Showdown: When Roma’s Prince faced Lazio’s Clown Prince

Roma Lazio number 10

On the 29 November 1992, the Rome derby bore witness to a super-hyped Number 10 showdown, as Giuseppe Giannini and Paul Gascoigne went head to head, with the pride of the Italian capital at stake.

It had taken less than 20 seconds for Roma’s Prince and Lazio’s Clown Prince to come face to face for the first time in the heated cauldron of the Stadio Olimpico pitch. For the first, and arguably, still only time, the Derby della Capitale had two bona fide star playmakers on opposing sides wearing the magical number 10 shirt.

Giuseppe Giannini, Roma’s graceful captain, born and raised in the city and darling of the Giallorossi for whom he’d only ever represented, versus Paul Gascoigne, the new mercurial Laziali star, whose arrival had caused unprecedented levels of hysteria in the summer.

The home-grown veteran of the fixture had already won a free-kick when his opposite number raced in to block any quickly taken advantage, causing Giannini to peacock-strut towards the English upstart then break into a casual smile – ‘This is my town’ written all over his face.

Having tentatively tested each other’s mettle so early on in the first meeting of their first meeting, the moment could have been poetically described in Daft Punk’s melodic Face To Face:

There’s not much I know about you,

Fear will always make you blind,

But the answer is in clear view,

It’s amazing what you’ll find face to face.

They would find out so much more about each other over the course of the next 90 minutes.

Of course, both sets of fans already knew all about Roma’s 28 year old talisman. Il Principe had long earned his regal nickname from former teammates for his magisterial playing style: always head held high with the ball at his feet, surveying the pitch looking for, and usually picking, the correct pass.

The Italian international was elegance personified as he glided over the turf. In fact, his childhood nickname had been ‘Paperella’, because even on soaking wet or muddy pitches, he’d always keep his balance. After making his debut in 1982 Giannini cemented his place under the guidance of Sven-Goran Eriksson just three seasons later, where he remained as the team’s playmaker-in-chief and flag-bearer for the next decade. The pre-Totti Totti was in fact the Totti’s idol, who grew up with Giannini posters on his bedroom wall.

Number 10 il principe

It wasn’t always a bed of roses for the Roman fantasista however. Even going back to his debut, the then 17-year old gave the ball away soon after coming on as a substitute, and the opposition, lowly Cesena, raced away to score a 1-0 win. Fast-forward 10 years and Roma’s jewel had almost left the club after being ostracised by authoritative coach Ottavio Bianchi.

Stripped of the captaincy and with no sign of a contract renewal, Giannini had looked set to miss the derby date with Gascoigne, before Roma’s Ultras intervened. Instead, Bianchi was shown the door and Giannini was handed a new four-year contract by club president Giuseppe Ciarrapico. Bianchi’s replacement, Vujadin Boskov, soon restored the Prince as captain and the team looked forward to the new season with new found optimism. It didn’t last long.

Under Boskov, Roma struggled for form and consistency. Heading into the derby in Week 11, the Giallorossi had scraped a late win at home to lowly Ancona, but had lost the previous three fixtures in a row – totalling five losses in the league already. Their only victories coming against Foggia, in which Giannini scored a brace, and an impressive 4-1 hammering of Inter – with Giannini again netting.

Lazio went into the game on the back of two 2-1 defeats so weren’t faring much better heading into their ‘home’ derby, although the feeling was much more optimistic. The Biancocelesti had drawn the first four games of the season before a Gascoigne inspired 5-2 thumping of Parma was reversed by the imperious Milan who exacted their own thumping, 5-3. Still, pint-sized striker Beppe Signori was proving the star of the season, having only failed to score in one of the fixtures he’d played.

As for Gazza, his season was yet to catch fire. After the hysteria of his summer arrival in Italy, the Geordie playmaker had only made his debut four games in due to his recovery from long-term injury, and even then, was withdrawn at half-time due to fears of a relapse. The fixture against Genoa, which ended 1-1, had been billed as ‘Speciale Gazza Day’ and for 40 minutes Lazio’s number 10 lived up to the billing, teasing and tormenting the Genoese defenders and proving his surgeon hadn’t removed any of his old magic along with his damaged knee cartilage.

The Laziali feared the worst when Gazza “went down like a sack of spuds” under the challenge of opposition midfielder Mario Bortolazzi and didn’t appear for the second-half, but this proved a precautionary measure by the medical staff. There was no relapse – just a dead leg – with the team’s doctor insisting that the star must get used to this type of tackling in Serie A. He returned the very next game and put in a Man of the Match performance against Parma.

Gazza-mania may have been sweeping Italy by the time the derby came round but the world of calcio was curious to witness how he’d cope with one of the most intense, often ill-tempered affairs on the pitch in Serie A, fed by the ill-will shown off it between the two sets of passionate supporters.

