This feature is part of The Football Italia Years
TO SUCCEED in Italian football, three qualities are said to be required:
Fantasi: surprise, imagination and flair.
Furbizia: cunning trickery and gamesmanship.
Tecnica: technique, skill and composure.
That these traits are considered neither contradictory nor mutually exclusive is unsurprising in a football culture renowned for its appreciation of the game’s dark arts as much as its poetry in motion. What may come as more of a surprise, however, is that the above is cited in a book about the art of physical theatre.
The context is simple; it is claimed that the qualities required for football are also those required for theatre. Indeed, generally speaking, there exists a discernible parallel between the two disciplines. The field represents the stage, the players the cast, the coach the directors, the fans the audience, the press the critics, and the referee the pantomime villain. That’s the beauty of football, it’s all about improvisation.
The Football Italia years boasted fantasia, furbizia and tecnica all in equal measure. This made for captivating theatre and from the early 1990s, Channel 4 delivered this theatre to the comfort of our living rooms. As a consequence, the Football Italia show was born and the cast was star-studded, including its host, James Richardson, with his inimitable presenting style.
The role of lead, however, was not originally intended for the pun-loving and cliché destroying Richardson, but for S.S. Lazio’s newly recruited ‘saviour’, Paul Gascoigne. Though Gascoigne’s role as a presenter of Gazzetta (Football Italia’s highlights show) was short-lived due to his tendency to go AWOL, the Newcastle-born midfielder was undoubtedly a protagonist of this era. Indeed, his Lazio career was ultimate theatre, one of exhilarating highs and excruciating lows. On and off the field it encompassed drama, romance, comedy, tears, controversy and genius.
Act I: The Arrival
Pandemonium greeted Gascoigne upon his arrival at Rome’s Fiumicino Airport in 1992. Around a thousand Lazio fans had gathered to welcome their new signing. As he appeared through customs, chants of ‘Que Sara, Sara’ and ‘Paul Gascoigne, la la la’ – sung to the tune of Brown Girl in the Ring – reverberated around the terminal. Amidst the maelstrom, security officials encircled Gazza and hurried him through the airport.
Outside, the scenes were just as frenzied as Laziali clamoured to get a glimpse of Gascoigne. Describing this messianic fervour, one Lazio fan said: “When we got him, my god, it seemed like Jesus Christ was arriving.” The transfer also captured attention nationwide, with an Italian high court judge questioning whether this Englishman was more famous than the Duke of Wellington after the Battle of Waterloo.
Gascoigne was judged to be the man capable of leading Lazio into the light. The man who would kick-start a prosperous era under the new ownership of food tycoon, Sergio Cragnotti. However, whilst their club had signed a player of unquestionable talent, his was a talent underpinned by fragility, both physically and psychologically.
Gascoigne’s transfer from Tottenham Hotspur to Lazio had been a painful and protracted affair. By virtue of his performances at Italia 90, Gazza’s charisma had caught the attention of Cragnotti – one of a number of Italian business magnates purchasing clubs on the peninsula at the time. He was the proverbial marquee signing Cragnotti craved. But having agreed a fee of £8.5m – an astronomical sum for the pre-Murdoch First Division days – Gazza ruptured the cruciate ligaments in his right knee during the 1990/91 FA Cup final.
The setback was the first of many career-stymieing injuries, and unsurprisingly, Lazio sought instant renegotiations. The Italian’s sent a medical team to examine the player and a revised fee of £5.5 million was agreed (a British record at the time). But the England international’s recovery was further delayed after he landed on his injured knee after being punched during an evening out drinking in Newcastle.
Having missed the entirety of the 1991/92 campaign, when Gascoigne did eventually arrive at Lazio’s Formello training ground, he was ill-prepared for the rigorous demands of life in Serie A.
As part of a Channel 4 documentary called ‘Gazza’s Italian Diaries’, the former Spurs’ man gave James Richardson a candid account of his initial travails: “I thought training might have been a little easy but it started off very hard. While I was running, people were slitting my finger and taking blood samples. I thought ‘God, what’s this all about?’ And then going to test centres, head wired up, heart wired up. It was incredible. I think I was more wired up than a satellite dish.”
