The World Cup. Every four years there’s a chance for the biggest names to shine on the biggest stage of all, to cement their place in history once and for all and to secure the kind of legacy the rest of us can only dream of.
But football has a funny way of surprising us, not going to plan and showcasing the full range of human emotion; and that’s exactly what happened with Paul Gascoigne at Italia ’90.
Aged 23 and with the world at his feet, Gazza produced a string of virtuoso performances as part of one of England’s greatest ever teams alongside Gary Lineker, David Platt, John Barnes and co.
Sir Bobby Robson’s Three Lions safely navigated their way through Group F after a stuttering 1-1 stalemate against the Republic of Ireland in their first game was followed up by a vastly improved performance in a goalless draw with Holland and a 1-0 win over Egypt.
Gascoigne’s joyful, fearless and carefree approach to the game won the hearts and minds of those back at home and abroad as the belief that England could win their first World Cup on foreign soil grew.
But during a second-round tie with Belgium, the midfielder picked up a yellow card before flighting in a superb ball for Platt’s iconic volleyed winner, meaning he was just another booking away from a suspension.
Victory against a talented Cameroonian side in the quarter-finals set up a semi-final clash with West Germany in Turin, a night that would go on to define Gazza forever. A massively deflected free kick looked to be sending England home until Lineker levelled with an 80th-minute equaliser.
Eight minutes into extra-time, disaster struck for Gascoigne as he lunged in Thomas Bertholt and picked up a yellow card that ensured his World Cup would end that night whatever the final result.
The instantly iconic tears flowed and despite Gazza’s best efforts, it would also be the end of the road for his country as West Germany progressed on penalties. But a nation had fallen in love with the archetypal English talisman and embodiment of glorious failure, tropes that still dominate the national psyche to this day.
Italia ’90 might have ended in heartbreak on the pitch, but against the backdrop of toxic media coverage and the violence and tragedy that pervaded the game at home, England had fallen back in love with its national sport.