Life grabs Gazza and just won't let him go
The apparently inexorable decline of Paul Gascoigne is a harrowing spectacle. We've been down this road with footballers before, with George Best and, to a certain extent, Paul McGrath, but there seems something uniquely horrifying about the travails of Gazza, his drink-driving convictions, his nervous breakdowns, his post-rehab relapses and now an arrest for possessing cocaine.
Perhaps this is because Gascoigne seems to have been born without the normal defence mechanisms which enable people to survive the slings and arrows of misfortune. Whether things are going well or badly for him, there seems to be no barrier between Gazza and the world. His feelings just pour out unmediated. The concept of putting a brave face on things is alien to him. So we see the raw and naked pain and wonder how much longer the man can keep going.
The irony is that this same lack of guile made Gascoigne such a compelling figure on the field. He embodied the childish sense of wonder which is at the heart of football, the joy and amazement of a kid surprised to find that he can do wonderful things with a ball, the 'why not try this and see how it works out' attitude which motivates the game's great entertainers.
Whether he was sending Dutch defenders the wrong way with a Cruyff turn in the 1990 World Cup finals, beating David Seaman with a free-kick from an outrageous distance in the 1991 FA Cup semi-final or flicking the ball over a defender's head and catching it on the volley for the decisive goal against Scotland in the 1996 European Championships, the sheer joy of improvised creation was obvious when Gazza was at his best. He was such an appealing figure in those moments because his wonder at his own gifts was so transparent.
That inability to hide emotion also accounted for the moment which changed the young Geordie from a mere footballer into a national icon, the tears during the 1990 World Cup semi-final against Germany. Those tears were an important part of the process by which a country which had spent the previous decade beating itself up over hooliganism abroad and falling out of love with its national game suddenly decided to love football again. Gazza crying was a moment which could touch people who had only a passing interest in what happened on the pitch. It was one of the first instances when soccer became soap opera and moved to the front pages as well as the back.
All last week I couldn't help thinking of the photo where Vinnie Jones appears to be grabbing Gascoigne's testicles in a match between Wimbledon and Newcastle United. What makes the photo is Gazza's reaction, its outraged and outrageous nature drawing attention to Jones's act of cynicism. That photo made Vinnie Jones famous. He has been in the movies, has become a tough guy icon and seems to have parleyed a minuscule amount of talent into a not insignificant amount of fame. The man he molested, on the other hand, stumbles from one disaster to another.
These days it's life that has Gazza by the balls.