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So what if British bad boy Gazza acts unruly? His signing could’ve scored points for D.C. United and MLS.

Illustration by Jason Coates

Let’s get this straight: It’s been 531 minutes of play—true time known only to the official on the field, of course—since D.C. United last registered a single point. That lone goal came nearly five weeks ago, on July 13, and the boys in black and red hadn’t scored in the game before, either.

Say what you will about the significance of defense in soccer: If you don’t send that spinning sphere into the net at least once during a game, the fans go home unfulfilled.

United brass and their neo-socialist overseers at Major League Soccer (MLS) seemed to have a solution in hand: a deal to bring on board free-agent British superstar Paul Gascoigne, a maverick midfielder who’s netted more than 100 goals playing in far superior leagues in England, Scotland, and Italy, plus 10 goals in international matches.

His price tag: $260,000. That’s the maximum annual salary allowed in MLS, but it’s a bargain compared with what a player with his credentials could make on the global market.

On Aug. 1, however, United flinched. After flying Gascoigne in, giving him a tryout, and taking him out on the town, coach Ray Hudson sent him packing. Team and league officials announced that contract talks were off.

Why? Excuses abounded. Gascoigne is a hard-worn 35, too old and unfit, some say, to hang with the predominant youth of MLS. United also had only eight games left in the regular season—scarcely time for Gascoigne to get in shape, let alone have an impact.

But this wasn’t about Gascoigne’s ability to handle the level of competition in MLS. (One MLS defector recently likened the league skillwise to England’s Second Division—the British soccer equivalent to AA baseball—only “slower in pace.”) MLS just wasn’t ready for a player like Gascoigne.

The last time “Gazza”—as he’s known worldwide—came to the United States, he was bound for an Arizona rehab clinic seeking treatment for alcoholism and depression. He has a well-documented history of drunkenness, brutality, and crudeness.

Gascoigne reportedly ransacked England coach Glen Hoddle’s hotel room after Hoddle scratched him from the country’s 1998 World Cup roster because of excessive drinking. Gascoigne has confessed to beating his now-estranged wife, and the British press has extensively documented his taste in practical jokes: He once crashed a team bus, urinated on a sleeping teammate, and booked a series of tanning appointments for another fellow player, who is black.

More recently, he was blamed for setting fire to ITV’s World Cup 2002 studio after sneaking a cigarette during a broadcast break.

This isn’t the image that MLS is selling. “We try very hard to work with our guys to put forward an image that the public can be proud of,” says Mark Noonan, the league’s executive vice president of marketing and fan development. “And that is the type of player that you would want your daughter to date or your son to grow to be.”

Compared with other big-league athletes, MLS players are remarkably well-behaved—almost boringly so. Off-the-field incidents are rare. Even when a player acts up—say, flunks a drug test—you likely won’t hear about it. MLS prefers to keep this information under wraps, quietly sending the offending athlete off to rehab rather than punishing him with a public suspension.

“We’re very proud, after six-and-a-half years, of the conduct that our guys have shown,” Noonan says. “If they’re going to be in the headlines, it’s going to be because what they’re doing is good.”

Trouble is, good guys don’t make headlines. A horde of reporters and camera crews came out to cover Gazza’s tryout with United on July 26. Yet a similar practice session on Aug. 9, sans Gazza, attracted only three press types with tape recorders, despite the long-awaited reunion of four key United players.

The scant media attention says a lot about MLS’s clean-cut look.

League poster boys Brian McBride and Landon Donovan recently garnered some TV exposure on account of their solid play this summer for the U.S. World Cup squad.

On the pitch, McBride marvelously outleapt opposing players to head-bang the ball on goal. Donovan deked defenders senseless with his fancy footwork.

As celebrities, however, these soft-spoken pretty boys seem better suited for the cover of the latest J. Crew catalog—not the battlefields of athletic competition. Is it any wonder soccer still comes off as a small-time spectator sport here in the States?

Good-looking nice guys might maintain the minivan moms’ interest. But MLS also must do something to better attract more traditional sports fans—those who happily flip from baseball to football to hockey to basketball but simply scoff at the notion of watching 22 gentlemen play a strategic game of keep-away.

In Europe and elsewhere around the globe, ruffians rule the keep-away. There’s an undercurrent of blood lust. Passions run deep and ugly. Fans revel in the thrills of neo-tribalism, chanting battle cries and sometimes rioting. The intense synergy of action on the field and in the stands culminates in unforgettable events, such as French star Eric Cantona’s feet-first dive into the crowd to kung-fu-kick a taunting fan in 1995.

Unruly athletes are a crucial component of all the American big leagues: Ty Cobb helped propel baseball’s popularity in the early 1900s, becoming a legend not only for his deft skills at batting and stealing bases but also for his mean-tempered, often violent behavior. He once claimed to have killed a man in a street fight. Many deviant diamond darlings followed: Darryl Strawberry, anyone?

Pro football is no different. Researchers in 1999 reported that more than 20 percent of players in the National Football League had been arrested or charged with serious crimes. Despite such rampant dirty deeds, pro football remains the most popular spectator sport in America.

NBA icon Allen Iverson has now been arrested on multiple occasions, yet his star power has seemingly increased because of the extra publicity.

Just try to find a current MLS player who’s even come close to exhibiting such a striking balance of athletic prowess and social malfeasance.

The best MLS has come up with is a few good players exhibiting wild hair styles: Alexi Lalas’ fiery mop and goatee, Cobi Jones’ Medusa dreads, and Clint Mathis’ mohawk.

MLS spokesperson Alan Plum proudly admits: “It’s not like we’ve had guys doing stuff like Allen Iverson.” MLS doesn’t have guys doing stuff like Iverson does on the court, either. Never has a player led the league in scoring in back-to-back seasons.

That’s what happens when players don’t dare act out of control. The primal drive to score is constrained.

For a league desperately seeking legitimacy, MLS is ignoring what it’s obviously lacking. And if the Gazza situation is any indication, that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

Says Noonan: “I’d much prefer that over the long haul our players do exactly what they’ve been doing—connecting with their fans and showing them that you can be a professional athlete and not be a jerk and not be a felon.” CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Illustration by Jason Coates.