Gazza’s Demise: Former England Soccer Star Paul Gascoigne Heads for U.S. Rehab Clinic

The story behind one of modern soccer's tragedies

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Tony Gentile / Reuters

Paul Gascoigne, center, prior to Lazio's Europa League match with Tottenham Hotspur at the Olympic Stadium in Rome on Nov. 22, 2012.

Decay is as much a part of life as death and taxes, yet it is still wretched to watch someone blessed with such sublime talent as Paul Gascoigne struggling to survive. The former England international soccer star, pretty much known to everyone as “Gazza,” whose long-running battle with alcoholism and mental health problems have been well documented, has “willingly” booked into an unnamed U.S. treatment clinic  to seek help for “complex issues” after a recent breakdown reportedly saw him shaky, incoherent and in tears at a charity event in the English town of Northampton. “Paul has been extremely touched and overwhelmed by the generous offers of help and support over the past few days,” his management company GamePlan Solutions said in a statement. “He is motivated to fully understand and control his addiction problem under guidance.”

Gestures of goodwill have flooded in for Gazza. “Anyone who knows Paul Gascoigne knows how desperate he is, and has been, to sort himself out. He deserves our sympathy, not ridicule,” tweeted CNN host Piers Morgan on Monday. Current England captain Steven Gerrard has since revealed that a players’ delegation from the national team also approached the Football Association (FA) to offer help to the former Newcastle, Tottenham, Lazio and Glasgow Rangers star.

(MORE: Gazza’s Grief: A Sobering Reminder)

The late Sir Bobby Robson, England manager at the 1990 World Cup, memorably labeled him as “daft as a brush,” and it was during that same tournament that Gascoigne won the heart of the nation with his tears during England’s semi-final defeat to West Germany on penalties (a yellow card during the game meant that he would have missed the final, hence the crying). A creative midfielder capable of near-impossible feats with the ball, he further endeared himself with a sublime goal against Scotland in the 1996 European Championship, as well as a litany of wild pranks and antics. Most infectious of all was his clear fondness for the game, always playing with a smile on his face and treating auspicious occasions as if they were kickabouts in the local park. He loved playing for his country and was never sent off in his decade-long international career that boasted ten goals in 57 appearances.

Yet Gascoigne’s mental fragility has always been cause for concern. Born into a working class family in Gateshead, northern England, on May 27, 1967, he underwent therapy as a ten-year-old after seeing a friend knocked down and killed by a car, and later developed an addiction to gambling machines while still a young man. After a series of unsuccessful trials, he was eventually signed by Newcastle United at the age of 13. Gascoigne managed to prosper with the Tyneside club, scoring 21 goals in 92 appearances, before eventually being sold to Tottenham Hotspur in 1988 for the then-British record fee of £2 million (around $3 million).

This move, however, was shrouded in controversy. Alex Ferguson, then and still the Manchester United manager, reportedly had a verbal agreement with Gascoigne that he would instead move to Old Trafford. Ferguson first heard that Spurs boss Terry Venables had sneaked in to sign Gazza while he was sitting by the pool on holiday in Malta. The furious Scotsman immediately phoned from the hotel bar to demand an explanation, only to be told by an apologetic Gascoigne that he had no choice as the North London side had offered to buy his parents a house in order to swing the deal.

(MORE: Can A French Sports Star Change China’s Soccer Fortunes?)

Observers have argued that the bright lights and many temptations of London initiated a downward spiral that could have been avoided under Ferguson’s watchful tutelage. Nevertheless, Gazza initially flourished in his new surroundings and achieved many glorious moments – none more so than his legendary 35-yard free kick against local rivals Arsenal in the 1991 FA Cup semi-final at Wembley. Spurs went on to lift the trophy that same year, although Gascoigne was carried off on a stretcher after injuring his knee in a rash knee-high challenge on Nottingham Forest’s Gary Charles a few minutes into the final. He was certainly pumped up before one of the biggest games of his career and had already committed a cynical foul before his injury, which kept him out of the following soccer season.

Italy eventually came next for Gascoigne, but he only exhibited flashes of his brilliance during his time for the Rome-based side Lazio. He fell foul of the prissy local media for burping into a microphone and making crude jokes – once asked by a reporter if he had a message for the people of Norway, he infamously replied “F__k off, Norway” – and spent a good portion of his time injured. Nevertheless, he remains an undisputed crowd favorite and is still worshiped by the blue half of the immortal city (he scored the first of his six goals for the club to tie with local rivals A.S. Roma). When he cracked a cheekbone in April 1993, Gascoigne was forced to wear a “Phantom of the Opera” mask while the injury healed. But such was his celebrity that an obsessed Lazio fan burgled the training ground to steal the protective device.