This humorous vignette offers insight as to why many British players have struggled to adapt to the customs of Italian football. At the time of Gazza’s arrival, calcio’s training methods, both scientifically and tactically, were superior to those of the English game. Such approaches were often implemented rigorously. This was certainly the case under Dino Zoff, the then-Lazio head coach who believed football was a “sport of indisputable values: good manners, loyalty and self-discipline.”
Gazza’s mischievous personality did not easily lend itself to such a stringent modus operandi, and he made a less than favourable impression on his first day at Formello, forgetting both his running trainers and football boots. Somewhat risibly, Gazza began his Lazio career training in plimsolls. However, whilst his preparation had been desultory, his desire to return to the playing field was unyielding. Under the supervision of club physio, Roberto Farola, Gascoigne was readied for his first outing in Lazio’s sky blue.
Act II: Promise
Though Gazza had yet to grace the field for Lazio, the fanfare that surrounded his arrival in Rome generated the desired impact for Channel 4’s Football Italia. Having joined his compatriots Des Walker – who signed for Sampdoria in 1992 – and David Platt – who had already enjoyed a successful season at Bari – the British public now had a vested interest in Serie A.
On 6 September 1992, three million viewers tuned into Football Italia’s first offering, a 3-3 draw between Gazza’s Lazio and Walker’s Sampdoria. Despite the former’s absence, the show was an untrammelled success, helped by the fact that the goal rush had dispelled commonly held platitudes regarding Serie A’s boring and defensive style. The public was hooked, enchanted by this exotic product in which football matches were played to the backdrop of smoke-filled arenas and the crackling of flares and fireworks.
All this and the lead act was still yet to take the stage. The anticipation both in Italy and the UK was palpable. Could England’s next great hope thrive in a league that had proved notoriously unforgiving for Britain’s finest exports? Could Gascoigne succeed where greats such as Jimmy Greaves, Denis Law and Ian Rush had all failed?
On a rain-sodden September evening at the Stadio Olimpico, Gascoigne made his debut in a midweek friendly against his former club Tottenham. That 30,000 Lazio fans bothered to turn up emphasised his immediate impact in the capital. In fact, club officials would claim his mere presence usually meant an increased gate of 5,000 to 10,000 fans.
His much-anticipated Serie A debut came against Genoa on 27 September. The outing was a little premature but with Cragnotti, the media and the fans all pining to see Gascoigne in competitive action, Zoff felt pressured to get him onto the pitch.
However, what Gazza lacked in match sharpness, he compensated for with his innate talent and ebullient playing style. For 41 minutes, ‘Gazza Speciale Day’ threatened to live up to its billing. Twice, Lazio’s number 10 embarked on characteristic and incisive forays from central midfield, using his deceptive turn of pace to leave Genovese defenders trailing in his wake. For 41 minutes, Gazza’s passion and flair was expressed through the parlance of his body, swerving and weaving his way past lunging challenges.
That was until the uncompromising figure of Mario Bortolazzi brought an unceremonious halt to proceedings, clattering into Gazza from behind. The Olimpico drew a collective breath as the Biancocelesti’s medical staff sprinted onto the field. But Gascoigne arose, dusted himself down and shook Bortolazzi’s hand. “Thanks mate,” he said. More importantly, despite being withdrawn at half-time as a precautionary measure, his knee had withstood a substantial whack. From that moment on, a banner often appeared in Lazio’s Curva Nord under a sketch of their new champion: “Guai A Chi Ce Lo Tocca’ – Trouble to anyone who touches him.
His fitness continued to prevent him completing 90 minutes but he produced promising performances nonetheless. In a 5-2 victory over Parma, he and the prolific Giuseppe Signori combined brilliantly in patches. Against the might of Fabio Capello’s AC Milan, Gascoigne emerged with plaudits despite his sides 5-3 defeat. After the game, the Rossoneri boss was quick to recognise Gascoigne’s potential, though he tempered his praise with characteristic hard-hitting truths: “Next season, Gascoigne can be one of the Italian league’s great players but it’s important he works on his conditioning. He is strong and quick and gets away from players beautifully. At the moment he is okay, but he should do better.”
In the city they call eternal, there is no better way to establish an imperial cult than by making a name for yourself in the Derby della Capitale.
Act III: Imperious
“The saviour has saved Lazio,” cried Peter Brackley. If Channel 4’s commentator was excitable, that was nothing compared to the tumult ensuing within Lazio’s Curva Nord. With just four minutes remaining, the Biancocelesti had equalised against their bitter city rivals, Roma.
A 1-1 draw had been salvaged and the Laziali’s prayers had been answered. The man who had leapt above the Roma defence and delivered this divine intervention? Paul Gascoigne. The fact he had still been on the pitch in the 86th minute was a minor miracle. But as Gazza was mobbed under the terraces of the Curva, he was overcome with an effusive sense of relief. So much so that, as he trotted back to the centre circle, he was moved to tears.
Only too aware of the ramifications that accompanied losing a fixture which, for many supporters in Rome, carries more weight than winning the Scudetto itself, Gazza later reflected: “I’ve played in some big derbies before, up in Glasgow as well, but that wasn’t normal. Scoring was just an unbelievable feeling but it wasn’t a good feeling, it was more a feeling of ‘thank god for that’.”
Gascoigne’s goal itself demonstrated one of the more under-appreciated facets of his game; heading. He masterfully guided Beppe Signori’s floated cross past the Roma goalkeeper, Giuseppe Zinetti, a feat later replicated in a game against Atalanta.
Read | The pint-sized goalscoring excellence of Beppe Signori
More pertinently, Gazza’s derby day embodied everything Biancocelesti supporters adored about their number 10. The game itself was a humdrum affair, the atmosphere typically stifling and volatile. Gazza embraced this – albeit sometimes recklessly – energetically patrolling the centre of midfield. Unsurprisingly, the Roma fans derided him throughout, unveiling a banner reading ‘Paul Gazza, You Are Fat Poofta’, whilst hurling Mars Bars in his direction. In a typically waggish riposte, Gascoigne unwrapped one of the bars and chomped it down. This was Gazza at his tongue-in-cheek best.
Buoyed by his first goal in Serie A, another virtuoso performance against Pescara followed. Receiving the ball 40 yards from goal, he effortlessly glided beyond Stefano Ferretti, slalomed between Dunga and Giacomo Di Cara, dragged the ball past Ubaldo Righetti, before sliding it under goalkeeper Nello Cusin.
When in full flow, there was a nonchalance to the way Gascoigne defied and evaded the tough-tackling defenders of Serie A. He possessed what renaissance author, Baldassare Castiglione, would have recognised as sprezzatura; the ability to execute an action without effort or thought. Such prodigious talent prompted some members of the Italian press to wax lyrical. In his book, Calcio: A History of Italian Football, John Foot tells of one journalist who was particularly taken with Gazza’s trademark double shuffle dribble: “This unconstrained lunatic Gascoigne has exhumed an ancient muscle movement which has the rare beauty of a valuable relic.”
Sadly, however, Gazza’s brilliance on the field was all too often interspersed with unwelcome controversies off it. These antics exasperated the Italian press, who quickly became an intrusive and disruptive presence.
Act IV: Burpgate
Off the pitch, there had been problems from the beginning. Gascoigne quickly learnt the price of his cult status. Not only were his performances and fitness under constant scrutiny, he could neither move nor breathe in Rome without being followed, photographed or questioned.
Of course, Gascoigne’s love for pranks made him a magnet for the wrong kind of attention. Besides his comical cameos with James Richardson on Football Italia – one of which involved him eating his way out of a giant chocolate egg – his jokes on team-mates and club staff were relentless. To name but a few: he deflated the tyres of Aaron Winter’s Porsche, he slipped a dead snake in Roberto Di Matteo’s jacket pocket, he took Dino Zoff’s whistle, attached it to a Turkey and released the bird on the training field, and, according to Zoff himself, Gazza had a propensity to turn up to team dinners naked.
But the pranks wore thin and the press began to note that Gazza appeared to focus more on devising ingenious japes than maintaining his fitness. Zoff was also less than amused by such behaviour, particularly given that he was only allowed to select three of Gascoigne, Winter, Thomas Doll and Karl-Heinz Riedle due to Serie A’s foreign quota.
