Newcastle, Spurs and England fans: Gazza's Tears Changed Football Forever

At a time when English football was renowned for hooliganism and a no-nonsense style, Paul Gascoigne at Italia 90 stood for beauty not violence.
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At a time when English football was renowned for hooliganism and a no-nonsense style, Paul Gascoigne at Italia 90 stood for beauty not violence.

Newcastle, Spurs and England fans must agree: Gazza's Tears Changed Football Forever

Symbolically, at least, it was the moment at which English football changed for ever. Paul Gascoigne picked up the ball a little way inside his own half, jinked through two challenges and, as the ball ran away from him, stretching, slid into a challenge with Thomas Berthold. The West German rightback got there first and, as he touched the ball away, was caught by Gascoigne. It was a definite foul, a fraction late and a touch reckless, but, by the standards of the time, it was nothing out of the ordinary. Berthold, though, perhaps exaggerating – and the accusation of overacting was one that had been cast at Germans since at least 1966 – threw himself down, and Franz Beckenbauer and a number of members of West Germany’s backroom staff, rose from the bench in apparent fury.

The Brazilian referee, Jose´ Ramiz Wright, produced a yellow card: Gascoigne, having been booked against Belgium in the second round, was out of the final, should England get there. A stronger character – as Roy Keane showed in similar circumstances in a Champions League semi-final on the same ground nine years later, inspiring Manchester United’s comeback from 2–0 down against Juventus – would have controlled his emotions, perhaps even channelled them. But Gascoigne’s weaknesses were part of his charm, and he broke down. The image is almost too familiar – that round, still-boyish face creased in distress, as Gary Lineker, signalling the problem to his manager, points to his own eye – but the symbolism remains poignant.

Put him in a replica shirt in a bar in Cagliari, and he would have been hard to distinguish from those who adored him. Anybody else, and it probably wouldn’t have meant so much. It wasn’t just that Gascoigne had been England’s most incisive player in the tournament, it was that he had ceased to be just a footballer; he had become an icon. Blessed as he was with skill and vision, he wasn’t some remote Adonis, some chiselled paradigm of physical perfection. He was, frankly, a little tubby. He had an earthy humour, liked his beer, apparently paid little attention to diet, and the exertions of games – particularly those played in the heat of an Italian summer – took a readily apparent toll. Put him in a replica shirt in a bar in Cagliari, and he would have been hard to distinguish from those who adored him: he might not have been Everyman, but he was Everyfan.

"Gascoigne’s weaknesses were part of his charm, and he broke down. The image is almost too familiar – that round, still-boyish face creased in distress."

Yet for all he embodied the yeoman stereotype, Gascoigne was gifted, sublimely so. The great age of the playmaker was coming to an end, but as he dazzled in a pre-tournament friendly against Czechoslovakia, it was possible to imagine him as a dominant attacking midfield creator in the manner of Michel Platini or Diego Maradona. After years of up-and-down, box-to-box midfielders, here at last was somebody with both talent and great energy, somebody who, as Brian Glanville put it, ‘showed a flair, a superlative technique, a tactical sophistication seldom matched by an English player since the war’: England, at last, had a creative heart. ‘He showed a flair, a superlative technique, a tactical sophistication seldom matched by an English player since the war.’ Back then it seemed, at least to the romantics and the optimists, that he represented a new Englishness.

After the years of hooliganism and misery, of joyless football, here was somebody of typical English appearance who stood not for violence, but for beauty. And here he was, denied his coronation, reacting not with fury, not by cursing or by lashing out, but by weeping. ‘If you believe football is a noble pursuit,’ the Independent reported, ‘Gascoigne, in that moment, was noble.’ At another time, it would have seemed a childish act – as indeed it was, for Gascoigne was nothing if not a man-child – but in the context of the time, it felt redemptive. Perhaps it is too much to say that his tears washed away the sins of the previous two decades, but certainly they soon came to be perceived as having anointed a new age.

© Jonathan Wilson, 2010. Extracted from THE ANATOMY OF ENGLAND by Jonathan Wilson, published by Orion Books priced £14.99.

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