The list of English footballers going to European clubs at the height of their success is a short one. The list of English players who have enjoyed successful careers at European clubs is even smaller. When Paul Gascoigne signed for Lazio, it was never going to be straightforward. It never was with the mercurial Geordie, but one thing was for sure, everyone knew it would be an entertaining journey, with laughter and tears, and they were not wrong.
Gascoigne was, without doubt, one of the most talented, brilliant and exciting footballers of his generation. He was also one of the most unconventional, putting him alongside some of the most eccentric sports stars that have ever lived. That is the reason he was so loved by the fans and so frustrated many of his managers.
The saga of Gazza’s move to Lazio was long and protracted, before being finally completed in the summer of 1992. A knee injury had kept him out for the whole of the previous season, his last for Spurs and meant he missed Euro 1992. Sergio Cragnotti, the new owner of Lazio saw Gascoigne as the marquee signing that would herald his takeover of the club. Gascoigne was one of the biggest stars in world football, his performances at the 1990 World Cup – in Italy of course – had thrust him onto the world stage.
A Tough Start to Life in Italy
Gazza’s arrival in Rome was greeted with pandemonium at the airport and in the streets, as the man who would lead the club to the success the fans had been craving. Almost immediately Paul found it tough, however. Having missed the previous season he was far from match fit, and Dino Zoff, his new manager was famous for his strict training regimes. Training in Italy in the 1990s was far more advanced than it was in the UK in terms of sports science.
Gazza’s progress was being watched as eagerly in the UK as it was in Italy, and his debut finally came in a match against Genoa on the 27th of September. Though far from match fit, he showed glimpses of his talent, something that was to continue for the first few weeks of his time in the Italian capital. He was having an influence on matches but was yet to score and could not last the full 90 minutes. That changed when he headed the 86th equaliser against bitter rivals Roma.
That gave him confidence on the pitch that showed in vintage Gazza performances and goals, but things off the pitch were not going so well. Controversy followed him everywhere, something that did not sit well with the staid, disciplinarian Zoff. His fitness was also a concern and a string of niggling injuries did not help.
That said, the midfielder rallied and ended the season near his best. The club finished a creditable 5th, the best they had achieved for almost two decades. It was hoped with a good preseason under his belt the following season would really see the best of Gazza.
Failing Fitness & End of Lazio Career
Concerns started regarding his condition on reporting for preseason, however, and again he was unable to finish a game in the first third of the season.
The Christmas period saw an upturn in his form, and with his mentor Terry Venables in charge of the England team, life was looking better. It is seldom that straightforward with Gascoigne, however. More injuries followed, many as a result of the attention of opposing centre backs, plus he did not help himself by returning to Italy late among other disciplinary infractions.
The event that brought about the end to his Lazio career came not in a league game, or in a nightclub, but at the training ground. In an incident that he himself takes the blame for, he broke his leg in a tackle with Alessandro Nesta.
He did play two more times for the club, but as he was stretchered into a Rome hospital, surrounded as always by paparazzi, everyone knew that it was the end of another chapter of his life and career, and like so many of his other ones, it was dripping with unfulfilled potential and promise.