Emperor’s New Clothes? I worry that the modern man is not so much a classical statue come to life as a grotesque Essex fantasy gone wrong. Consider this holiday snap of Bobby and Harry TOWIE swanning around Marbella in cheeky half-thongs like a pair of bleached, tattooed, tangerine coloured wardrobe malfunctions just waiting to happen. I’m haunted by this image, attracted and horrified at the same time, I fear to look yet I cannot turn away. It’s confusing but strangely compelling. What are they trying to look like: shaved poodles, Greek gods, electro-clash pop stars? It’s hard to tell but I think I’m starting to understand. If spornosexuality is inspired by porn stars then surely it’s inspired by female porn stars – with their deep-tanned and disarmingly muscular bodies, their bad tattoos and blonde highlights – rather than the tubby middle-aged men that they perform alongside. In other words Cristiano Ronaldo and his acolytes are imitating the international aesthetic of the porn star/ swimsuit model/ WAG and transmogrifying themselves into the objects of their own desire; which makes sense, right, if you’re in love with your sexual fantasies but not as much as you’re in love with yourself?