Football: Gascoigne escapes mercenary trap: Joe Lovejoy reports from Rome on the protracted return from knee injuries of Lazio's Geordie and Milan's Gullit, who are both determined to start their Italian season tomorrow

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GAZZA AND Gullit were sharing rather more than the front page in Italy yesterday. Both have had their careers jeopardised by debilitating knee injuries, both insist they are now fully fit, and both have been less than happy about their delayed start to the season.

Playing in the most glamorous league in the world has great advantages - up to pounds 20,000 per week for starters - but it also has its drawbacks, one of which is the rule which allows clubs to sign as many foreigners as they want, but to use a maximum of three.

Paul Gascoigne at Lazio and Milan's Ruud Gullit have been the best publicised, but by no means the only victims of a statute of limitations designed to foster home- bred rather than mercenary talent.

Milan have six expensive foreigners on their books, Lazio five and, in total, some pounds 30m-worth of imports were idle last weekend.

The frustrations of the new system are exacerbated by the total absence of reserve football in Italy. As Gazza is finding, to his undisguised irritation, if you don't play for the first team you don't play - full stop.

Rounding on a startled Italian journalist, who had asked him about his match fitness, he snapped: 'That's a silly question. If I'm not playing matches, how can I get match fit?' Difficult or not, he has done it.

Up and running, at last, after his dramatic comeback against Tottenham in midweek, Gascoigne is virtually certain to make his belated Serie A debut at home to Genoa tomorrow.

His rivals for the three non-Italian places in Lazio's 16-man squad are the two Germans, Thomas Doll and Karlheinz Riedle, both of whom are automatic selections, and Aron Winter, the Dutch midfielder, who was conveniently away on international duty last Wednesday and is expected to make way tomorrow. The fifth foreigner on the club's books, the Brazilian striker Djair, is not a contender, and seems destined for a wasted season, training and never playing.

Take the money and run - or rather take the money and sit in the stand. If it is a soul-destroying existence, at least he is in distinguished company. Gullit's omission for each of Milan's first three league games has unsettled him to such a degree that he is considering an invitation to join unfashionable Pescara, on loan.

The Italian champions have an embarrassment of riches in their stable of six foreigners, and are probably unique in omitting two European footballers of the year - Gullit and France's Jean-Pierre Papin. Ahead of them in the queue to date have been Frank Rijkaard and Marco van Basten, of the Netherlands, and two erstwhile Yugoslavs, Dejan Savicevic and Zvonimir Boban. The dreadlocked holiday is not going down well, and Gullit went public with his dissatisfaction last week when he attended a supporters' club meeting in Milan's Teatro Nazionale.

The best player of his generation interrupted a fulsome introduction by the club's owner, Silvio Berlusconi, seizing the microphone to say he would rather be elsewhere. Playing against Atalanta.

Disgusted of Milano snorted: 'People say this club cares for me, and wishes me well, but if that is really the case, what am I doing here? I feel fine, and it doesn't amuse me to stand here and talk to you when I should be elsewhere, for a game. I have a heart and sensibilities, and I'm certainly not happy at the moment.'

Told that at 30, and after five knee operations, he was no longer up to playing three games in eight days, Gullit reacted by dropping out of the Netherlands' squad for last Wednesday's World Cup tie in Norway. 'This way,' he told Dick Advocaat, the Dutch coach, 'Milan can't say I need a rest after playing in midweek.'

The ruse may have worked, with Gullit named yesterday in a provisional selection for tomorrow's match away to Sampdoria.

Gullit, Gazza and the other expensive wallflowers are hardly likely to point up the positive aspect of their temporary embarrassment, but investment on a scale which makes Jack Walker seem parsimonious has given Italy the best players, and therefore the strongest league in the world.

Is it just the quality of the raw materials their coaches have to work with, or are their methods superior to ours? Gascoigne suggests the new regime he has settled into so easily is not much different from that at home and, after witnessing Lazio's training and coaching all this week, it is hard to disagree.

There is no evidence that Lazio work any harder than, say Arsenal, whose routine, to judge by a recent visit to their London Colney training ground, is more vigorous and varied. Contrary to popular belief, the Italians do not always train twice a day, and when they do the sessions are desultory, at best, and would barely constitute a warm-up for the British pro.

Another common misconception is that our cousins from calcio do more ball-work. Lazio lap and jog with the best of them, and at no stage this week did visitors to their training complex witness any intensive coaching, individual or collective, with the ball. Even that old chestnut, the players' diet, was ridiculed yesterday when Gullit said the Italians ate 'too much pasta' and took 'too much rest'.

No, if their players are better than ours, which they obviously are, it is probably not the daily routine of the adult professional which makes them so, but the grounding they get in adolescence. Their boys are better because they are attached to, and coached by, the big clubs at an earlier age. The game in Britain needs to improve from the grassroots upwards rather than from the top down.

The Italian players' union reacted angrily yesterday to the suggestion that the sport's governing body, Fifa, might intervene to stop some of the world's best footballers missing matches because of the three-foreigners per team quota in Italy. Fifa is to discuss the matter in December.