Paul Gascoigne at Lazio: more tears in Italy for a lionhearted hero

AFTER 17 minutes of the 1991 FA Cup final, Tottenham Hotspur’s worst nightmare came true. Star man Paul Gascoigne is stretched off with a serious knee injury. Just weeks earlier, Gazza had produced one of the great Wembley moments as he scored an incredible free kick in Spurs’ semi-final victory over fierce North London rivals Arsenal.

In the months before the final, Lazio had agreed a British record deal for the talented midfielder. The fee had been £8.5 million but was reduced to £5.5 million due to the severity of the injury. His recovery was even delayed due to a heavy drinking night in Newcastle where Gascoigne was assaulted.

Despite the lengthy delay, the enthusiasm had not diminished when Gazza arrived in Rome. A thousand fans were at Fiumicino airport to greet their new hero. They remembered Gascoigne’s exploits in Italia 90 where he lit up the tournament and Italians were expecting him to make a similar impact in Serie A.

Gascoigne was entering the pinnacle of European football. In his first season in Italy, AC Milan reached the final of the European Cup, while Juventus and Parma won the UEFA Cup and Cup-Winners’ Cup. Meanwhile all English sides were knocked out of Europe by Christmas.

Lazio though were not in the elite of Italian football. They had not won a trophy in almost twenty years and struggled to compete with the northern giants of Calcio. Better times were coming through, after establishing themselves under president Gian Marco Calleri and coach Eugenio Fascetti in Serie A, the club was ready to push on.

Sergio Cragnotti was a Lazio fan through and through. He was a Roman and had made his fortunes in the food industry before buying his childhood club. Straight away he set out for his beloved team to reach the summit of Italian football again. Gascoigne was his first of many big money moves during the 1990s catapulting Lazio into serious scudetto challengers and which ultimately ended their wait for a second league title.

Having missed the entirety of the 1991/92 season, Gascoigne was up against it from the start at Lazio. He found training tough. He was not used to having regular blood samples taken or his heart wired up. He was, in his own words, “more wired up than a satellite dish.”

Although he played a friendly in front of 30,000 fans at the Stadio Olimpico against former side Tottenham, his debut would have to wait until the end of September. The opponents were Genoa. Gazza not only had all of Italy watching him but also the attention of football fans back home.

Football Italia on Channel 4 had launched that season, with the first game, a 3-3 thriller on the opening day between Sampdoria and Lazio, being aired to three million people. Gascoigne was the star attraction for the British audience and his success was needed for the show to thrive.

In truth Gascoigne was not match fit but with increasing pressure coming from the fans, media and Cragnotti to start him, Zoff cracked. It was 16 months since the FA Cup final and it showed. He was rusty but his Lazio career was kicked started when Genoa enforcer Mario Borolazzi took him out. Gazza just nodded his head, shook Bortolazzi’s hand and carried on. It was this moment where the love affair between the Lazio fans and Gazza began.

As seen more recently with Paolo Di Canio, the Irriducibili who sit on the Curva Nud, love nothing more than to feel like there is a player on the pitch who is one of them. In Gascoigne they found that man. Weeks later he did something that forever won him a place in Lazio fans’ hearts.

Gascoigne was introduced to the first Rome derby of the season late in the second half with his side trailing 1-0. Quickly the Roma fans jeered the midfielder with some even throwing Mars bars at the “fat English man.” But suddenly Gazza got forward and glanced a header home to deny Roma with just four minutes remaining. The Lazio fans went mad as Gazza celebrated in front of the Curva Nud. A legend was born. But things began to unravel as off the pitch antics took centre stage.

Rome is a football mad city and can be a bubble. Gazza was to find that out the hard way. Like during his time at Newcastle, he could not go out without being followed by fans and the media. The spotlight got to him.

Soon after the derby a run of minor injuries ruled him out for several games. When he believed he was fit to return, he was dropped by Zoff for the home match against Juventus due to “poor physical condition.” Frustrated and annoyed, Gascoigne responded by bumping into a microphone when asked questions by a Rai journalist. The media had a field day.

Although Gascoigne had been stupid, the media blew the issue out of all proportion. Lazio fans meanwhile grew to love him even more with his blatant disregard to the press. The following season, Gazza attacked a photographer, as his relationship with the local media strained further. Throughout his career and life, Gazza struggled to cope with the media scrutiny that followed his every move, and his time in Rome was no exception. He was fined £9,000 for the bump and the club’s hierarchy were watching closely.

As his debut campaign drew to an end, on the pitch Gazza once again shone against Milan in an entertaining 2-2 draw. Lazio finished the season in fifth place; their highest finish in years and Gascoigne had played a small but noticeable part in that success. But the next season would start very similarly to the first.

When Gascoigne reported back to training in July, Lazio’s medical team were not happy with his physical shape. The campaign was off to a horrible start as he did not play until November.

When he did play, he starred. He was the main man, as Lazio beat Juventus 3-1 over the festive period and he continued this form into the new year. But his relationship with his coach Dino Zoff remained perilous.

Gazza needed to feel loved. Under Sir Bobby Robson and Terry Venables he was given guidance and tutorage like a young student. Zoff on the other hand was colder, still forging his managerial identity after a glittering playing career. Although in recent years Zoff has praised Gazza for his ability and fun-loving nature, at the time the Italian World Cup winner grew tired of his childish antics off the pitch.

Zoff did not get Gazza’s humour and was not impressed by his practical jokes at Formello, the training ground, which saw him break into cars and arrive at team meetings naked. This was pronounced given the little time Gascoigne was spending on the pitch.

Injuries were costing the Englishman any kind of form or confidence. A fatal blow to his Lazio career and Italian adventure would come in training.

Perhaps eager to show he was fully fit and impress the boss, Gazza was flying around training like a mad man. He launched into a tackle against a youth team defender and suffered a shocking leg break. More tears for the English hero of ‘90. So was the boy, Alessandro Nesta, who would go onto be a Lazio and Italy legend.

As Gascoigne was rushed to hospital, as ever during his time in Rome, the media were there. It was intrusive and vulgar, adding unnecessary stress to an already difficult situation for all involved.

By the time Gazza once again returned from injury at Lazio everything had changed. Zoff had been replaced by Zdenek Zeman who had brought in Roberto Di Matteo to replace the English midfielder.

Rangers bought Gazza in the summer of 1995 after he made just two appearances in his final campaign at Lazio. It was a sorry end to what had been an incredible three years in the Italian capital. There was regret on both sides.

Lazio felt that they had not got the best out of their big money signing. Despite impressing in his first season, Gascoigne struggled to replicate that form. Injuries and disagreements with club officials meant at times the relations were tense despite mutual admiration, as Zoff explains “Gascoigne made me tear my hair out at times but I have a great affection for him because he was an artist on the pitch and a genuinely nice lad.”

Without Gascoigne at Lazio, it is hard to see Football Italia being such a success in the UK and Ireland. He is one of the most influential English players to ever play in Italy and is still to this day loved by the Irriducibili. His antics endeared him to Lazio fans and his brilliance on the pitch made them love him. Although it was brief, Gazza’s stint in Rome will always be fondly remembered.

By Richard Hinman with artwork by Ibrahim Bhatti

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