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The tale of the tortured soccer genius

The Tale of the Tortured Soccer Genius

Every sporting profession has them — the talented individual that appears to struggle with their inner demons. Despite having enviable skills and physical ability, the tortured genius fails to adopt the mentality of a professional sports star. For every model professional that lives for their sport, there will be another person that plays to earn money and then will indulge in the extravagant lifestyle that their celebrity provides.

Soccer players are some of the most celebrated sports people on the planet, with earnings that make the common working man shudder. With this money and fame comes a greater responsibility to perform both on and off the pitch at an impeccable standard. David Beckham, as the most famous soccer player alive, has coped admirably considering the media scrutiny that his life encourages. But for every David Beckham there will be a Paul Gascoigne or a George Best.

Gascoigne and Best were two of the most skillful players that the sport of soccer will ever produce. With style, speed, charisma and determination, these two players would have the world at their feet and then see it all slip away. Although these two would represent their clubs and countries at the highest levels, their talents would have deserved more than what they achieved.

George Best made his debut for Manchester United at the age of 17, two years after the club scout declared to then manager Matt Busby — ‘I think I’ve found you a genius’. Best would go on to make over 350 appearances for the club, as well as 37 caps for Northern Ireland. Among his honours, Best lifted the European Cup and was named the European Footballer of the Year in 1968.

The ability of George Best was undeniable, but as his skills and looks saw him earn the nickname the ‘fifth Beatle’ the problems would begin. His popularity led to a celebrity lifestyle that would ultimately affect his performances and he struggled with gambling and alcoholism. Best quit Manchester United at the age of 27, a time when a professional soccer player would be considered at their professional peak.

Best’s abilities appeared to wain as he drifted from club to club across a number of countries before eventually retiring at the age of 37 while playing for Bournemouth in England’s Third Division. At the age of 59, Best would die of a kidney infection, a side effect of treatment of a liver transplant. Although Best enjoyed a successful career before and after playing, entertaining soccer fans across the globe with his skill and charm, the question will always be posed as to how good he really could have been.

A soccer player’s career is a relatively short one with the average player getting ten to twelve years to perform at the highest level possible. There are exceptions to this rule, with players hitting the heights as early as 17 and 18 years old and improved fitness helping players continue into their late 30s.

Paolo Maldini Made his debut for AC Milan, aged 16, and continues to play to the present day past his fortieth birthday. Maldini is a shining example of what ability, combined with hard work and commitment, can achieve in the modern game. This shows the different achievements that are possible with the right mentality, attitude and frame of mind.

English soccer player Paul ‘Gazza’ Gascoigne burst onto the international scene at the World Cup Finals at Italia ’90. After dazzling the world with his skills, Gascoigne’s tears during the semi-final against Germany made him superstar. With the soccer world watching, Gascoigne’s season at Tottenham Hotspur would attract interest from Italian side Lazio, who would agree a fee of 8.5 million pounds with his club.

Gascoigne was set to move to Italy at the end of the 1990-91 season following an appearance in the FA Cup Final against Nottingham Forest. With the glorious Wembley Stadium as the venue, Gascoigne’s final appearance for Tottenham was expected to be a fitting swan-song for a fantastic player.

Gazza went into the game with determination and ambition, although his enthusiasm would eventually be his downfall. Eager to impress, Gascoigne crashed into an opposition player and was cautioned. However, this failed to prevent what would happen next as he clattered into Gary Charles and ruptured cruciate ligaments in his knee.

Immediately Gascoigne appeared devastated and in a state of agony. Stretchered off the pitch, he would watch the rest of the game from a hospital bed and would sadly miss the whole of the next season with the injury. His transfer to Lazio would take place 15 months later but for a largely reduced fee of 5.5 million pounds.

Despite a lack of club form and frequent injuries, Gascoigne would continue to represent his country as a talismanic performer. His performances would silence the doubters and media who would scrutinise his private life at every attempt. At Euro ’96, he would be named in the team of the tournament with his performance against the Netherlands an unforgettable highlight.

Gascoigne’s career from here would suffer many more setbacks with injuries and personal problems making headline news. Controversy was never far away, and he would receive death threats from the IRA for celebrating a goal against Glasgow Celtic with a mimic of the flute-playing Orange Order marchers.

Despite a resurgence in his form for Glasgow Rangers which earned him a 3.4 million pound transfer to Middlesbrough, Paul Gascoigne would be omitted from England’s World Cup Squad for France ’98. England manager Glenn Hoddle faced criticism for this decision from soccer fans across the country, as the team were eliminated in the second round against Argentina and Gascoigne would never play for his country again.

At the age of 31, Gascoigne’s abilities were fading and he moved from club to club searching for the adulation that he seemingly craved. A trial in the USA with D.C. United was unsuccessful, as was a short spell in China. A short reign as a manager was cut short due to his battle with alcohol abuse, as he was fired from his role at Kettering Town after less than six weeks.

Fans will continue to follow what Gascoigne does next as they remember the ability, charm and childlike enthusiasm that he effortlessly displayed on the soccer pitch. However, his continuous struggle to escape alcoholism is sadly comparable to that of another faded, tortured genius — George Best. These two talented performers struggled to adapt to the media spotlight that had been thrust upon them as a result of their natural abilities.

Best and Gascoigne suffered similar fates in the game, with careers shortened that had promised so much more. Both suffering from alcoholism, the two would reach the top of their game but with the talent they had could have raised the bar as high as they wanted. There are many more and will be many more to do the same, so it is the soccer fans duty to enjoy them while they can.

