Friday, July 19, 2024

Europe’s Soccer Soap Opera: U.K. Star Kyle Walker’s Un-Blended Family

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The 2024 Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) continent-wide championships, the quadrennial affair that, for some of Europe’s soccer-mad soccer-heads, is somehow more accessible fun and more important than the World Cup, has brought a ton of drama to host-country Germany’s stadiums this year. Christiano Ronaldo missed a “gimme” penalty and cried about it! France’s Kylian Mbappe got a broken nose and now, busily doing his footie-magic thing in his special black onfield mask, looks something like a super-dashing love child of Batman and Leonardo from the Ninja Turtles! Mbappe’s playing through the pain and hasn’t actually been playing up to snuff — the new Real Madrid star awaits surgery at the end of the tourney — but off field he has been quietly stellar, wading in between games to appeal to his fellow countrymen the importance of avoiding Marine Le Pen at the polls! And, the French did just that.

But none of that has quite measured up to the effervescent lifestyle debate triggered by the sprightly familial goings-on in the stands around Deutschland.

Americans will require a primer on the social matrix in European soccer stadiums: When Taylor Swift and Travis Kelce’s mom go to a Chiefs’ game, they’re usually discreetly seconded to an extremely expensive VIP skybox in whatever stadium. The point is that the couple’s (burgeoning millions of) dyed-in-the-wool Swifties and Chiefs followers alike only receive super-grainy telephoto paparazzi shots of Swift and Momma Kelce jumping up and down and hugging each other each time Patrick Mahomes connects for a TD with Kelce. Kelce is, per force, down on the field or in the locker room. He doesn’t pop up to the box say hi to his mom and girlfriend — instead, it’s his brother who goes up there and screams and jumps around with his mom and Swift. Bottom line: thin photographic gruel for those fans.

By contrast, in European football stadiums and specifically at the European championship, there’s a homier and far less private architecture at work than that enjoyed by Taylor Swift and Mama Kelce. First, there are exactly zero skyboxes for the players’ partners and/or wives and families. As the president of the British Football Association, Prince William will, of course, be in a box with other soccer bigwigs at any Euro event. But for the life partners and families of the players, there are discreet blocks of VIP/family seats in each stadium, which areas are well-policed but quite open and set intentionally low down on the field — meaning, unroofed and unglazed, thus highly accessible photographically.

The reason these areas are set so low down at the field is that, post-match, the players can easily pop up from the field or the sidelines to visit their families in the stands. The result is a public relations agent’s nail-biting nightmare, and the press know this, which makes the super-candid paparazzi imagery from the post-match family visitations all the more tasty and hungrily devoured by the faithful.

The crucial fact is that in those seats, effectively just above the field’s sidelines, any facial or bodily expression of any kind, the slightest evincing of distraction or pique or disappointment or joy by any player or family member will be minutely tracked and pored over by the media in real time, television camera operators and still photographers alike. If we can agree that Nature abhors a vacuum, then it’s absolutely the nature of photographers and TV camera people to fill that photographic vacuum with the most candid shots possible of the world’s most famous athletes in repose. And here is the key: Those very famous and well-paid athletic heroes are very much with their nearest and dearest in those shots.

Put more brutally, it’s a golden, tailor-made opportunity for the press to watch the immense pressures of the tournament and its necessary isolations at work on the players and their families — again, on those very internationally successful soccer players who are the most well-paid and famous athletic celebrities on the Continent. All fault lines within the familial relationships so displayed are exposed and pored over in the press. Each and every one.

Added to the freight of those player visits to this part of the stands comes another fact: Week in and week out during the month-long tourney, the players live in the renowned athletes’ bubble, largely inaccessible to their families. There may well occur family days, such as England’s staged “family days” scheduled on the day after each game. But even those relatively well-handled tumbles have become somewhat difficult for the players and were, fascinatingly, being shortened by trainer Gareth Southgate after the Group stage, according to reports.

Second: Although a certain amount of “rule breakage” of what follows will always inevitably occur, in general, player/partner conjugal visits are supposedly — at least sort-of, somewhat or mostly, take your pick — verboten during world-class tourneys. True is, any close contact with any people outside a given tournament bubble opens a host of psychological doors on the players that can affect performance on the field, although it must be quickly added that the jury is well out on this. In matters of abstinence, the working theory is that any complications brought by abstinence present less of a danger to the athletes’ collective on-field performance than the complications carried by a lack of abstinence.

Historically speaking, it can be argued that abstinence at any point of the day or night does not seem much on the mind of Britain’s star international fullback and Manchester City stalwart Kyle Walker, whose youngest son with Kilner, who merrily arrived just last April, is pictured at top in his father’s arms in the Düsseldorf stands on July 6, immediately after the British victory over Switzerland, which brought the team to their semifinal berth against the Netherlands. Pictured immediately above with his mother, Annie Kilner, in Gelsenkirchen, Bavaria, on June 30, this young fellow will, no doubt, have a fair number of paparazzi shots of him at various world-class soccer events to salt through his yearbook by the time he gets to university.

And therein lies the tale of the social to-and-fro surrounding this European championship.

