Marching this anniversary is tough. Focus could be placed on the incredible atmosphere in the Stadio Olimpico, packed with Lazio fans and banners in English displaying “welcoming” slogans such as: “Gazza’s boys are here. Shag women. Drink beer”. Equally interesting is the vast build-up to his first appearance of him, the various transfer and injury sagas which resulted in a 498-day gap between his last game for Tottenham and his debut for Lazio.
There is a library’s worth of great writing about Gascoigne’s struggles, his cultural significance to the 1990s and the feelings he evoked in football fans. But so much has been written about Gazza that the collective memory of him as a footballer is beginning to fade. Here, we remember Paul Gascoigne the extraordinary footballer and the gifts he displayed on the pitch. Luckily, the 47 minutes he played for Lazio against Genoa on 27 September 1992 showed the sublime and the ridiculous of his footballing gold dust from him.
The game was Lazio’s fourth of the season. They had invested heavily in recent years, bringing in German attacking duo Thomas Doll and Karl-Heinz Riedle, as well as Ajax starlet Aron Winter. On paper, the talent in the squad was better than the three draws that preceded the Genoa fixture, so the pressure was on Gascoigne to ignite the season. Despite the team’s stuttering start, Giuseppe Signori was top of the Serie A goalscoring chart, helped by his brace against Sampdoria on the opening day, the game that launched the season as well as Channel 4’s Football Italia coverage.
Looking back at the Genoa game with fresh eyes, the most noticeable thing early in the match is how many times Gazza ties his shoelaces. His manic behavior of him has been well documented – he says he was given valium at Spurs to calm him down and he believes it was a crucial factor in his potentially career-ending injury of him in the 1991 FA Cup final. The laces tell the story of a footballer looking to start again and prove himself in the best league in the world. Perhaps he was trying to control his mind from him and draw his attention to the game. That, or he just wasn’t very good at tying his shoelaces.
Either way, he clearly wanted to impress. He pops up on the left and right side of attacking midfield. He loiters on the edge of the area. He grabs the ball to take a free-kick to create Lazio’s first chance. He wanders back to join the defensive line to start an attack from deep. All within the first 10 minutes of the game. Has an English footballer ever played with such freedom?
It’s impressive but it’s hyperactive. The rest of the Lazio team seem to be sticking to a firm tactical plan, whereas Gazza is playing in a backyard, eager to impress his mates having been grounded for 498 days. With stiff competition in midfield from Doll and Winter, perhaps he was trying to send a signal to his new manager Dino Zoff.
Shoes laced and mind focused, he picks up the ball in midfield and looks up. Ray Wilkins, in the Channel 4 commentary box, has been urging him to play some sensitive passes to ease his way into the game after such a long period out. Perhaps the laces have done the job, as he lays the ball over a Doll who takes it forward. The ball comes loose and Gazza picks it up, but he seems incapable of doing anything other than trying to make things happen – he fires a through ball to Riedle who can’t turn it into a meaningful attack.
This seemingly mundane moment in the game – an attack that didn’t quite happen – contains the true essence of Gazza. His desire for him to entertain always triumphs. This gave him an aura in the stadium, which was on show a few minutes later as he produced his first piece of bona fide Gazza magic in a Lazio shirt.
He is on the corner of the penalty area, a stepover beats one man and a burst of pace takes him past Genoa left-back Branco. The Brazilian manages to recover and block the cross but the fans rise to their feet. The volume of chanting increases and the sense of spectacle is all the more acute. Channel 4 cuts to the stands and dozens of tifosi are bouncing.
Footballing logic suggests that such a move would build a player’s confidence and settle him down. If anything, it does the opposite for Gazza, whose mind seems only to process footballing activity that takes the ball forward, makes a chance or lifts a crowd. As many have suggested, fans felt connected to Gazza because of his background and approach to life, but it is easy to forget that the way he played the game was the catalyst for his folk hero status.
Fifteen minutes in, he chooses to dribble past the Genoa press just outside his own penalty area, the crowd simmers and a flowing move comes from it. Soon afterwards he tries to Cruyff turn away from two markers, loses the ball and then hacks down his dispossessor. He’s lucky to escape a yellow card but the fans don’t seem to care – there’s a man on the pitch who understands the value of a ticket price.
Then, the highlight of the half. A good Riedle chance is saved and the ball comes out to Gascoigne on the edge of the area. He chooses the least predictable option, deciding to dribble into the path of four defenders, guiding the ball from foot to foot with breathtaking speed and accuracy but the weight of numbers in the box snuff out the attack. The volume in the stands goes up even if the score remains 0-0.
Contained within these moments of entertainment are plenty of errors, misplaced passes and unsuccessful dribbles. These come in stark contrast to Doll, who fulfilled a similar attacking midfield role and impressed throughout the half. Despite this, the chances created by the gifted German that do not quite raise the heartbeat as much as Gazza’s work from him. They seem like a logical conclusion of a tactical plan rather than a spontaneous glance for attention.
As the first half draws to a close, the final aspect of Gazza’s footballing personality is revealed: the profound vulnerability that permeated everything he touched. Genoa midfielder Mario Bortolazzi mistimes a tackle and Gascoigne lands awkwardly holding his right knee, the knee that kept him off the pitch for 498 days. He’s lifted up but returns to the ground shortly afterwards.
The camera zooms in and he looks like a frightened child. Thirty years on, it’s still painful to watch. The stadium becomes silent. Clearly all is not well. He limps through the final moments of the half and is replaced by Zoff. His debut is over and everyone in the stadium fears for the worse, but luckily the injury will only keep him out for a few weeks.
In his autobiography, Gascoigne revealed that he thought his career was over at that moment. Despite these anxieties, he continued to put himself at risk of injury every time he touched the ball. It made him one of the greatest street footballers of all time and it entertained thousands of grateful fans in Rome on 27 September 1992. The way Gazza played the game meant he wouldn’t always complete the dribble, score the goal or make the pass, but his drive to do the unexpected is what makes him live on in the hearts of Italian football fans.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism