Muscat: Former England midfielder Paul Gascoigne has named Argentina superstar Diego Maradona as the best player he’s ever faced.
‘Gazza’, as he is fondly remembered, was in Oman on Thursday evening, speaking about his experiences as a football player both on and off the pitch, to a packed auditorium featuring about 200 football fans at the Grand Hormuz Hotel in Seeb.
Gascoigne faced off against the legendary attacker in 1992, when he was playing for Italian Serie A side Lazio, with his opposite number featuring for Spanish outfit Sevilla, in a friendly game at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium in Seville. He had shone in Lazio’s previous game against Italian giants AC Milan, which ended in a 2-2 draw in Rome, and having scored against the Rossoneri, was keen to continue his good form against heavyweights Juventus.
Lazio, though, had other plans for him.
“I remember scoring a goal against AC Milan and I thought I had done well, and I told the boss that I was really excited to face Juventus next week,” recalled Gascoigne, who is touring Oman and other Middle Eastern nations. “But the boss told me ‘I am going to rest you against Juventus because the owner wants you to play against Napoli.’
Although the owners had elected to field Gazza against Napoli because of the strong rivalry between the two clubs, and the bragging rights that would follow, the Naples club were no were near as illustrious or as strong as Turin-based Juventus.
“I told him I wasn’t having that, because I really wanted to play against Juventus, because they’ve always been one of the top clubs in the world, but the manager wasn’t going to see it any other way, so I decided to skip the matches and go to Euro Disney,” he admitted, “I remember being there in Paris and picking a fight with Mickey Mouse and Pluto.”
Rome-based Lazio, though, had arranged to play an exhibition friendly against Maradona’s Sevilla, and needed their star player to showcase his skills in the feel-good match.
“Diego Maradona was without a doubt the best player I have ever played against: he had all the skills a footballer could possibly want,” revealed Gascoigne.
“The Lazio management called me and said they needed me to play in this friendly, and that I would be forgiven for going to Euro Disney if I played in it.
“I’d heard that Maradona was being paid a big amount of money to play in this friendly, so I told the boss that I wanted £120,000, and they said they’d give that to me after the game, so I got on the plane from Paris and went to Seville,” revealed Gascoigne.
“The first I saw of Diego was him standing in the tunnel, next to me, as we were getting ready to go onto the pitch,” he added. “When the game began, I don’t quite know how I did it, but I dribbled past five defenders with the ball at my feet and beat the keeper and put the ball in the net, and I gave a look to Maradona that said ‘I’d like to see you beat that.’
“Given Maradona’s skills, I wanted to see what he could do, and sure enough, he did,” explained Gazza.
“He took this amazing free kick from really far out that hit the stanchion behind the goal, but that almost went in, and he looked at me as if to say, “I most certainly can.”
“After the match, I really didn’t want to face the press, so I decided to approach Maradona and asked him if he would speak to them for me,” he quipped. “He said, ‘go away, I’m not doing that for you’, and that was it.”
The match ended 1-1, and Gazza headed back to Rome, with a big payday waiting for him, or so he thought: Lazio management fined him £40,000 for his misdemeanour, so he decided to “go back to Euro Disney that weekend.”
Gascoigne spent three years at Lazio, from 1992 to 1995, scoring six goals in 53 appearances for them.
One of a select few English players who left the UK to further their footballing careers, Lazio was to be his only foreign club, with the exception of Chinese outfit Giansu Tianma, for whom he made four appearances and scored twice, in 2003.
Considered to be one of the most talented players of his generation, Gascoigne’s willingness to work hard and creative technique also saw him play for Middlesbrough, Newcastle United, Tottenham Hotspur, Glasgow Rangers, Everton, Burnley and Boston United, in addition to representing his country 57 times.