Lazio banner

To greet Lazio’s newly arrived star, and in response to the Curva Nord’s unveiling and chanting of  ‘Gazza’s Boys Are Here, Shag Women Drink Beer!’, the Romanisti unfurled banners stating ‘Una sedia a rotelle per il vostro straniero’ (A wheelchair for your foreigner) and the straight-from-the-school-playground ‘Paul Gascoigne, You Are Big Poofter’.

Gazza Roma banner

If he was overawed by the greeting of the baying tifosi in the colourfully swaying and vast stadium, or by the early face to face with Roma’s prince, it wasn’t showing. Gazza was no shrinking violet; he was as ‘Mad as a box of frogs,’ as Gary Lineker once put it, and he was just getting started.

Eager to put down his own early marker Gazza clashes with another long, dark-haired Romanisti, steaming into a heavy but legal tackle on Andrea Carnevale who responds with his own on the Lazio man seconds later.

Just 4 minutes in the pair clash again during a 50-50 – the impetuous England man lunges studs first and comes away with the ball, then hurdles Carnevale’s attempt to impede but a flailing arm appears to catch the Roma forward who falls to the floor. Reinforcements arrive instantly and a young Sinisa Mihajlovic sends Gazza crashing to his backside. Before the free-kick is awarded to Lazio’s number 10 he’s up instantly, eagerly facing up to his new enemies before trotting off with a flea in his ear from Beppe Signori, who warns him not to get rattled so early. Welcome to the Rome derby!

It’s not long before Carnevale’s targeting Gazza again, tripping the midfielder then accidentally catching the back of his head with a knee. Gazza visibly admonishes the Roma man, but gets legal retribution minutes later, winning a powerful tackle – man and ball – smirking for good measure; ‘I’m enjoying this’ written all over his face. Carnevale extends a handshake, as if to signal that Gazza has passed his derby initiation, but the Geordie ace has none of it, continuing to smirk and mutter something which even has the referee smiling at the antics.

Rome derby

20 minutes in, there’s been plenty of midfield hustle and bustle but not much quality. Apart from coming through his initial rite of passage, Gazza’s only notable gift to the game has been his dominant aerial presence – a sign of things to come – and has undoubtedly seen more of the ball than Giannini due to his eagerness to compete in a tackle.

For the rest of the half the two 10s mostly bypass each other in midfield. Gazza, the more industrious, attempting longer through-balls which come to nothing, whilst Roma’s captain grows into the half, trying to knit the team together as an attacking force with shorter, sharper passing in his own, studious way. The two meet again in the 34th minute when Gascoigne obstructs the advancing Giannini just outside the Lazio penalty box. The Roma free-kick comes to nothing.

The half peters out with the two artists from either side failing to light up the frantic game with any moments of genuine quality. Things were about to change after the break; Gazza returns to the pitch in jovial conversation with Luciano Luci – the referee – ending with a friendly arm around the arbitro from Florence!

In play, the Gazza show continues, with him taking just a minute to win a header at goal forcing the keeper into a straight-forward save, but Giannini soon bursts the sky blue bubble.

When German wide-man Thomas Hassler roamed inside from his usual right-wing position there looked to be little danger. But a quick turn away from Gascoigne opened up the channel in front where he sends a vertical pass. Alert, Giannini causes confusion by flicking on the pass as Lazio’s defenders and goalkeeper, harassed by Carnevale, crash into each other. The ball spills out to the onrushing Roma number 10 who’d continued his run after sensing the danger, slotting home right-footed.

Gol Roma playmaker

1-0. Elation. First blood to Giannini who whips off his famous shirt and hurdles two hoardings to celebrate with the ‘away’ fans, one-armed wind-milling all the way. Meanwhile Lazio’s coach, Dino Zoff, takes a long drag of a cigarette as Signori berates his teammates’ sloppy defending.

Roma are now in the ascendency, continuing to pose a greater threat in the ensuing time with Giannini pulling the strings with more consistent and incisive passing. Lazio are rattled – but minutes later, Gascoigne reverses the tide and pulls his team out of their brief malaise.

Picking the ball up deep in midfield, Lazio’s 10 sends a perfectly weighted lobbed through-ball down the left-hand channel for the speedy Signori to chase. The forward, in turn, puts Lazio’s own German midfielder, Thomas Doll, through on goal, but he somehow contrives to place the ball wide of goal. What should have been the equaliser has come from Gazza’s first piece of architectural play.

The game opens up and becomes even more frenetic; end-to-end; tackles; aerial duals; crosses and long balls – a typical derby; a game not normally associated with Serie A by the newly thousands watching in the UK who’ve tuned in to see the exported star turn from Newcastle. They soon witness him steam into another challenge against his opposite number, cleanly winning the ball.

Not to be outdone, minutes later Giannini fires a fine left-footed half-volley from 20 yards out, forcing Lazio’s keeper into a diving save. Miraculously the pace of the game increases, as both sides flow forward when in possession – that is, if not caught by a foul.

