Friday, 7 December 2012



If ever there were a goal to fit the opening titles of Gazzetta Football Italia, Channel 4’s much-loved and pioneering coverage of Serie A in the early 90s, then it was the one scored on December 6, 1992 by English football’s clown-prince, Paul Gascoigne.

The previous week he had notched a first goal for Lazio amidst no less a fixture than the Eternal City’s derby, rising in the 87th minute to head an equaliser that had seared him eternally in the hearts of the club’s notorious ultras. A week later, he followed up with a slalom through the Pescara defence that took six players out of the game with seven touches, a goal that seared him forever into the consciousness of tifosi of all stripes, maybe even the more magnanimous giallorossi – although perhaps not the one who, insistent that Gazza take him up on his offer of hospitality after he’d stumbled unwittingly into a bar full of Roma fans, spiked his drink with LSD, confining him to “two days hallucinating in bed”.

In a sense, such a tale is emblematic of Gascoigne’s entire career – so outlandish (for a top-level footballer) as to be barely credible, yet somehow matter of course when put in the context of the wall-to-wall craziness of his life, a life that tumbled into an equally erratic career that delivered fewer highs than his inordinate talent had promised but that still almost unfailingly brings a glassy-eyed smile to his success starved and resolutely glass-half-full compatriots. 

Gazza's greatest goal: Pescara vs LAZIO, 06-12-92 

Here was a maestro in the grand tradition, a fantasista who in his pomp would have walked into any team in the world (and, despite what the tabloids say about the likes of Beckham, Gerrard, Shearer and others, there have been very few of those). It is perhaps therefore no coincidence that both England’s semi-final appearances at major tournaments (aside from 1966) came with a relatively fit Gascoigne pulling the midfield strings, all imagination, power and balance, a balletic bouncer now ghosting past an opponent, now strong-arming them out of his path.

It is a pity that he only pulled on the three lions fifty-seven times and that his skills never adorned one of Europe’s elite clubs. But the great tragedy of Paul Gascoigne’s football career is not his – it’s ours, the football-loving public’s, given only one World Cup and a single European Championships of this sublime, instinctive footballer. His three years in Italy ought to have been the zenith of his career, the period when unquestionably the greatest English player since the World Cup-winning team lorded it over the world’s pre-eminent league. And to a certain extent he did – to the eyes of Fabio Capello and Michel Platini, anyway – albeit lamentably briefly.

The obvious parallel would be with George Best, although with Gascoigne there’s no pithy Best-like throwaway line to explain it all away – no “I spent some on burgers, some on practical jokes, the rest I frittered away” – perhaps because there was no real hedonism or glamour, just the venting of various rumbling compulsions and hissing manias.

This was a man who, literally, didn’t know what to do with himself; a man tossed about the sea of his impulses – which, on a football field, could be devastating. Take the 1990 World Cup semi-final in Turin. The night before, restless and insomniac, Gazza heard a couple of drunk Americans in the hotel grounds playing tennis at 3am, so, being Gazza, he decided to venture down and have a game with them, two versus one, for over an hour – as you do – until Bobby Robson’s was alerted and he scurried back to his room. 

The game itself would become famous for his tears, of course, the catalyst for English football’s eventual gentrification, but his display was punctuated by moments of magisterial prompting, thrusting extemporisation and rare football intelligence. Above all, he was a master dribbler, the secret of which is knowing when to move the ball; shifted at the right time, one can glide past a defender as close as the bull to a matador performing a veronica. The performance marked him out, along with Roberto Baggio, as the greatest attacking talent from Italy’s largely negative World Cup. Little wonder there was near-hysteria in Rome when he arrived two years later after recovering from the cruciate injury sustained in his final game for Spurs and a fractured kneecap outside a Newcastle nightclub.  

Finally, on September 27, some seventeen months after sigining, Gazza pulled on the biancoceleste shirt for a debut, already a cult figure. That first season would prove his most productive, featuring further goals against Milan and Atalanta – whose fearsome ultras carried a banner in the shape of a beer bottle bearing the affectionate message “This is for you Gazza” – as Lazio finished a creditable fifth, their highest for seventeen years.

But there were always the injuries. A Jan Wouters elbow against Holland (in the “Do I not like Orange” match from An Impossible Job) fractured his cheekbone, leading to his then revolutionary Phantom of the Opera mask. A year later, a reckless lunge on a young apprentice by the name of Allesandro Nesta saw him break his leg in training.

And when it wasn’t the injuries, the problem was that Gascoigne’s low boredom threshold – and the lack of professionalism his genius afforded him – frequently derailed periods of strength, an indiscipline that would later catch up with him. As a result, the barnstorming performances are probably outnumbered by the tragicomic anecdotes: commandeering a coach and driving it down Oxford Street; putting a dead snake in Roberto di Matteo’s pocket; mimicking an Orange Order piper after scoring in the Auld Firm derby; replying to a Norwegian reporter who’d asked him for a message to his countrymen, “Aye, fuck off Norway”; diving in a lobster tank in a restaurant to fish out his desired meal and catching flu; belching into the microphone of an Italian TV reporter and offending the country to such an extent that they debated his expulsion in Parliament. There are several others. 

His Lazio coach, Dino Zoff, frequently despaired of his mischief-making maverick man-child: “He ate ice cream for breakfast, drank beer for lunch and when injured he blew up like a whale. But as a player? Oh, beautiful, beautiful. I loved that boy,” he reflected. “He was a genius, an artist, but he made me tear my hair out.”

It is not only for his combination of buffoonery and flair that the Lazio fans adore him, as was amply demonstrated by his visit to the Stadio Olimpico last month. It was also his transparency – almost stupidly vulnerable – and his spontaneity, a man whose unpredictability on-field and off became almost predictable (a paradox to complement his famous assertion: “I don’t make predictions and I never will”). 

The trite or puritanical thing is to lament a flawed character, a loveable idiot, a psychiatrist’s wet dream who transcended their taxonomies with his ADHD, OCD, Personality Disorders and multiple addictions (alcohol, gambling, food, prescription drugs), but was eventually sundered by them.

And yet, as he struggles to find a way to deal with these subterranean forces without the succour provided by football– the constructive way for him to get out of his mind – here’s another way to think of Gazza: he increased our perception of what it is to be human, bringing pleasure not only through his football – at times so magnificent the only response was to laugh – but also through his great warmth and fellow-feeling, his incessant merry pranksterism, even if he himself did not always feel that joy, or could only feel it through the intoxicating prisms of drink or daftness.

He remains, in an age of plastic ‘stars’ and vacuous pre-fab celebrity, a beacon of heart-on-sleeve authenticity. And he could play a bit. Gazza: human, all too human.

The original (edited) version of this piece was published by ESPN

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