One of the sadder sports stories of the past month has been the dramatic deterioration in the health of former English footballer Paul Gascoigne, to the brink of multiple organ failure—and his financial health isn’t much better, as he has blown up almost all of his estimated $20 million (around 108 crore) wealth on drink, drugs and a messy divorce.

It prompted his former teammates and other celebrities to pass the hat around and facilitate yet another shot at rehab. For those of a certain age, “Gazza" was the most outrageously talented—and, equally, simply outrageous—English footballer in several generations. His prodigious skills took his team to the semi-final of the 1990 World Cup; yet that match, against erstwhile West Germany, best illustrated his mental fragility—a booking received in the match meant he would miss the final if England went through. He was so affected by it that his teammate and friend Gary Lineker, tapping his temple to indicate Gazza’s meltdown, urged the manager to substitute him.

Gazza was the quintessential non-conformist in a team of professionals; the joker, often literally so, in the pack. The South American in a Geordie’s body, his fellow Geordie (as those from Newcastle are nicknamed) Alan Shearer called him. The one aspect of his play that stood out, amid the recklessness and goofing, was his willingness to try something radically different, beyond ordinary imagination. It’s a rare commodity today, the player who will forsake the percentage shot and risk his own name and public standing, and the wrath of teammates, in daring to try the audacious. Neither Lionel Messi nor Cristiano Ronaldo has that—for all their boundless talent, there is much graft involved.

Dimitar Berbatov. Photo: AFP
Dimitar Berbatov. Photo: AFP

Like Gazza, Garrincha fell victim to alcohol and depression, and he died almost penniless. But not unloved. Author Alex Bellos compares Garrincha’s standing in Brazil’s psyche with that of Pelé, universally acknowledged as the greatest. “Pelé is revered; Garrincha is adored," he writes in Futebol, The Brazilian Way of Life. “Pelé symbolizes winning; Garrincha symbolizes playing for playing’s sake."

That phrase today brings to mind only a couple of players whose consummate, audacious skills with the ball are cheered and jeered in equal measure by fans and teammates: Dimitar Berbatov and Mario Balotelli. In my 30-plus years as a Manchester United fan (yes, before even Ryan Giggs made his debut!), there have been a fair few good players who’ve left the club—Mark Hughes (twice), David Beckham and, of course, Cristiano Ronaldo come to mind. No departure, though, has left me as wistful as Berbatov’s last August to Fulham.

His game is at a different level; amid the pace and power of top-flight football, he rarely seems to break into a sweat. He has an exquisite touch, a surgeon’s deftness that allows him to play in the tightest of situations. He failed to adjust to the Manchester United style, which is based on dazzling speed and counterattacks; rather, I’d say his teammates failed to adjust to him, failed to realize that all they needed to do was pass him the ball to his feet, no matter how many defenders were hovering near him. They would make him run for the ball, which of course wasn’t his game.

Everything about Berbatov says “cool"; from his languor to his penalty-taking style (a couple of steps, then a nonchalant kick), to his occasional smoking, to his aversion to interviews, to a disconnect of sorts with the actual result. And the legend on the T-shirt under his jersey: Keep calm and pass me the ball. Think Shane Warne on the football field, including the two-step run-up (but minus Warne’s exuberant celebrations). And the same ability to conjure up a moment of pure magic—as with this assist for Ronaldo (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Z7VaZGEkVs).

Berbatov also demonstrates that you don’t need to be mental or a raging alcoholic to be a maverick. Sadly, that’s not the case with Balotelli, whose performances on the field with Manchester City were often overshadowed by his off-field capers—car crashes, pyrotechnics, training-ground bust-ups. He destroyed Germany in the Euro 2012 semi-final, yet was anonymous in the final against Spain and walked off after the final whistle. The writing on his famous T-shirt was equally revelatory: “Why always me?"

Pop psychology would have several answers to that, but one of those is that a strong mentor/coach/father figure helps. Garrincha lacked one and Alex Ferguson has always lamented that Gazza would have turned out different had he played under him at Manchester United. Berbatov is now reunited with Martin Jol, his trusted coach from an earlier tryst at Tottenham Hotspur, and his rare celebration of a wonder-goal against Norwich earlier this month—he ran up to Jol and hugged him—was poignant. Balotelli was famously given a long rope at Manchester City by Roberto Mancini, who had earlier coached him in Italy, till the transgressions grew too many to ignore and he was packed off to AC Milan.

One hopes Balotelli finds his groove, keeps both feet on the ground and doesn’t do a Gazza.

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo.

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