Friday, February 15, 2013


Gazza - Our Role In His Downfall

There is something in the English psyche that draws us to flawed, tragic geniuses. The Americans love their squeaky clean, all American apple pie heroes resplendent with fake tan, teeth and hair. In England we look for something coarser, rougher, real. And preferably drunk.
Paul Gascoigne fitted the bill to a tee. From the moment he burst on the football scene as a teenager with Newcastle United the nation was enthralled with the bubbly lad who exuded confidence and went about in awe of nothing beyond his drinking partner Jimmy ‘Five Bellies’ Gardener.
The archetypal working class lad done good, when Gazza cried, we cried, when he winced the whole country winched and when he was labeled ‘daft as a brush’ by former England manager Bobby Robson we recognized him as one of our one.
Say what you like about players like David Beckham, Frank Lampard or Steven Gerrard, not one of them could hold a candle to Gazza when it came to fans being able to identify with footballers.
Lampard, superbly consistent on the field, is a consummate professional, a club’s dream employee not only doing the business in the blue of Chelsea but off the field as a club ambassador, assiduously avoiding any comment that may be seen as controversial.
There was no such diplomacy with Gazza. What you saw was what you got. His extravagant talents meant he played football as he lived life. To the full, with a smile but with other emotions bubbling under the surface.
I recall seeing him charge through the Arsenal defence at White Hart Lane to score for Tottenham Hotspur in a league game despite wearing one boot then there would be that challenge on Gary Charles in the 1991 FA Cup Final against Nottingham Forest which left him out of the game for several months and delayed his lucrative move to Lazio.
Ahead of the 1996 European Championships which England hosted they went on a tour of China and Hong Kong. At the end the players piled into a bar in Hong Kong and set about adding to the owner’s profits in fine English style. There was a dentist chair and of course that became a magnet for the ever increasingly drunk players as they sat in the chair and received their medicine; bottles of spirits flowing down their necks while the nation’s media looked on amazed and delighted at the front page story being played out in front of them.
They snapped away, the country looked on horrified but, irreverent as ever, Gazza said he had only gone in the bar ‘for a filling’!
The antics were explained away as high jinks and team building and when Gazza scored against Scotland during the competition the whole country jumped and wept for joy as he lay on the Wembley turf celebrating and his team mates queued up to pour drinks down his neck.
One newspaper, keen to capture the nation’s mood, ran an apology saying they were wrong to describe the midfielder as a fat, drunken imbecile.
Because he was Gazza we, the country, let him get away with anything. He was a football genius we reasoned and geniuses all carried a certain eccentricity with them. The two traits were inseparable and we pointed to George Best as another example to prove the point.
It’s difficult to imagine a club like Barcelona, Arsenal or Bayern Munchen signing such a player today. Indeed it is difficult to imagine Gazza having the status he enjoyed in England in any other country. The Germans love their players to be like Franz Beckanbauer, smart, clinical and of course efficient. The French had their philosopher quoting Eric Cantona . In England we had a guy who had more pranks in his arsenal than a Carry On movie.
Gazza became a showman who played football in the same way that Beckham became a brand who relied on football to promote his brand. People wanted to see him because they wanted their own Gazza moment. People  wanted to say ‘we saw Gazza impersonate a flutist’ or ‘met Gazza in a bar, he was mad’ and Gazza craved the attention.
While peers like Alan Shearer learnt to keep the press and public at arms’ length, Gazza welcomed them into his life and we shared in all his sorrow and joy but when the football stopped there was nothing left beyond an ‘alright Gazza, fancy a drink’ from people meeting him in the pub. He was no longer a footballer but we expected him to carry on being the showman who lived life to the full in a goldfish bowl world of our making.
Read an average footballer’s autobiography, and they are rarely hard to read (painful yes but uncomplicated), and you will read tales of drunkenness and amorous conquests paraded like trophies or medals. It’s what we expect.
The consequence now sits in the United States undergoing treatment for his alcoholism. His first days detoxing saw him rushed to intensive care. Away from the adoring public Gazza struggled to find meaning in his life and he became a caricature of himself to seek applause. A dribbling performance at a speaking gig showed the country how far he had fallen and he finally came to realize he needed help.
His friends, grateful at last to be able to do something, rallied round and got him to the US and treatment. There is a feeling this is his last chance.
What lessons can football learn from this? Should there be a drive within the game to take better care of players who have issues such as Gazza? For sure, many do and clubs, as well as the Players’ Union, the PFA, do a good job of dealing them quietly and away from the limelight, and that surely is the right and proper way to deal with these issues.
Maybe for Paul Gascoigne it is too late. And maybe of course many didn’t see his behavior at the time as a problem, preferring to concentrate on the next game and letting life after the game when the cameras, the buzz and the fans have moved on take care of itself.
The Geordie has fought many battles during his career. Now that career has ended he is facing his toughest fight yet.

COMMENT - this story appeared in Jakarta Globe 15/2/13 but not on their website!

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