Life and times: Gascoigne - 1990 and all that

Paul Gascoigne was sectioned last week, a new low in his long decline since that night in Turin when all was possible. Cole Moreton recalls an era of hope - and explains why the Gazza generation is left unfulfilled

Sunday 24 February 2008 01:00

Oh, Gazza. You could have been so much more... and so could we. The world was an optimistic place that night in 1990 when your tears made you a star and (although nobody could know it) signalled the beginning of your decline.

You wept because your reckless tackle led to a booking that barred you from the World Cup Final you were trying so hard to reach. You wept again last Thursday, when police in Newcastle used the Mental Health Act to keep you in custody for your own good. Life has not turned out the way it promised in the summer of 1990, for you or the rest of the world. Looking back, there was so much more to play for than football.

The possibilities for Paul Gascoigne were limitless in the moments before that lunge. England were playing West Germany in the Stadio delle Alpi in Turin. You were like a manic kid rushing around the playground, nicking the ball off the big boys and beating them for skill every time – except there were 62,628 people watching in the stadium and billions more around the world.

Your old fella and brother were back in Dunston on Tyneside where you grew up – if you ever did – gulping down pints (at a pound a time) with your mates and bellowing at the big screen. Half the nation was gripped by the broadcast, including Margaret Thatcher in No 10. It was better than Baywatch. And for the generation of men and women who were roughly the same age as you, it was some kind of miracle. You looked like one of us, but played like one of Them: Pelé, Cruyff, Maradona, the greatest of the greats. If you could do that, then surely anything was possible.

The world felt like that in 1990, and not just in sport. Impossible things were happening everywhere. In South Africa, apartheid had been dismantled in February, legally at least, and Nelson Mandela, right, was freed to begin the long walk from prison to the presidency. The Berlin Wall was down and the Cold War effectively over, but now the Soviet edifice itself was crumbling too. During the World Cup, the president of the Russian parliament, Boris Yeltsin, resigned from the Communist Party, undermining Mikhail Gorbachev on the way to replacing him as leader the following year.

Even Mrs Thatcher was being forced to listen to the people, after the poll tax riots in Trafalgar Square in March, as it became clear that one in five people were simply not paying. She would weep like you, Gazza, before the year was out. If her blood pressure was rising, so were the temperatures: the summer of 1990 saw record highs.

House prices were lifting again for the first time in two years, with the average an affordable £59,785. As Yuppies pawned their Porsches, red braces were out and tie-dye and floppy clothes were in. The greedy, materialistic 1980s were over, we were told, and the touchy-feely, caring 1990s had arrived. We were all going to be loved-up new Europeans, sharing an Exchange Rate Mechanism and a physical link with the continent, as French and English engineers cutting the Channel tunnel met halfway and rejoiced.

Iraq was preparing for its August invasion of Kuwait, but few people believed there would be a Gulf war. The hostage Brian Keenan was released in Beirut that summer (with Terry Waite and John McCarthy to follow in 1991).

And there was cheeky, boyish you, charming even the mums and girlfriends who didn't like football. Tuning in for the World Cup coverage, hearing the soaring aria that the BBC used as a theme tune, "Nessun Dorma", those who secretly loved football as much as high culture realised they didn't have to feel guilty about it any more. Nick Hornby would write Fever Pitch. Families would come back to matches. There was even history's first cool football song, "World in Motion" by New Order.

The rap in the middle was a bit embarrassing but rap had gone all cuddly anyway, with Vanilla Ice and the loon-panted MC Hammer. Acid house was smiley too, with Adamski and Seal. The world was becoming a happier place and you, Gazza, were to be its clown prince, lifting the World Cup high on our behalf.

That was how it looked at 9.54pm on 4 July. The Germans had scored, but that nice Gary Lineker, silky shorts hitched high on tanned thighs, had equalised. You ran hard. One act of genius in extra time and the final would be yours. Ours. Your face was red as a Bloody Mary, your eyes wild. Then ... oh, Gazza. Is this what you think about during those long nights in hotel rooms, with empty bottles for company?

We know it was not just regret that got you sectioned. It was more than the struggle young men face when age or injury stops them playing. You ran out on to muddy municipal pitches as a boy just to forget your developing ticks and addictions and the shit back home: the whole family jammed into one room, the father struck by a brain haemorrhage, the friend killed by a car accident. You were obviously ill too, in a way that can be treated, but nobody ever did anything about it. So you played to escape, and you got so very far. Nearly the whole way. To the summer of 1990, when you were a symbol of our hope. Then it happened.

You saw the ball. You were sure you could get it. You jumped, feet up, and clattered into the German player Thomas Berthold. You knew what it meant. You bent down to him, tried to say sorry, raised your hands to the ref, but it was useless. He booked you. Game over, son. Your second yellow card of the tournament would bar you from the final even if England got there.

You wept. We watched. Lineker turned towards the bench, put his finger up to his face and mouthed: "Keep an eye on him." He spoke for all of us. Back in Dunston, your Dad screamed at the screen: "Smash the German bastards!" The lads roared with him. They knew what it meant. Your peak had come and gone in the blink of a tear.

There would be great moments, like the free kick that got Spurs into the FA Cup final in 1991. But they were only glimpses of what might have been, such as all of us in the Gazza generation have known on the journey into middle age.

Looking back now, to the cheery summer of 1990, the lunge for Berthold seems like a prophecy. It is almost as if in that reckless moment our optimism was hacked down and the struggles of the years to come foretold: the first war in the Gulf, the Real IRA, the disenchantment with Tony Blair (the Gazza of politics, who had promised so much), the second Gulf war and more. But that's ridiculous. It wasn't like that at all at the time. We had another beer, shared our sorrows, moved on. It was only a game. For us.

Not for you, as it turns out. It was your escape, your life. You have to find another one now, Gazza, at last. Another way of being. All of us have been forced to do that in different ways since 1990. If you can't, there may be no end to the tears.

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