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Not Taking Gazza: the greatest mistake in English football

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What does it take to win the World Cup? It’s a complex question with many possible answers, but there is one must-have: a world-class talent such as a Maradona, a Pelé, or a Cruyff. At this summer’s World Cup, there will be Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar – perhaps even Liverpool’s Salah – all players whose natural ability means they have the potential to win the tournament single-handedly.

Unfortunately for Gareth Southgate, it doesn’t look as if the current England side has such a player – Jonjo Shelvey? – at their disposal. Not since Wayne Rooney in 2006 has England had a mercurial talent who could genuinely turn a game. Before him, perhaps Bobby Charlton, Kevin Keegan, or Glenn Hoddle could all make a claim, but not everyone would agree.

There is, however, one England player from history that all fans would agree was world-class: Paul Gascoigne. If he were playing now England supporters would surely be dreaming of World Cup glory, their imaginations running wild.

Why then, at the prime age of 31, and having experienced two international tournaments, was Gascoigne dropped from the World Cup team of 1998? It was, many still claim, simply the biggest mistake in the history of English football, at the expense of a player described by Gary Lineker as “the most naturally gifted football player England has ever produced.”

Born in Gateshead in 1967, Gascoigne began his career at home club Newcastle before going on to Tottenham, Lazio and Rangers, but it was playing for England that he made his name.

His performances at Italia 90 were instrumental in England’s run to the semi-finals, even though it was a tournament some thought he wasn’t ready for. He proved the doubters wrong: he was the England talisman, earning praise from opponents and teammates – “for me, he has been certainly the best young player in the tournament by a mile,” said England coach Bobby Robson.

Next came Euro 96, a tournament Gascoigne took by the scruff of the neck. He galvanised both his team and the country with his stunning performances, leading to another semi-final. Along the way he scored the greatest ever England goal, against Scotland, with just two touches, a flick and a volley, the ball never even touching the ground. It was reminiscent of Pele's 1958 World Cup goal against Sweden – only Gascoigne’s goal was better...

A year later in 1997, with Gascoigne in the team, England won the Tournoi de France, a friendly international tournament held as a warm-up to the 1998 World Cup, beating both France and Italy.

When it came for qualification for World Cup 1998 Gascoigne was again at the heart of the team. The climax of qualification was a 0-0 draw against in Rome that secured top spot for England, the team was lauded for its team spirit which in truth was centred around Gascoigne.

But still, it wasn’t enough.

“Gazza storm[ed] in and all hell broke lose. The tables went, he’s shouting, he’s screaming, he was obviously beside himself. Everyone heard it,” remembered teammate Gary Neville. This was the moment Gascoigne found out he wasn’t going to World Cup 98. “Everyone was shocked. Nobody expected that Gazza would be left out. The way we looked at it, he was one of our most important players.”

The England coach Glenn Hoddle put it down to fitness: “Paul had ... just run out of time in terms of us not being able to get him as we needed for the World Cup … Out of shape, out of time.” But fitness had never been a strong point for Gascoigne, nor does it need to be for someone with such natural talent – just look at the portly Diego Maradona.

It was a shameful, petty decision, rooted firmly in an English football culture obsessed with strength, tackling and heading. Only an England manager would dare to leave out a talent like Gascoigne, rejecting genius in favour of formation.

In the end, England gave a good account of themselves in 98, and they were unfortunate to go out to Argentina on penalties in the second round. While Michael Owen created a moment of magic himself, Gascoigne was a player built for tournaments and he would have given England even more of an edge; he would also undoubtedly have taken a better penalty than David Batty.

While Hoddle may have overlooked Gascoigne his teammates never did. As Stuart Pearce said: “Gascoigne was the most talented individual I’ve played alongside. Even when he got into the England side, he was not fazed by anyone he played against. He had a real arrogance on the pitch and loved football. Mad as a March Hare, and brilliant to have around the squad. The reason why England haven’t gone to semi-finals and beyond recently is we haven’t had another Gascoigne.”