Gazza saved English football from the doldrums – now he needs rescuing | David Winner
Paul Gascoigne's footballing genius brought infectious joy and tears to a downbeat English game that was crying out for change
Seeing pictures of any man in mortal danger and prematurely aged by drugs and alcohol is harrowing. That the haggard face and stricken expression belong to Paul Gascoigne, the former man-child whose footballing genius once brought us joy, stabs us with distress. It's hardly surprising to hear that a collection of England players and FA bosses have collected £40,000 to help towards his hospital costs.
But it is probably hard for anyone under 30 to appreciate exactly why Gazza was so significant and loved.
Rodney Marsh, one of the entertainers of the 60s and 70s, called English football "a grey game played by grey people on grey days". By the late 80s the game was incomparably worse, blighted by hooliganism and traumatised by the mass deaths of Heysel, Bradford and Hillsborough.
And on the field the English game was Hobbesian in its ugliness: nasty, brutish … and long. The tactical orthodoxy of the day, based on the theories of Charles Reep, a former accountant at RAF Bomber Command, demanded that midfields be bypassed and penalty areas blitzed with long balls. In half-full stadiums disfigured by fences, individuality and artistry were being squeezed from the game. Then along came Gazza.
There had been British footballing artists and showmen before, some of them, like George Best or Hughie Gallacher, doomed by alcoholism. But Gazza, irrepressible of spirit and blessed with extraordinary skills, seemed different.
On the field, first at Newcastle, later with England, Spurs, Lazio and Rangers, he was a surging, exhilarating phenomenon. At his best he slalomed past defenders, sprayed precision passes and shot explosively from unexpected angles and distances. And he did it all with infectious glee.
For a whole generation of fans he was simply the most appealing and captivating English football player they had seen. He could be crass but he could also be anarchically funny, playfully giving a referee a yellow card, celebrating goals with outpourings of childlike emotion or striking his famous Roman emperor pose.
Gazza was a key figure at Euro '96, when he scored a sublime goal against Scotland. But his and English football's defining moment was the 1990 World Cup in Italy.
Across the globe that tournament is mostly remembered for its dreary and cynical football, especially the gruesome final between West Germany and Argentina. For the English, though, thanks to the genius in the number 19 shirt, the event was transforming and sublime. It still evokes a glow.
Gascoigne inspired the team to the semi-final and was brilliant in that match as England outplayed the Germans only to lose tragically but romantically on penalties. Gazza's tears that night touched the nation. Football was magical and popular again. The lovable Geordie easily won the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award. In retrospect his tears could be seen as evidence of psychological frailty, but no one read it that way at the time.
Even the title of Ian Hamilton's 1994 book Gazza Agonistes, which touched on his drinking, nervy insecurity and the trauma of a traffic accident that killed a childhood friend, referred mostly to football pain: Gascoigne had almost destroyed his career with a crazy tackle in the 1991 FA Cup final and was often injured.
For all that we now know of his later suffering and illness, it's still impossible to watch footage of him in his prime without smiling.
Later, foreign artists for whom Gazza paved the way such as moody Eric Cantona or cerebral Dennis Bergkamp seemed mysterious and remote. But to most fans, the Gazza who belched into TV cameras or boozed with Jimmy Five Bellies, was unmistakably, definitively "one of us".
Oddly enough, during his three years in Italy, Lazio fans felt exactly the same way, adoring his skills and his emotionality. On the Curva Nord they chanted a tribute in English to the uncomplicated-seeming icon of northern masculinity: "Gazza's boys are here / Shag women, drink beer". Gazza is still loved in Rome.
It's possible, of course, that football in England would have found a way in the early 90s to heal itself and change its image without Paul Gascoigne. But it's hard to picture.
In a dark time, he provided light. Let's hope something or someone can do the same for him now.
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