On the field, a string of minor injuries halted Gazza’s progress, and on 24 January 1993 he was dropped for a home game against Juventus. Zoff cited his “poor physical condition”, and following the game, journalists were keen to get the player’s point of view. Gascoigne, already frustrated with his critics, was in press silence and responded by burping into the microphone of a Rai journalist.
A furore followed and the inquest into Burpgate began. The Italian daily, La Stampa, dedicated an entire page to the incident. Meanwhile, Cragnotti fumed and Gascoigne was fined £9,000. However, Gazza’s insolence and disregard for journalists further endeared him with the Curva Nord faithful. One Lazio fan triumphed: “We give Gascoigne’s burp a 10. We think he did the right thing. If they know he’s in press silence I don’t understand why they are trying to interview him. It’s the journalist’s fault.”
In hindsight, Gazza’s faux pas was blown out of proportion. It was loutish but not sinister. He had far worse run-ins with the press, later physically attacking a photographer during the 1993/94 campaign. Whilst such reactions cannot be condoned, they were clearly a culmination of the undue stress caused by an implacable Italian media. Gascoigne was overwhelmed and showing signs of being unable to cope.
Somewhat ironically, Gazza temporarily redeemed himself after the press applauded his reaction to receiving a red card against Genoa during the second half of the 1992-93 season. No argument, no reactions and handshakes all round. Suddenly, the belching lout was an English gentleman. And just as suddenly, Gazza’s form took off once again. Against AC Milan, he inspired Lazio to a 2-2 draw at the Olimpico, scoring one and playing a hand in the other. It was another fleeting demonstration of his flawed genius.
Gazza finished his debut season in fine form, helping Lazio to a fifth-placed finish, their highest in 17 years. Personally, his 22 appearances and four goals turned out to be his most fruitful campaign in Lazio colours. Nevertheless, events off the field repeatedly conspired against Gascoigne. His insecurities were accentuated when his former assistant, Jane Nottage, released a book divulging sensitive details about his private life, including his struggles with mental illness and bulimia. “I can’t trust anyone after this Jane Nottage thing,” Gascoigne reflected, “because you say something and the next day it’s in the papers.”
For the sociable and fun-loving ‘Gazza’, this panopticon surveillance was problematic. For ‘Gascoigne’ the human being, an obsessional, psychologically fragile character who also had a drinking problem, it was disastrous.
Act V: Heartbreak
The 1993/94 season was another paradoxical one. Upon returning for pre-season, Lazio’s club doctor complained to the press about Gascoigne’s physical condition and the Englishman didn’t complete a game for three months.
As the media’s criticism sharpened, Gazza rediscovered his fitness, playing the full 90 minutes in a run of games over the Christmas and New Year period. On 13 December 1993, he was at the centre of a brilliant 3-1 victory over Juventus. This unbridled talent was on show once again when, from an improbable angle out on the byline, he curled a 25-yard free-kick into the top corner against Cagliari in February.
His form was undoubtedly helped by the fact that Gascoigne’s former manager at Tottenham, Terry Venables, had joined the England fold in January 1994. Under the nurturing tutelage of El Tel, Gazza had flourished at Spurs. The England manager recognised his pupil’s fragile brilliance, allowing him to roam free in midfield whilst lending him a protective arm when necessary – something that was sorely lacking at Lazio.
Zoff was simply more of an icy and remote character, not the sort of person you could go to with a problem. Thus, despite utilising Gazza in his favoured central midfield position, the Italian tactician failed to strike up the personal rapport required to help his enigmatic midfielder truly settle. Not that you could really blame the Lazio boss.
In a culture where the collective tends to be prioritised over the individual, the idea of fostering a particularly high-maintenance and complex character was not the norm. Instead, Gascoigne, like many others, was let down by the world of professional football, one that has often failed to provide supportive structures for its young athletes facing myriad pressures.
Original Series | The Football Italia Years
And then, of course, there were Gascoigne’s injuries. Indeed, it seemed that every time he threatened to build up a head of steam, his legs were cut from underneath him. In March 1994, during another tempestuous derby, it was Roma’s Valter Bonacina who scythed Gascoigne down in full flow. The tackle was cynical and calculated. Bonacina had evaded a Gascoigne lunge just moments before and was set on revenge.
