The antitheses had been there all along but in July 1990, after Gascoigne’s World Cup triumph, they were given a new formulation. His immaturity was now being hymned as ‘childlike’; his aggression was ‘fire’, ‘guts’, ‘determination’; his yob prankishness sprang from a simple need to ‘entertain’. If Gascoigne had listened to any of the sermons he’d been given by the press over the years, he would have had good reason now to jeer. What if, as advised, he had matured? Would Bobby Robson now be calling him ‘a lovely boy, really a lovely boy’?
It was the tears in Turin that pitched Gascoigne from soccer bad-boy to the status of national celebrity. England’s semi-final tie against West Germany was seen on television by millions who barely knew the rules of football. They knew enough, though, to grasp that our best player had been made to cry. It did not matter that Gascoigne’s grief was first of all for himself: the tears came when he was shown the yellow card, which would have meant being suspended for the final if England reached it. The point was: England lost and they had gone down stirringly, unluckily, with grit. The warrior’s tears were felt as patriotic tears, our tears. At the very end of the game, the unchildlike Stuart Pearce was crying too, but no one noticed. By then we were all crying, and it was Gazza who had shown the way, who’d been the first to sense how badly this defeat was going to hurt.
I know of at least one Gascoigne fan who was glad that England lost the penalty shoot-out. A World Cup Final without Gazza, he said, would have been unbearable, a joyless second best. As it was, the player’s Turin tears achieved symbolic resonance, the stuff of posters, T-shirts, scarves and mugs. Shrouds, maybe. If England had triumphed, had gone on to win the Cup, they would have been just tears. They may even have been read as further evidence of Gascoigne’s instability. Who could forget Gary Lineker’s gesture to the England bench just after Gazza’s booking? He had a finger to his head as if to indicate that Gascoigne had gone mental, that he’d cracked.