Paul Gascoigne is terrified. In a Heathrow lounge, his entourage is trying, in vain, to enforce an atmosphere of joviality. But Gascoigne is pale and tense. He hates flying, and he's about to spend 12 hours in the air.
In front of him is a plate of uneaten food, on which he has very neatly arranged, and then re-arranged, slices of cheese in a line. He talks quietly to his agent, then heads towards the duty free shop. He returns minutes later with 1,000 cigarettes. We are, after all, going away for three days.
Lighting the first, he confides that he's worried he may seem drunk. He doesn't. He seems petrified. Twenty years ago, he explains, he was caught in turbulence on a flight from New Zealand to Fiji. "The plane dropped 800ft in a couple of seconds and the food hit the ceiling," he says. "People say the time to worry is when the air stewardesses start crying, and every one of them was crying, so I got really scared." It's only weeks since the police raids that allegedly foiled a plot to blow up transatlantic planes, and this isn't helping. "I'm more scared this time than I probably have been before," he admits.
So why put himself through the torture? He's joining the Football Association's HIV-awareness effort in Botswana. To that end, and despite his fears, he does make it on to the plane, his name securing him an upgrade. On the connecting flight from Johannesburg to Gaborone, in a small twin-engined aircraft, he makes the sign of the cross before shutting his eyes. This from a man who, playing for Rangers eight years ago, was disciplined for taunting Catholic Celtic fans with a show of Loyalist faux flute-playing. For the next hour he sits in silence, waiting for the end.
Once lauded as England's most talented ever player, Gascoigne has spent almost 20 years in the public eye. There are the images that we remember: Gazza the world-beating footballer, controlling a ball with breathtaking skill; Gazza the clown, plastic tits, wigs and all; Gazza the nearly man, tears rolling down his cheeks as the World Cup slips out of reach. Gazza the wife-beater, the has-been, the drunk, the bad dad whose stepdaughter Bianca railed against him on reality television show Love Island. Gazza, the man on the verge of becoming his generation's George Best. And now, a new role: Gazza, the goodwill ambassador, using football to try to persuade young Botswanans to use condoms, in a country where a third of the population has HIV.
This is Gascoigne's first time in Southern Africa. ("Gazza" was always a press invention, and not a name he ever conferred on himself. "G8", though, a reference to his favourite shirt number, was all his). He's clearly excited to be here, although he admits he was concerned when a doctor gave him a leaflet that said that, "If you get bit by a dog, you can die really quickly. But I got my jabs, so that was OK. Not from Mohammed Ali, but I got my jabs."
The nervousness of the flight behind us, he's now much freer, more the affable joker. Heading towards the SOS Children's Village, an orphanage in Tlokweng, near the Botswanan capital Gaborone, he keeps up a constant stream of banter with Ray Clemence, the former Liverpool and England goalkeeper. He's funnier than I expected, giving the minibus ride a convivial school-trip atmosphere.
The orphans offer us a noisy welcome, with drums and home-made musical instruments. Gascoigne immediately joins in, and is shown how to bash out a tune on a giant wooden xylophone. "It's better than 'Fog on the Tyne'," he says, incredulous that the children have made their own instruments, and are learning and playing tunes. "And they don't even know who their parents are," he says, surprised that the children seem so happy despite the hardship of their background.
As we walk around the orphanage, he touches the blue door to one of the buildings three times. Not for the first time, Gascoigne's anxiety disorder is noticeable. He was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder three years ago, and has been on medication ever since, but the repetitive habits of his condition are never far from the surface. "I had to touch it," he says of the condition. "You cannot explain the feeling, it's just something that you have." Tapping the doors is just "something I had to do", he says. "But hopefully that's some good luck for them." The medication, he says, "slows down" the symptoms. "I could come off the medication now if I want to, but if it's going to stop me from, like, touching things nine times and mean I only touch them three times... Thank God it was not 27 times. It used to be five, then it was seven, then it was nine."
He seems comfortable talking about his psychoses. They dominate his ghostwritten autobiographies. His problems were made public in 2003, at the Cottonwood clinic in Arizona, where he admitted his alcoholism - detailed in his first autobiography - and went on to chart the triggers that had sent him, again and again, into a downward spiral of booze, drugs, rage and failure.
Despite acknowledging his addiction to alcohol, he has struggled to keep off the booze; dry periods lasting for over a year are followed by lapses. Although ostensibly on the wagon, he drinks a couple of glasses of wine in Botswana.
