Football: Italy in love with a rule-breaking rogue: Though he can be outrageous, Italians warm to Gazza because he is different, writes Andrea Galdi

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THE crowds who pack the stadiums love him; the journalists who recognise a great and unexpressed talent love him. They love Gascoigne because he is different. Because he is the king of bad behaviour, the champion of great confusion, the emperor of rule- breaking.

He is loveable in every way: in idleness and at the table. He is able to do and say forbidden things, to play with the rules a little, just as he is able to play very well (or very badly) on Sundays. He can as easily hold people's attention and excite them as he can shock and offend those who watch and listen.

Gazza is different in the dull world of Italian football, a cliched world in which footballers stretch themselves only when it is time to renew their contract, or to win back a place in the team.

During his two years in Italy much has been written and said about him, pages and pages have been printed, and not only in the sports sections, but also on the political pages and even in literary reviews.

Some have wanted to make him into a new male 'god', a new Maradona, to understand him, even though his transgressions are so often unattractive. .

There have been many incidents: a belch on television; a fight with a photographer; his visit to the police station; throwing a bottle at a paparazzo; refusing to play in a friendly in Seville because he was at Euro Disney with his fiancee, Sheryl Kyle, and her two children, Mason and Bianca; a long silence in the press.

Then there was the eight extra kilograms he brought with him round his waist for pre-season training last summer; the fine recently unpaid after the umpteenth delay; the court of friends and relations he keeps around him to remember England, and with whom to drink beer, Newcastle brown ale.

Who better than Gazza represents the model of the cursed footballer, always out of line, always one step from giving up? No one.

In spite of everything, in spite of the Benny Hill jokes which have worn out even his team-mates, despite the over-frequent pauses on the pitch, the unappealing figure he cuts, his failure to hold his weight down and keep in physical shape, and the fines . . . Gascoigne has won his bet. Not on the pitch, where everyone looked for him to fill the stage with his talent, his dribbling, his class on the ball, his goals - but with his impact on the crowds.

How they love it when he waves to them at the Stadio Olimpico, mad with enthusiasm. The people who lock their avid gaze on him when he is playing. The people who carry his picture on their shirts, with the words 'C'mon Gazza'. The people who wait for him outside Lazio's training ground at Maestrelli to shake his hand, to get an autograph, to say to him 'Grazie, Gascoigne'. The people who cried along with him when the local derby with Roma was drawn after he had equalised with his most important goal. The people who yesterday hurried to the hospital where he was recovering after his latest misfortune, just to let him know that they were there. The people who sent telegrams to Lazio. In this, Gascoigne has been triumphant.

And what does it matter if Gascoigne has not earned millions in endorsements, because the new football hero is his team-mate, Giuseppe Signori, a man who comes across better on video? In Italy Gazza was expected to be a front-cover personality and a money-making machine. In fact he has not been. He has not made records, he has endorsed practically nothing, but he has involved and excited the tifosi and not just those at Lazio.

Gascoigne, who did not go to Eton, is a son of the same working class which has inspired great books and great films. He has won a place of his own, and has been acclaimed especially for his 'differentness'.

In the real world of Italy today, where the image and rapport with the mass media is so important, where the gods of football have fame and money, Gascoigne is also a spontaneous person, difficult and awkward, but appealing, natural, with his impishness and his tears.

Andrea Galdi is the Football Correspondent of 'La Repubblica'.