World Cup Countdown: 7 Weeks to Go – Gazza’s Tears, a Defining Moment in English Football

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“I got the ball in the centre circle and bundled my way forward. Then, as Matthaus tried to nick it off me, I nudged the ball out of his reach, but overran it. I had to stretch as Thomas Berthold came across. I was giving it 110%. It was the World Cup semi-final and I didn’t want to give them anything for free. 

“To this day I honestly don’t think I touched him, but down he went, rolling around as if in agony. I crouched down to make sure he was OK, and at that stage I wasn’t thinking I was in trouble. There was nothing in the challenge. Then everything turned to slow motion.”

With just one careless lunge, Paul Gascoigne’s chances of realising a childhood dream had come crashing down. 

‘Gazza’, as he was more concisely known, was always a player to wear his heart on his sleeve. When he was frustrated, you’d know about it. When he was joyous, you’d know about it. He had no poker face. He controlled his emotions about as well as a child could probably manage to, but he also played the game with the same care free nature as one. 

It is for those reasons that his 1990 tears tugged on the heartstrings of so many of us. His emotional persona both on and off the field allowed many to relate to him; he was far from a conserved, boring professional, more like if one of the lads down the pub had suddenly been blessed with a footballing gift and thrust onto the international scene. 

So, when José Roberto Wright withdrew his card from his pocket, the nation felt Gazza’s heartbreak. In one swift moment, arguably the nation’s best player was ruled out of the World Cup final – if England made it, of course. 

“He’s gone for his pocket. Suddenly I can’t hear anything. The world just stops apart from the bloke in black. My eyes follow his hand, to the pocket, then out with the card. There it is, raised above my head. I looked at the crowd, I looked at Lineker, and I couldn’t hold it back. At that moment I just wanted to be left alone. I didn’t want to talk to anyone or see anyone. My bottom lip was like a helicopter pad. I was devastated.”

Those not totally head over heels with the game will look at the now famous images of Gazza’s tears and think, “Really? A grown man crying over football?” To those who do think that, you poor, poor souls. 

For England’s number 19, you can bet that he literally saw a lifetime dream vanish before his eyes. Most likely, the man from Gateshead would’ve been running around the streets of Dunston with a ball at his feet from a very young age. You can almost picture him envisaging his Sunday League games as if they were a World Cup final; he really was that passionate about the game.

It has been said that the moment led many to fall back in love with football, most notably England fans. It reminded a majority of the human side to a footballer, where away from all the flash cars, houses and luxuries, these players have dreams and aspirations, as well as incredibly emotional reactions if they don’t realise them. 

From that moment on, the semi final seemed to be slipping from England’s grasp, Such were Gazza’s enormous talents, it seemed like his tears took the spotlight from the main event of a World Cup semi final. Gary Lineker’s now iconic look to Sir Bobby Robson on the sideline, where he gestured towards Gascoigne to say, “Keep an eye on him boss, he’s lost it”, pretty much sums it up. 

England did in fact lose that semi final to West Germany on penalties. Who knows, if Gazza hadn’t been carded and ready to play in the final, perhaps those with the Three Lions on their chest could’ve found one little push to take them that extra step, safe in the knowledge that their best player would be there to help them. 

Maybes, what ifs, perhaps. All of this hypothetical chat is irrelevant. Plain and simply, the fact that Gascoigne still talks so emotionally about the incident proves how much that one moment meant to him, and in a way, affected him. 

The man so often heralded as ‘the most naturally gifted English midfielder of his generation’ never truly realised his potential at international level. Having said that, it can be a cruel scene; even Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo are yet to truly take the World Cup by storm. 

No matter how good you are, nothing is spoon fed to you in football. However, after Gazza’s tears back on that saddening day in the summer of 1990, you can bet your house on the nation collectively wanting to do all they could to take those tears away from the devastated icon. 

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