His second book, released this year, centres on his therapy - for alcoholism, eating disorders, OCD, and bipolar disorder, among others. It is dedicated to George Best. "The second book is completely different," he says. "It's about trying to help other people with illnesses." He decided to produce it after receiving letters from readers of his first book saying how much it had helped them with their own problems.
He says it was "scary" to publish. "At first I didn't really want it to come out because I was telling everyone I had OCD. But Steven Gerrard's got it, so that's alright, and David Beckham has got it, so that's alright. I'm quite happy the book is out now, the response has been fantastic and the book went to number one, which isn't bad either. I got loads of great feedback, quite a few letters, quite touching."
There is, he says, one place in the world that can cure OCD, in Philadelphia. But that would mean another long flight, which he doesn't fancy. "So I'll stick to the medication and just try to touch the door three times instead of nine," he says.
Later, on the pitch, he throws himself into a game of football with the orphanage's team, despite having three broken ribs. The pitch is dusty, and the children play without boots. Gascoigne is amazed that anyone can play like this, amazed how fast they can run on the dirt pitch, amazed at their talent. "Quicker than leopards," he says. "Incredible." And they are: incredible enough to beat his side 6-0.
He admits he hasn't played football for ages, having suffered a neck injury in 2004 while practising for, of all things, Strictly Ice Dancing. (His place was taken by David Seaman while Gascoigne went under the knife for his 32nd operation). The last time he went out for a kick-around he broke his ribs. This time, despite the stiffness from injuries, he says he "enjoyed it as much as the kids".
Afterwards, the children surround him, intrigued by the legend of Gazza - even though his top-flight career was over before many of them were born - and by his sheer enthusiasm. Many of the orphanage's 226 children lost their parents to Aids; others have simply been abandoned. "Sometimes I think that I've got problems, but when you see kids like that it puts your problems aside," he says.
The village is split into separate houses, each painted in bright colours, each with a "mother" and an "aunt" who look after a dozen children. Between the houses are a shared vegetable patch, playground and, of course, the football pitch. As well as the orphanage, the village has a nursery and a youth centre on site.
There is another SOS village 200 miles to the north, near the Zimbabwean border, and a third is being built in the east to house and care for still more of the country's estimated 80,000 orphans. This year, the orphanages became the FA's international charity partner.
Tlokweng SOS village, built in 1984, was the inspiration for the "children's farm" in Alexander McCall Smith's The No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency novels. The two children adopted by Mr JLB Maketoni and protagonist Precious Ramotswe are based on children at the orphanage; one of them, as in the books, was buried alive before being rescued.
Derek James, the charity's national director, says the villages' aim is to develop independent men and women. He describes a girl who, as a baby, was rescued from a pit latrine. Now 11, she has just won an academic scholarship to a private school in Botswana.
In the middle of this is the unexpected figure of the Geordie footballer. He picks up children, talks to them, fishes mints out of his pockets, and hands out football shirts that are cartoonishly huge on the children, all the time grinning with joy. He seems totally comfortable and incredibly patient - it's easy to see why the FA wanted him as a goodwill ambassador. "We came over to cheer them up," he says. "But they're doing more to cheer me up."
Helping people, whether to develop in football or generally, is something that gives him pleasure. He is renowned in the North-east for his kindness, but is modest about his efforts. "I don't tell anyone them things," he says. "I've done a lot for people, sent people to Disneyworld and stuff like that. But it's my pleasure. I just did it: these are the things I like doing. It's always nice to help someone because people have always helped me through my career, and it is always nice to give something back."
It's not hard to see why he inspires such loyalty from friends and fans alike. Throughout the trip he is entirely unstarry; he seems interested in every person he meets, and they warm to his apparent normality and vulnerability.
Gascoigne is guileless, almost naïve - currently he is trying to build a big house in Newcastle for homeless children to live in. "A lot of kids end up in London living on the streets," he says. "I think we're getting help from Newcastle United as well. So, we're hoping to build a massive house for these kids. Then, when it's up and running, I'll go and playing table tennis with them, or five-a-side football and pool."
His fear of Botswana's rabid dogs apparently does not extend to its cats: after the orphanage, we are taken to the Mokolodi nature reserve to meet some of its cheetahs. They are, we are told, semi-tame, but as Gascoigne strokes one of them, it rears up on his hind legs and gives him a warning nudge. The wardens laugh it off - it's just after his sunglasses, they say. Even so, it momentarily silences Gascoigne.
