Football: A glittering career tainted by turmoil: Yesterday's broken leg is the latest in a series of mishaps for Paul Gascoigne. Henry Winter reports

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The irresistible rise of Paul Gascoigne slowed from the moment he kissed a princess.

In 1990 the Gateshead lad had everything: the nation's support following his full- hearted and lachrymose display at Italia '90, a Top Ten pop single, a waxwork likeness at Madame Tussaud's, a cuddle at Madame Thatcher's, and awards as Sports Personality of the Year and Best Dressed Man.

The following year, having powered his Tottenham team- mates to the FA Cup final with six goals, including a semi-final strike described by Terry Venables as 'the best free-kick in the history of the FA Cup', Gazza appeared the picture of irrepressible happiness as he waited to be presented to the Princess of Wales, 10 minutes before kick-off on a balmy May afternoon at Wembley. A cheeky peck of Diana's right hand and the maverick Geordie was off, milking the cheers and limbering up to tackle Nottingham Forest.

A portent of impending disaster arrived quickly. Hyped up by Spurs' delirious support, Gascoigne tore into Forest. A foot-up challenge on Garry Parker, which left an imprint of his boot on the Forest player's chest, went unpunished by the referee, Roger Milford. Unchecked, a youthful exuberance following a hernia lay-off dominated Gascoigne's thoughts and actions.

Until 17 minutes into a vibrant final, when he tried to dispossess Gary Charles with a reckless and unneccessary lunge. Charles survived but Gascoigne, his right knee's cruciate ligament in tatters, was borne via stretcher and ambulance to the Princess Grace hospital for the start of surgery and rehabilitation which was to last for 16 months. His transfer to the Italian Serie A club, Lazio, was placed on hold.

Being Gascoigne, the recovery period was neither short nor straightforward, despite the skills of the surgeons and medical staff employed by Spurs. In September, following injuries sustained in a nightclub incident on his native Tyneside, another operation was required. Lazio became nervous. Their fears did not centre solely on the state of his wounded knee, but also about what went on inside his head.

Finally, Gascoigne, his right knee defaced by a six-inch-long scalpel-induced scar, arrived in Rome in May 1992, vowing to bring greatness to Lazio - precisely the predictions from their near pounds 6m man the club and its long-suffering tifosi wanted to hear.

His long-awaited debut, against Genoa in September, did little to encourage such ambitions, Gascoigne limping out with a fresh, but minor, injury to the most famous limb in English sport.

Gascoigne's sojourn in an unfamiliar land - 'Coping with the language shouldn't be a problem,' he quipped, 'I can't speak English yet' - has been laced with mishap and adventure from burping into a reporter's microphone to playing in a protective mask after fracturing his cheekbone in a World Cup qualifying match at Wembley, an accoutrement that won him comparisons with the Phantom of The Opera, although one paper pointed out that he played more like Sarah Brightman.

Doubts about the Englishman's future at Lazio had been escalating before yesterday's mishap which Italian television made the second item on their news bulletins. One of them concluded with a Lazio fan lamenting: 'He must be finished now with Lazio. It's a great shame because when he was good he was really great.'

For weeks, local newspapers had been speculating about where Gazza would be offloaded. Blackburn Rovers and Newcastle United were linked with the errant midfielder in media reports, although the thought of disciplinarians like Kenny Dalglish or Kevin Keegan gambling on such a handful as Gascoigne raised a few eyebrows.

Lazio's president, Sergio Cragnotti, added to the maelstrom of conjecture recently by questioning the 26-year-old's commitment. 'He is uncontrollable at the moment,' Cragnotti said. 'He must understand that we live in a professional world where everyone wants to win. I have invested a lot of money, and this is an investment that should be respected.'

Such a strong statement from his employer unsettled Gascoigne further. Fears induced tears in training and only an in-depth heart-to-heart with the Lazio coach, Dino Zoff, managed to re-focus Gascoigne's energies and attention. Uncertainty surrounding his place was accelerated by the successful arrival of another foreigner, Croatia's Alen Boksic - the rules in Italian football permit only three per game.

The latest setback is unfortunately timed. Venables, the new England coach who, as a club manager nurtured Gascoigne's callow talent when he bought him from Newcastle United for Tottenham Hotspur in 1988, was prepared to build the national team around the country's one truly international-class performer.

Despite struggling with a rib injury at Wembley last month, Gascoigne on his 29th appearance hinted at how potent England might become by playing in a forward-focusing midfield position.

But future appearances are now in doubt. Gascoigne's 1990 Italian odyssey ended in tears; it would be sad if his current stay ends in the same way.

(Photograph omitted)

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