Tensions with Lazio then came to a head when Gazza missed training after deciding to stay in England an extra day during his recovery. Gascoigne was fined, leaving the player feeling that his club had failed to empathise with his position: “I told them, when I need days off it’s not because I hate Lazio or want to be out of Italy, it’s because I want to do a bit of fishing and relax. Other players don’t experience the pressure I have. Some days I’m in tears and I think to myself, ‘I’m a young lad, a young lad shouldn’t have to take all this’. I’m taking a hell of a lot of pressure and sometimes I can’t cope with it. I hide behind the fact that I try to be funny. But at the end of the day, I can be a serious person.”
The writing was on the wall, and in April 1994, the final nail was effectively hammered into Gascoigne’s Lazio career. In training, he suffered a horrific leg break after he hurtled into a reckless tackle with youth team defender and future great, Alessandro Nesta. Both were in tears, Gazza’s of excruciating pain and Nesta’s of emotional distress. Though the young defender blamed himself, Gascoigne later admitted he had been at fault.
Even at this most poignant time in Gazza’s Lazio career, the press was merciless. As he was stretchered into the hospital, the suffocating presence of journalists and the flashes of their cameras made for distasteful scenes.
This injury, coupled with the arrival of Zdeněk Zeman, spelt the end for Gascoigne. Replaced by Roberto Di Matteo in the centre of midfield, he made just two appearances in his final season and was sold to Rangers in the summer of 1995. The Curva Nord’s English emperor was leaving Rome and deep down, fans, the club and player alike knew it was with more than a tinge of regret.
Act VI: Legacy
Had Gascoigne not moved to Lazio in 1992, it is very probable that both the Football Italia show and era would not have had the same impact on British audiences. In fact, barring the pioneering figures of calcio’s formative years (Herbert Kilpin, James Richardson Spensley and William Garbutt), it is hard to think of an English player who has been more influential in the Italian game. All this despite the fact Gascoigne’s time on the peninsula was curtailed by injury and off-field problems.
Between 1992 to 1995, Gascoigne amassed 41 appearances for Lazio, scoring six goals. Of those 41 appearances, he was tellingly substituted 30 times. Meanwhile, an unforgiving Italian press proved his bête noire, seeing in him some of the worst traits of a British culture which, at times, allowed its footballers to indulge in ill-discipline and drinking.
In actuality, Gascoigne was generally misunderstood by most of the Italian literati, as his former team-mate, Beppe Signori, summarised: “I don’t believe that anyone who knew him well could have ever wished ill upon Paul, because he demonstrated an incredible generosity with all his team-mates and, when he was in the right physical condition, he also showed he was a player who commanded the fee paid for him.”
This joie de vivre was clearly expressed on the field, albeit, all too rarely. As Dino Zoff later told Rome’s Radio Manà Manà: “Gascoigne made me tear my hair out at times but I have a great affection for him precisely because he was an artist, and a genuinely nice lad.”
Indeed, out of the three qualities required to succeed in Italian football, perhaps the only one Gascoigne didn’t possess in abundance was Furbizia. This was exactly why Lazio supporters were, and remain, so enamoured of Gascoigne. Though he only enjoyed a modicum of success on the field, his gregarious, charismatic and down-to-earth persona left an indelible impression in the Curva Nord.
The bond was such that he allegedly used to visit the headquarters of Lazio’s most renowned ultras group, the Irriducibili, chanting, joking and drinking just like a regular supporter. According to a Lazio fan who used to sit on the Curva, Gazza’s popularity among supporters is even comparable to that of local hero, Paolo Di Canio. This bond remains strong today, and Gascoigne received a rapturous reception when Lazio invited him to be their guest of honour at the 2012 Europa League fixture against Tottenham.
But while his contribution at the capital club still inspires the fondest of memories, this venture was ultimately imbued with pathos. A venture that, at times, drove one of the most complex yet brilliant personalities in English footballing history to despair. This leaves a conflicted legacy, one veering between misty-eyed nostalgia and depressing realities. Gazza’s time at Lazio may have been a playwright’s dream, but this theatre was as much a tragicomedy as it was a triumph.