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The Tale of the Tortured Soccer Genius

Aug 22, 2008
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.
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