Last Friday afternoon, beneath a steady drizzle, Paul Gascoigne, the brilliant and troubled English footballer, began his audition with Major League Soccer's D.C. United. Gazza's U.S. debut has been front-page news in the U.K., and a contingent of British journalists was on hand to scrutinize his every move. For his part the 35-year-old midfielder is counting on the U.S. press to ignore him the way it ignores soccer in general. "Anonymity is what Paul wants," says his agent, Ian Eliott, "to go out of his house and not be hounded."
England's dominant midfielder in his prime, Gascoigne combined visionary passing with a breathtaking scoring touch. He's famous for leading England to the semifinals of the 1990 World Cup, then weeping on the field after taking a yellow card. His strike against Scotland in the '96 European Championships, in which he lobbed the ball over a defender and scored off his own volley, secured his legend.
Off the field he's been a lightning rod for the tabloids, struggling with weight gain, alcoholism and his admission that he beat his wife, Sheryl, before they divorced in '99. Last summer he spent a month in the Meadows Clinic in Tucson, battling addiction to booze and tranquilizers. Out of shape last season, he played poorly for Everton in the Premier League before bolting the team. "I'm looking to enjoy the last years of my career," said Gazza on Friday. "I'm not here to cause any bother. I just want to be meself."
To play for D.C. United, Gascoigne must convince the team that he's fit and past his troubles. He's slimmer than the jowly, potbellied figure of last season, and on Friday he enjoyed his 60-minute workout, laughing and calling for the ball. The club, which is last in the MLS, expects to sign him this week to a deal that will include escape clauses for the team if Gazza lapses into vice. "With Paul, there are no guarantees," says United coach Ray Hudson. "All we can do is go on his word."