In the midst of the frenzied action stand the two number 10s looking the polar opposite of each other. The Prince; long dark, flowing hair and bronzed, shirt fully untucked looking every inch the cool Latin playmaker stereotype, and Gazza; fair-haired and rosy-cheeked, shirt fully tucked into his high-wasted shorts.

With 15 minutes remaining Lazio are making all the inroads. Gascoigne plays a teasing ball into the Roma penalty area where Signori appears to be wrestled to the ground. Gazza protests but nothing given. Sensing injustice and looking more agitated and exhausted as the game progresses, the Lazio man constantly chatters to the referee.

Continuing to win aerial duels all over the pitch, a minute later Gazza places a header wide of goal. An almost identical scenario would soon play out. Before it does, Lazio’s worn out fantasista picks up another ball in midfield and drives past his marker but is pulled down. Before hitting the ground Gascoigne flicks the ball wide to the impressive Diego Fuser. The referee waves play on whilst being berated by a floored Gazza, and Fuser thunders a 40 yard shot which smacks the underside of the crossbar and appears to bounce over the line – no goal is signalled. Lazio furiously continue their onslaught, winning umpteen corners.

In contrast to Gazza’s brand of all-action playmaking, Giannini remains refined, supplying a mixture of quick and varied passes to teammates, one of which almost ends in a perfect counter-attacking assist. The Roma icon is then sent sprawling to the floor, clutching his face after appearing to catch an elbow. He’s OK, but not for long.

Moments later, Fuser breaks down the right before being unceremoniously halted by a bodycheck 15 yards into the Roma half. A free-kick is awarded as the clock shows 86 minutes have been played. Giannini stands over to cover any quickly taken advantage, but as Signori sails the high-arching kick over the Roma captain’s head and into the distance, awful realisation dawns.

Gazza derby Roma

His opposite number 10, who had been dominant in the air all game, majestically leaps once more and nods the ball into the corner from 8 yards out. Bedlam ensues. Delirious with joy, Gascoigne sets off one way, then twists another, as he frantically searches for the Curva Nord. Arms outstretched high above his head, Gazza doesn’t look out of place as he reaches the running track in record time, hurdling a barrier on the way but stopping short of the fans to receive their full adulation, before being mobbed by what seems like the entire Lazio squad, and the ball boys for good measure.

Just two years after his tears of Italia ’90, Gazza now had tears of joy in the same land. Walking back to the centre-circle with his hands clasped together in prayer, Lazio’s Clown Prince had become their saviour. The game ends 1-1. As the final whistle sounds, Gazza is overcome once more. Teammates embrace and urge him towards the Curva Nord once again, where he causes a mini-riot by throwing his now sacred shirt to the tifosi.

It was the fifth consecutive 1-1 between the two teams, and though relatively poor in quality, it was high in intensity and late in drama. After the game Zoff insisted his side deserved to win, though concluded it had “been a battle; not the type of game for us – we are more ‘technical’ and even a champion like Gascoigne has been affected, although he scored the equalizer.”

Asked whether he’d celebrated too vociferously, with virtually a full half left to play, Giannini answered it was legitimate euphoria:

It is worth it, believe me. A goal against Lazio, a goal that could decide the Rome derby is worth a striptease.

Recalling his derby heroics years later, Gazza reflected:

One of my best memories was scoring the equaliser in the big Rome derby, but I have to say I was petrified going into the game.

I’ve played in some derbies, up in Glasgow as well, but that one just wasn’t normal.The players from both sides were nearly crying because there was nowhere to run or hide for the losers.

It’s hard not to conclude that this derby moment was Gazza’s zenith in Italy. He would undoubtedly produce more quality other matches, but none would endear him more to the fans, or elicit a more visceral joy.

The fact that he completed the full 90 minutes – one of only 17 times he would do so during his three seasons in Italy – was also impressive, considering the high-octane nature of the game and the crushing pressure on the players.

Rome derby

Lazio would go on to finish 5th in Serie A that season, which was considered a success as it meant qualifying for European for the first time in 16 years and finishing above their city rivals. But rather than it being down to Gazza’s exploits (4 goals whilst making just 22 appearances), it was thanks, in no small part, to Giuseppe Signori’s 26 goals.

Meanwhile, Roma continued to stutter, finishing 10th in the league and losing the Coppa Italia final on away goals. Boskov was fired for their failures.

Conversely, Giannini enjoyed the highest scoring season of his career, notching 16 in total which included a hat-trick of penalties in the ill-fated cup final.

So, in the end, both protagonist number 10s played crucial roles in the 1-1 draw after taking each other the full distance – which was always likely to be the case in their first face-to-face. After all, as Daft Punk conclude:

It really didn’t make sense

Just to leave this unresolved

It’s not hard to go the distance

when you finally get involved face to face

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