Before dinner, there is a display of Botswanan dancing - a booty-shaking stomp around the fire. When the country's Health minister, Sheila Dinotshe Tlou, asks him for a dance, he's up in a flash, half waltzing, half disco dancing. Gazza the entertainer is back with us, albeit sober.
Gascoigne reveals his party trick, which thankfully does not involve plastic breasts or dentist's chairs. He takes a napkin and writes the numbers one to 10 on it, then asks the minister to pick one. He shows us that the number matches what he has written down on the reverse side.
This works a couple of times until he tries it on the wife of Britain's ambassador to Botswana. She picks wrong number after wrong number - "guess again, guess again" - until finally she is left with one digit. Inevitably, it matches Gascoigne's. She says she is impressed, won over by his irresistible grin and his obvious pride in getting it right. Eventually. I am almost wishing for the return of the plastic breasts.
People come over and ask for a signed photo. He does every one, without a flicker of weariness. As the evening comes to an end, two Botswanan national footballers say goodbye. "Nice to meet you," he says. "I'll score a goal against you tomorrow."
The next morning, we are supposed to visit Botswana's largest hospital, the Princes Marina in Gaborone. But there is no sign of Gascoigne. Clemence visits the hospital alone, where more than 15,000 people are registered at the infectious diseases clinic - almost all of them HIV positive. The star performer is AWOL.
It transpires that when everyone else had gone to bed the night before, Gascoigne got up again and wandered down to the hotel casino, where his credit card went missing along with his to-do list. Unable to focus on anything else, he hunted for the list and his card - in the casino, in the hotel, in his room - until dawn. Although he won't say, I wonder whether the temptations of the casino have been too great to resist. Only last week, he was caught out on a "Seven Hour Bet Binge" in a London casino by The Sun newspaper. But he maintains his OCD kicked in and he couldn't rest until he'd found his list. When he realised he was too exhausted for the hospital trip, he "cried his eyes out".
Public criticism of him, particularly from his family, has shaken him. "Obviously there's a lot going on at the moment," he explains later, "as regards getting stick from my ex-wife or from my stepdaughter being on the [TV] show. It doesn't help when they are giving you stick, but most of it is lies," he says, before qualifying himself. "I've moved on and they can do what they want."
But by the afternoon, Gascoigne is back on form. During an HIV-awareness football session with 80 teenagers and the Botswanan team at the national stadium, he runs straight on to the pitch. Gascoigne's former teammates have recalled that he was always the first to start training, always the last to leave, playing football with anyone who would kick a ball around with him. Even though his playing career is over, he still seems most comfortable with a ball at his feet.
He and Clemence play a game that involves passing the ball and shouting "condom" as you receive it. The approach is a little naïve, but, here, the need to reduce the stigma surrounding the use of condoms is overwhelming. Despite the high levels of infection in Botswana, where the average life expectancy has plunged by 20 years, to 37, since the 1970s, there is still a sense of shame around the disease. "I have never said the word condom so many times," is all Gascoigne will say.
Clemence believes that football can "deliver messages that people cannot". Football coaches command respect among a teenage audience, and for the last six years, the FA, which develops coaches in the country, has included messages about HIV in its training.
"There are some kids that obviously weren't born when Gazza was playing, but they knew him because his name goes before him," Clemence says. "It's people like that in football who, where possible, should be involved, especially where kids are concerned, because they are the ones that can get messages across."
So will Gascoigne continue to work with children in football? "I don't know yet," he says, reluctant to commit to anything in the future. "I enjoyed it, playing football with the kids. I feel a little bit stiff now, like, I haven't played for a while but that's just because I've had a difficult time because of the neck injury and the other little injuries I have had."
Gascoigne does hope, at some point, to train to be a professional coach, but he says, "it's not going to be an overnight thing". For now, he says he is "not in any hurry to do anything, just taking my time".
Asked about the future, he gives the addict's reply. "I don't try and think weeks ahead, I just try taking a day at a time. That's the only way I try to live at the moment, just a day at a time, and whatever happens that day happens."
For the moment though, Geordieland's improbable envoy to the Aids orphans in Botswana is trying to be positive. "I just like to think I am a more relaxed person, I've moved on, I'm chilling out now, I'm not rushing about or doing anything mad, I'm just enjoying life," says Gazza.Reuse content