Football: That's just about the size of it

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The Independent Online
BIG, they say, is beautiful, but not when it's wearing the No 8 shirt. In the ashes of England's game against San Marino last Wednesday - possibly the most heavily criticised 6-0 victory in football history - certain observers have been pointing out a distinctly inflationary tendency in the waistline of one of our proudest footballing exports.

Initially, no doubt, Paul Gascoigne must have thought he had got away with it. After all, there was Platt scoring four goals and playing a blinder. And as far as the crowd was concerned, the chief villain was John Barnes, who had fewer shots than Tony Dorigo. Somewhere, though, in the middle of it all, there lurked a lost soul, waddling around like a recently impregnated hippopotamus. English football's greatest talent in years was, in the sport's customarily euphemistic language, 'carrying a few extra pounds'. Once fast, nippy, motivated, bursting with energy and enthusiasm, Gascoigne had become a bona fide wobblebottom.

The perils of poundage, though, assault many sportsmen, as the simple comfort of chocolate eclairs comes to outweigh all other considerations. Poor Gazza has had emotional problems, fitness problems, not-being-able-to-speak- Italian (or-even-English-for-that-matter) problems but he's had no problems, it seems, eating.

When everything is going pear- shaped, there's nothing as reassuring as a really titanic amount of food. Now, after some fairly serious trough-clearing, the strain on Gascoigne's face is as nothing compared to the strain on his trousers. As a result, everyone's talking once again about his career being effectively over. Sport is far less tolerant of the fat person than it used to be. When the robust figure of Francis Lee used to grace the English football scene, crowds cheered his every wobble, and the attendant structural damage, even after extra time, was never more than superficial.

Snooker had the formidable presence of Bill Werbeniuk, with his hereditary hand tremor and far-from-hereditary 20 pints of lager a day. And darts had, well absolutely everyone. But who is there these days? Nowadays, fitness is all, and sporting lardbuckets are locked in a darkened room with only a lettuce for company, screaming to anyone who'll listen of 'glandular conditions' and 'big bones'.

Only one sport has not cracked down - for if it had, Mike Gatting wouldn't have stood a cheese and pickle sandwich's chance in hell of resuming any sort of international career. Cricket has long held fat people close to its ample bosom. Colin Cowdrey was scarcely slender, while Colin Milburn, during his tragically truncated Test career, could be said to have eaten for England.

And in latter years we have enjoyed the spectacle of Ian Botham, on his umpteenth failed comeback, lurching cosily up to the wicket, unleashing yet another slow-medium lollipop, by some miracle hitting the pad, and swinging around to the umpire, raising his hands in appeal, and walloping the said official full in the face with his pendulous gut. Well, perhaps not literally, but Dickie Bird always stands a yard or so further back when the Fat Man's bowling, and he's no fool.

But what of Gascoigne? There is, of course, the diet option, uncomfortable though that may seem. A swift return to the land of his fathers has also been mooted. But should football finally fail him, at least there's a whole range of alternative careers now on the horizon. Father Christmas . . . barrage balloon . . . spacehopper . . .