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On Wednesday night, England kicked off their playing year at Wembley against Brazil. Twenty-three years ago they did just the same, albeit at the old stadium and at the end of March. It was the first time I saw the golden shirts of the South Americans for real, the last time we beat them, and only the second time I watched Paul Gascoigne in England white.
As we took our seats at Wembley for the latest match between the teams, the star of Italia 90 was in an unnamed rehab centre in the United States, trying to get his life together once again.
The first problem with writing anything about Gascoigne is avoiding having it sound like an obituary for a man very much alive. A second is that it may look like rubber-necking. A third is that media attention has not helped him in his latter years and arguably contributed to his woes from the very start. A fourth is that however public some of his problems have been, much of what has gone on, good and bad, remains private.
Yet when Gascoigne's agent talks of his client's continuous risk of death and when Gary Lineker, one of the earliest public faces of concern for the player, says he is struggling to think of a happy outcome, then it is time to talk about Paul. It is a morality tale without a moral.
Looking back across the years to 1990 and beyond reveals a complex set of changing attitudes towards Gascoigne, yet initially these were based almost exclusively on his footballing talent. This was a time when few players received the sort of attention that is commonplace today; years of hooliganism and neglect, culminating in 1985's contrasting disasters of Heysel and Bradford, had left the game and its supporters having to apologise for its existence, even if attendances had staged a dead-cat bounce after the 1986 World Cup.
There was some glamour in the game - Glenn Hoddle and Chris Waddle made it to Top of the Pops with Diamond Lights - and the young Newcastle midfielder attracted attention by moving to the club that spawned that musical execrescence, Tottenham. But it was Gascoigne himself who accidentally recreated the footballer as true celebrity, one month in Italy in 1990.
England were no one-man team; plenty of others had a hand in the run to the World Cup semi-finals, with Mark Wright sweeping up for Bobby Robson's defence and heading home a Gascoigne free-kick against Egypt, and David Platt's draining volley against Belgium. Above all, Lineker found the net repeatedly, twice winning and converting penalties against Cameroon and earning the extra time against West Germany in the semi-final. But Gascoigne - with his smiles and his tears - was the boyish star of the show.
He was, though, already 23. Robson had dubbed his charge "daft as a brush" during the period when it was unclear if Gascoigne would make the plane to Italy; when the team landed at Luton airport to remarkably rapturous scenes for semi-final losers, it was Gazza - there, I've used the word - wearing the comedy plastic breasts, like the mate who can't handle his beer on a Costa holiday "documentary". Soon, Graham Taylor would be referring euphemistically to Gascoigne's "refuelling problems".
Yet the tenor of coverage and fan sentiment in those heady days was clear: the problem lay with those who sought to change or manage Gascoigne, who did not trust his natural exuberance. He was the nation's new darling: that night in Turin had been watched by more than half the country.
Sometimes the identity of the messenger did not help - Taylor would prefer the geriatric Gordon Cowans against the Republic of Ireland - but it is unlikely that anyone's judgment could have penetrated the bubble of enthusiasm for the charismatic midfielder. When he then carried a financially stricken Spurs to the 1991 FA Cup final, with a famous free-kick past David Seaman in the Wembley semi-final, Gazzamania seemed unstoppable.
It was Gascoigne himself who brought it to a vicious end. The wild tackle on Nottingham Forest's Gary Charles should have led to a red card; instead it ruptured the Spurs man's knee ligaments and meant that before he turned 24 we feared we had seen the best of him. He was in hospital when his team secured him a winner's medal, and faced a year or more out; this kind of injury had finished many careers.
Gascoigne fought his way back, aided by the good fortune of improving medical techniques. We saw last November, when Spurs played Lazio in the Europa League, the affection he earned in Rome after his injury-delayed transfer finally went through. With England he missed Euro 92 and the team failed to qualify for USA 94, but at Euro 96 under Terry Venables - the manager of those Spurs Cup winners - we had another month of bittersweet wonder.
Yet he was not the player he could have been or should have been - the question everyone asked was whether he would have reached that cross to score a golden goal against Germany.
Generally, his personal judgment continued to be questionable. His glorious strike against Scotland was celebrated with an impression of having alcohol poured down his throat; this was funny in the context of Fleet Street moralising from journalists known to like the odd drink themselves and players who drank rarely to let their hair down, but now we know that there were a couple of alcoholics in the team.
It wasn't only when drinking that he seemed unable to control himself. In 1993 he told a camera crew that his message for the people of Norway was "F*** off Norway"; in 1998 he was fined £20,000 by Rangers for sectarian mock flute-playing against Celtic; the Charles tackle did not end his rash challenges that endangered himself and others. Worse, by far, were the revelations of violence against Sheryl, the mother of his children and sometime wife.
When Glenn Hoddle deemed him too much of a liability to take to the 1998 World Cup, many attacked the coach. But the more you learned about Gascoigne's reaction - a man in his 30s trashing a hotel room in fury - the more you realised that Hoddle had a point. The problem with describing someone's rise as meteoric is that meteors by definition crash to earth.
If it is painful to revisit his career in light of what was and what might have been, what followed has been excruciating: the disastrous appointment at Kettering, the sectioning, the Raoul Moat moment, last week's incident in Northampton ... His football genius could no longer mask his character flaws, and they were exposed to a media glare he had helped create. But the only way he had to earn money meant exposing himself and those flaws to more of that glare.
Looking back over a quarter century, it is impossible to remember with much certainty what I thought about Gascoigne most of the time. What I do know now is that much of what I thought would have been wrong. Equally certain is that others' judgment, people close to the player rather than a distant speck in the stand, also erred.
The problem is that while some mistakes were evident even at the time - those who denied his drinking was a problem were no true friends - in many situations there was no right answer. Undoubtedly you could say that on occasion too much was placed on fragile shoulders; but any perceived lack of faith would also have been damaging. I doubt he would have been allowed to see it, but would he now have found England's 2-1 win a pleasure or a source of pain? Surely the answer is both and football will have been that to him, in part at least, all along.
Gascoigne after football is a haunting figure; he would not have had to share his pain with the world, but a Gascoigne without football may well have been just as troubled. Which is why I said his story is a morality play without a moral - save perhaps that we should always remember that our Saturday afternoon or Wednesday night escape is not immune to any of real life's myriad pitfalls.