A successful return to the U.K. with Glasgow Rangers saw Gazza win six trophies in three seasons for the Scottish giants. But it was England manager Glenn Hoddle’s decision to leave an overweight Gascoigne out of his squad for the 1998 World Cup – he supposedly trashed a hotel room upon hearing the news – that signaled the beginning of the end of the road. Part of the reason behind his omission was his obvious lack of preparation, snapped in British tabloids eating kebabs with celebrities and drinking with insalubrious friends in between important games. It also emerged that he assaulted his long-suffering wife Sheryl, with the pair finally divorcing that same year. Gazza kept playing although his subsequent stints at Middlesbrough and Everton were markedly less glorious. After a few dalliances with lower league teams in England, in 2003 Gazza took a role as player-coach in China’s second division for Gansu Agricultural Land Reclamation Flying Horses in Lanzhou, at the time considered the most polluted city on Earth.

(MORE: Paul Gascoigne Interview: All Washed Up?)

His Far Eastern sojourn did not last long, however, and he didn’t return to China after going to America for treatment to combat drink and depression. Yet the return to familiar pastures did not herald an improvement either in fortunes or wellbeing for the dad-of-one, with a string of high-profile incidents demonstrating an increasing detachment from reality. He was sectioned five years ago under the Mental Health Act when the police were called during a row with a hotel night porter. And, as incredible as it sounds, in July 2010, Gascoigne arrived at the scene of an armed confrontation between a suspected murderer and the police in order to offer his assistance. Raoul Moat was believed to have killed his ex-girlfriend, her boyfriend and shot and blinded a policeman before fleeing arrest and generating what has since been dubbed the largest manhunt in U.K. history. The 37-year-old was eventually tracked to open land by Rothbury, Northumbria, and was holding a gun to his head amid a tense standoff with surrounding police when Gazza turned up.

(LIST: Top 10 Manhunts)

Incoherent and clutching a fishing rod, bucket of fried chicken, beer and dressing gown, Gascoigne offered to negotiate with Moat, a former nightclub bouncer who he apparently knew from drinking around Newcastle. He even gave a live interview to Real Radio North-East upon being turned back by baffled officers. “[Moat] is willing to give in now. I just want to give him some therapy and say ‘come on Moaty, it’s Gazza.’ He is all right – simply as that and I am willing to help him. I have come all the way from Newcastle to Rothbury to find him, have a chat with him. I guarantee, Moaty, he won’t shoot me. I am good friends with him.” Upon hearing of his bizarre actions, Gascoigne’s agent Kenny Shepherd replied, “He’s doing what? I am sitting having an evening meal in Majorca. I’m speechless.”

(MORE: Ciao Mario! Looking Back at Balotelli’s Turbulent Time in the English Premier League)

Gascoigne is not alone with his problems. Other players have struggled with substance abuse and mental health issues. Former Spurs, Chelsea and England striker Jimmy Greaves had a well-documented drinking problem but finally managed to quit in February 1978 aged 37. The mercurial Manchester United and Northern Ireland great, George Best, deemed the best player ever to have kicked a ball by Brazilian legend Pele, finally lost his battle with the bottle even after being granted a liver transplant despite his record of relapses. Former Arsenal captain Tony Adams fought alcoholism for many years and has since launched the Sporting Chance charity for similarly afflicted sportsmen, which is in part a response to the perceived lack of care within the game.

The ex-Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel launched an attack on the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) last week for not doing enough to help Gascoigne. “This is not fun watching. Gazza needs help,” said Schmeichel via his Twitter page. “Come on PFA & [PFA chief executive] Gordon Taylor, time to step up.” Taylor, however, was quick to defend his record and that of the PFA during an interview with BBC Radio 5 Live, and revealed that the association recently paid for Gascoigne to attend a detox program for sportsmen suffering from addictions. “There isn’t a player we’ve done more for over my time at the PFA,” he said. “In fact, we’ve been criticized for doing as much as we have, because he has not made the improvements that some of our other members have.”

Whether the 45-year-old Gascoigne can still be helped is by no means clear. While his demise is undeniably tragic, and everyone hopes for his speedy recovery, Gazza’s woes serve as a reminder that even our greatest heroes remain human.

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