“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,” said Lazio Coach Dino Zoff about Paul Gascoigne. “He was a genius, an artist, but he made me tear my hair out.”
At 25, the man who left Zoff scratching his head was one of the most gifted footballers of his generation, with his style and innate sense of fun attracting fans from all over the world to Italian football.
As founding Editor John D Taylor succinctly remarked in the 150th edition of Football/Calcio Italia, it is unlikely that Italian football would have made such an impression on British football fans without Gascoigne. Indeed, this site might not be here if it wasn't for him.
Yet Gazza nearly didn’t make it and despite Lazio already agreeing terms with him, in his last game for Tottenham Hotspur in the 1991 FA Cup Final, he suffered a serious knee injury and the move was almost called off.
He eventually arrived in Italy and made his Serie A debut on September 27, 1992. Wearing that beautiful but simple light blue Banca Di Roma shirt, the Gateshead-born boy took to the field against Genoa in front of 50,000 fans at the Olimpico. It was 16 months since his fateful game at Wembley and his knee, which had a terrible scar and four operations on it, was soon to be tested by hard-man Mario Bortolazzi.
Yet for 40 minutes on ‘Speciale Gazza Day,’ as it was billed, no-one could get near Lazio’s No 10 as he embarrassed the visitors’ defence with his unique change of pace and direction, his body-swerves and wonderful balance. Two times Gazza’s lung-busting surges saw him find space inside the opposition’s area but on both occasions the inadequacies of his teammates’ passing failed to exploit his genius.
Then a few minutes before half-time, in one heart-stopping moment, Bortolazzi came crashing into him from behind.“I went down like a sack of spuds,” said Gazza in his autobiography.The whole stadium held its collective breath with the medics like a quartet of Usain Bolts reaching the fallen Eagle in seconds. Gazza lay on the ground for a few minutes then bravely got up, shook his head to clear it, then amazingly shook Bortolazzi’s hand and said: “Thanks mate.”
Limping for the next few minutes Gazza was withdrawn for the second half. Thankfully it was only a dead leg and he resumed training two days later. Claudio Bartolini, the Lazio doctor, described the injury as “only an abrasion” yet added rather ominously that Gazza must get used to this sort of tackling.
The following Sunday the Geordie ace made up for the disappointment of ‘his’ big day with a hand in three of the goals and a Man of the Match performance in the 5-2 defeat of Parma.
There were many superb examples of his sublime ability and individuality in his relatively short spell in the Eternal City, but the one which made him a Laziale legend was in his first Derby della Capitale, the Rome derby in November.
Roma were leading 1-0 and with the jeers and insults of the Giallorossi tifosi ringing in his ears, Gazza latched on to a cross to head in a late equaliser. It raised the roof with the Lazio fans making enough noise to wake the dead, including fellow-Englishmen John Keats and Percy Shelley, several kilometres away in the Cimitero Acattolico.
“One of my best memories was scoring the equaliser in the big Rome derby,” recalled the England international later. “But I have to say I was petrified going into the game. I’ve played in some derbies, up in Glasgow as well, but that one just wasn’t normal. The noise was deafening and the players from both sides were nearly crying because there was nowhere to run or hide for the losers.”
Above all Gazza was a total one-off and could never be predictable. A fine example of this was seen following his dismissal for turning on the brutal Bortolazzi in the return match against Genoa later that season. Against all accepted behaviour Gazza hugged the Genoa man, then shook hands with the referee and several other opponents, before leaving the pitch. It was something which no other player would have done, said the previously critical Gazzetta dello Sport and he earned a lot of respect for it.
Not a single week passed without some incident. In April 1993, he fractured his cheekbone and was forced to wear a Phantom of the Opera style mask. A year later he broke his leg in training, after a clash with a young Alessandro Nesta, and subsequently missed most of the season.
In July 1995 he finally left Italy, but he will always be remembered there for his special talents, which surely would have seen him reach the status of Diego Maradona, Ruud Gullit, Michel Platini and Roberto Baggio – if he had remained fit. Yet he was still a fabulous world-class player, whose enthusiasm and genuine love for the game was as infectious as a Strawberry and Crema di Mascarpone gelato.
The day I saw Gazza in Rome…
One game I had the fortune to witness involved the two Princes of Lazio – Beppe Signori and Gazza. It was Carnevale time in February 1994 and the visitors at the Olimpico were Cagliari. Gazza had been racked with injuries and had only played a handful of games that season. But boy did he show the watching and devoted hordes what they had missed.
It was by no means a full house, but when he scored his goal from a dazzling free-kick that curved in like a Brazilian banana shot, the stadium erupted with the noise of a crowd three times its size. He then ran to the corner flag and posed like a cross between Eric Cantona and Mario Balotelli, with arms folded at his imperious best.
It was as if he was saying ‘I told you so’. Yet despite his friend and colleague, the superb Signori, scoring a wonderful hat-trick, it was Gazza’s day and he was loved for it. At the end of the game he even jumped on to the crossbar and holding on with one hand, mimicked a monkey with his other arm. What a gesture, what a man, the Clown Prince of Calcio.