Italy and the pressures of being champion

Italy And The Pressures Of Being Champion

Italy won the world cup in Germany in the year of 2006 when they in Berlin defeated France on penalties to not only claim the title but the fourth one in their history. All of which making Italy the reigning world champion yet in all this it would be unfair to say that Italy is still the best team as four years have passed since then and many of the players who won are older by the same number of years. This being a long time in the life of an athlete, specially in a sport such as football.

I for my part and being of Italian descent am always hopeful of Italy wining whatever tournament they might enter yet I am also well aware that repeating as champion is very difficult even more so than becoming it. This given the fact that other teams tend to be more motivated to defeat the team that is the champ as they can later take more pride in saying they did so. Another factor that makes life harder for those who are champions is that other teams have more time to study their tactics. This being how world cup winners more than likely will be repeating what they demonstrated four years prior specially if they keep the same trainer and most of the same players.

Naturally one must not forget that if a team was good enough to win a world cup they by all right ought to be a great team which more than likely they are yet this does not make them invincible. This being more so the case since the teams they played four years earlier did have time to improve their game and even get new coaches with diverse tactics which like the game itself never stops advancing in its progressive ways.

Italy undoubtedly however is a great football nation which can always like Brazil, Germany and Argentina produce a team capable of going all the way in any tournament however I ask is this always wise to do so? For is it not sometimes more beneficial in the long run to use a tournament to prepare for another tournament by putting together a team of younger hopefuls in the hope that they might become better as a team for the future even if it be at the expense of more experienced players who are past their prime. With this in mind it is often that great teams will do such for the already mentioned reasons. All of which leading one to ask what exactly does Italian trainer Lippi plan to follow as a strategy?

Lippi of course having many great players at his disposal yet perhaps will opt to like Bearzot (in 86 after having won the world cup 82) to leave out many of the aging stars. This being perhaps the reason why Paolo Rossi, who played brilliantly in 82 was left out of the 86 squad in favor of the younger Altobelli. In fact one could even say that perhaps it was this what Bearzot did in Argentina 78 when his team that combined new players and veterans was the one that became the basis for the one that would go on to win the championship in 82.

Regarding previous champions only Italy (in 34 and 38) and Brazil (in 58 and 62) have repeated as champions with Argentina in 90 and Brazil 98 being able to at least get back in to the final; only to both end up loosing. Italy for its part after having won the world cup in 1938 was not able to defend its title four years later given that a war put a pause to the world cups till 1950. This being 12 years after, making it that most of their players from 38 would be too old to return to the squad; specially since most had already been on the team in 34. Italy however despite the war managed to build up a great team that would have probably been a factor in Brazil 50 had it not been for the fact that most of these players died in a plane crash.

Of course in recalling previous champs we can look at Uruguay who in 34 did not even bother to attend the world cup in protest to Italy; who did not partake in the world cup they organized and won in 1930. Uruguay however would win in 50 and defend their title in 54 where the might Hungarians defeated them after a grand match that extended in to overtime and a score of 4-2. In remembering previous champions perhaps it was France who gave the poorest performance when in 2002  they even failed to score as much as a goal in a performance that saw them obtain only one draw and two defeats. This even in a relatively easy group that contained teams such as Uruguay, Senegal and Denmark. If France however was the worst defending champion then arguably one could say that Argentina was second in this category as they would in 82 loose three out of five matches though in all fairness they did have to play against two great teams like Brazil and Italy.

As for the 1950 world cup, Italy would be eliminated by Sweden in the first round; who would go on to the semifinal. As in that particular world cup all one needed to do was qualify to the second round to be amongst the top four. Sweden taking third place in front of Spain and behind the champions Uruguay and runners up Brazil.

Italy however would get over the Torino crash and build up another great team to win the world cup in 82 which made them defenders of the title in 86. This tournament being held in Mexico where they crashed out against France by the score of 2-0. This after having only won one of their three first round encounters against Korea (3-2) while drawing the other two against both Argentina and Bulgaria by the same score of 1-1. It would be safe to say that Italy in 86 was not at its best yet to its credit were the only team that managed to get a draw against the Maradona led Argentina (eventual champions) which they might have even defeated had a shot by Bruno Conti gone in instead of hitting the post.

To these arguments I would like to add that though I will always support Italy win, loose or draw, I in all honesty to do not expect them to win in 2010 but however I know they will give a good account of our calcio and at least give us; their tifossi something to cheer about. For hopefully they will not suffer the embarrassing fate of champions like France (in 2002) and Brazil (66) of being eliminated in the first round. I of course am always hopeful as are my friends at San Lorenzo where we suffered through the last world cup that saw us become champs yet this I would not count on. This naturally should not be interpreted that I believe Italy to have no chances. As in all truth I have not seen another team against which Italy would have no chances against, for as well as Spain played in Euro 2008 they barely beat us on penalties; this despite us being without some of our starting players. Brazil, Germany and Argentina are always a threat to go all the way but then again their teams were not all that impressive in qualifying as to make them heavier favorites than they usually are.

In conclusion I would like to say that though I do not have high expectations of Italy becoming world champions again (not that I would rule this out completely) I do hope they at least get to the round of 16 if not to the semifinal; where anything may happen yet just top four would make me have a great summer of football memories. This even if my friends at San Lorenzo and I do not get to see Italy raise the FIFA trophy one more time.

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