In terms of international star-footballer lifestyle, and with four boys, one a newborn, the last weeks have not been easy for Annie Kilner, whom we should salute with all possible sympathy. Specifically, it’s difficult for her to leave her support network and decamp to Germany for the tournament month, unlike some of the other players’ partners less freighted with newborn duties. So, as London’s Fleet Street also endlessly chronicles, Kilner has been jetting in privately for each game with her burgeoning squad of boys in tow. Yes, it’s not the most environmentally friendly method of doing the European championships, but private air does effectively get Kilner and the Walker/Kilner brood in and out of Deutschland with a lightning fast turnaround, and they spend the month nesting at home. The impressive carbon tonnage they can offset later.

All that noted, it’s also a fact that Walker is as heroically productive off the field as he is on it.

Put differently, the reasons that Kyle Walker and Annie Kilner are such constant and beloved targets of the London and the European press are many. Not the least of these reasons is Walker’s staggering $11 million-plus per year salary at Manchester City under the fearsome Pep Guardiola, as well as Walker’s range on field and his intense productivity for the club in a world-beating run of four consecutive Premier League championships.

But along the way, off the field, Walker and Kilner have, also, earned a reputation as having a tempestuous marriage, and that proclivity for storm, though for the moment technically tamped down and just somewhat under wraps, is ongoing. Thus, Kilner’s and Walker’s joint appearances with their brood in the “family visitation moments” in the stands after England games has been under photographic scrutiny with an unmatched intensity.

Some background is required: Kyle Walker is, also, the sire and paterfamilias of a different set of children who have been rather off the books until recently. During a 2020-21 break that Walker and Kilner took from their marriage, Walker fathered a son with British sometime-model-and-social-media-figure-about-town Lauryn Goodman. After that surprising joust, Walker and Kilner laboriously patched things up. And kudos to Kilner and her husband both for that.

Within those bounds, matters seemed at least quiet-ish in the star footballer’s private life, until mid-2023, when Walker was informed by Ms. Goodman that, in fact, a tryst they had had in London had resulted in a lovely second child, a daughter. According to the timing of the girl’s birth, one only needed to count back to arrive at the notion that that tryst occurred at a point after Walker and Annie Kilner had patched things up following his first child with Goodman.

Lauren Goodman held ranks for a while, but eventually, in the summer of 2023, she broke ranks and informed Walker and Annie Kilner, separately, and then informed the public, of her daughter’s paternity. Predictably, that threw the Walker/Kilner marriage into a renewed rocky period. Last January, three short months from delivering their fourth child, Kilner tossed Walker out of the house. On the field, Walker doubled down and helped Manchester City take the 2024 Premier League championship.

Which brings us to the 2024 Euro championship, where, over the last weeks across Germany, all of the actors in this Shakespearean comedy have appeared on stage. Pictured above in April 2023, pregnant with her second child fathered by Walker, Goodman took this summer to prove that she is not the woman to stand by as large events involving the father of her two children, such as the European championships, occur. The close reader will notice that the habit of many players is to kit their offspring out with jerseys bearing their numbers and the legend “Dad,” as Walker’s and Kilner’s boys are kitted out in the Frankfurt am Main stands after the Denmark game on June 20.

Not to be outdone, it was arguably inevitable that Lauren Goodman mustered her Walker children into jerseys with Walker’s iconic number 2 and the legend “Daddy” on the back and booked her family onto a plane to Germany as the tournament began in June.

Long story short, the prospect of Walker’s two families colliding, or even being present, at the (Denmark-England) game on June 20 was a bleeding nightmare for England’s coach, Gareth Southgate, and for the team’s upper management. As predictably, this was a total delight for the British press, and specifically for the tabloid Daily Mail, whose correspondents profiled and quoted Goodman liberally as they followed her to Germany and back.

For their part, England’s executives were forced to double down on their security detail for the “family VIP” stadium seats, and the balloon was floated with no doubt that the seating area would be off limits to Goodman and those two children of Walker’s.

In lifestyle-explosion sense, the Denmark game didn’t provide the paparazzi with the fireworks their editors back in London were hoping for — Kilner and Walker stayed in the “family-VIP” section and Walker didn’t visit his two children with Goodman, in a different section of the stands. That noted, as pictured in those stands on June 20, second from top, knowing that they were under what we might call clear and present danger, Annie Kilner and her husband do look pre-occupied, to put it diplomatically.

The takeaway is two-fold. First, all is not as easy or as gilt as it may seem in the lives of those players or their families at the pinnacles of the globe’s most popular sport.

Second, we can tip the hat in salute to both Annie Kilner and Lauryn Goodman for taking the player’s children resolutely to the championship games. Nominally separated from her husband and gossiped about to gargantuan proportions in the British press, Annie Kilner could easily excuse herself from showing up with any of her sons by Walker for any game, period. But she’s made of sterner stuff. To date, she has resolutely appeared at each and every England contest literally before hundreds of thousands, a textbook execution of quite some grit when compared with other celebrities in potentially embarrassing circumstances. Her point is a simple one. Come what may, Kilner will have Walker pay fatherly obeisance to the weight of his paternal obligations.

It will remain an extraordinary irony of Kyle Walker’s already extraordinary life that his former mistress Lauren Goodman is operating on exactly the same parameters. He blends so excellently with his Manchester City and England teammates on the field, but off it, Walker seems as if he could use a measure of friendly coaching about how better to blend his family.

In a way, just this week, the 2024 European soccer championship shields Walker for the moment in a kind of hazy game-time truce. His concern — or more specifically and accurately — the great concern for his lawyers and advisors will be what the two mothers of his six children decide to do with him after he plays England’s last game.

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