Gary Lineker: ‘60 is just a number, 70 is the one to worry about’
Former striker on VAR, impact of Italia 90 and why the licence fee should be voluntary
Gary Lineker: Better pitches have made the game so much better. Photo: VI Images via Getty Images
Gary Lineker is surprisingly cheerful in his kitchen. He has even made us chicken soup for lunch which, on a midwinter afternoon, is as tasty as it is comforting. The world outside might be reeling but here, in the affluent enclave of Barnes, it is easier to feel sanguine. As the BBC’s highest-paid presenter, Lineker is seemingly insulated from the world’s miseries and woes. Yet he is also one of the most politically outspoken and compassionate people in British sport and, as a waspish critic of Brexit, he is entitled to feel gloomy that the UK will leave the European Union on Friday.
Instead, he is resigned to a reality he has argued against for four years. “I find it difficult to comprehend,” Lineker says. “But it’s a done deal, so get on with it now. I don’t tweet about it any more. Some people keep going on about it – but I’m not going to bother saying: ‘I told you so.’”
Football is a consolation and, for the next 80 minutes, Lineker is engaging company. Britain has become even more insular but he is still in thrall to a worldly game. It hardly matters that Jürgen Klopp is German, or Pep Guardiola is from Catalonia, as Lineker celebrates the “unprecedented” football played by Liverpool and Manchester City in the last few years. Football, for all its ills, looks much less parochial than British politics and so it seems appropriate, this week, to ask Lineker more about Brexit.
“My disappointment is not even with the result,” he says. “I thought the referendum was fair at first and accepted it – even as a Remainer. It was more when we became aware of the lies – the £350m [which the Leave campaign claimed the UK paid every week to the EU], or various things about sovereignty, were a complete nonsense. But it was too negative a campaign from Remain. Really good EU policies on the environment, workers’ rights and freedom of movement were not highlighted. So much venom and division’s come out of it.”
In his new acceptance of Brexit, can he now see any advantages in leaving the EU? “I’m hoping there will be. I haven’t seen any yet. We might become a unified nation and throw the flag around.”
Lineker offers a weary smile which is soon replaced by sheer pleasure as he turns to the game he loves. “We’re seeing football that’s unprecedented for a variety of reasons but, obviously, there’s the influence of Pep and of Klopp. They’re contrasting, but they’re both exhilarating. They are certainly in the top five coaches, perhaps even the top two, in world football. Their different styles add to the rivalry. I love them both but Klopp’s probably more engaging. You can see Pep’s pretty intense in his post-match interviews. He’s hard work whereas Klopp can always put it on. I guess we’ve seen Pep’s dark side.
“But what Guardiola’s done is special. He was a very young coach at Barcelona but he still transformed their players. Obviously they played a system based on Cruyff – which both Pep and I played under at Barça. That’s to make the pitch as big as you can when you’ve got the ball, and then shrink it when you haven’t. Klopp introduced his own style – this dynamic high-octane pressing game. It’s generated fitness and mental belief within his players. What Klopp did at Dortmund was remarkable and what he’s built at Liverpool is even better. He’s obviously been involved in recruitment and that’s crucial.
“When they bought Salah everybody thought: ‘Hmmm … should be all right.’ Mané looked a good player at Southampton. But did we think he was this good? Henderson was there and everyone goes: ‘Nah. He’s nothing special.’ Everybody had a go at him. Now people are realising this kid’s a bloody good football player and a real leader. We all knew Van Djik was good but he came from Celtic and Southampton. Wijnaldum came from Newcastle. Robertson didn’t cost much from Hull. Trent [Alexander-Arnold] came through the academy and he’s going to be the best of the lot.
“They’ve got lots of special players, particularly up front with the big three. But Trent is very special. He’s one of those players I watch every game and see three or four things from him that I go: ‘Oh my God.’ Like the Champions League semi-final against Barcelona with that quick corner. What a remarkable thing for a kid to do – to have that gall and bravery against some of the world’s best players. That could’ve ended up looking stupid but he’s smart. I interviewed him a year ago at his home. He was very shy and you can be kidded by a soft scouse accent but this kid’s really intelligent.”
Lineker tells a story of how he lost a game of pool in Alexander-Arnold’s kitchen. “It was like his life depended on it. I could see myself in him. That competitive side. But he’s so freaky. That taught me a lot about his attitude.”
Has this season been overshadowed by Liverpool’s domination? “The brilliance of Liverpool has made it interesting even though they could win it in March, which is remarkable. So it’s been enthralling. But it’ll even itself out if City get their central defence sorted next season.”
Is he concerned about the decline of the top two’s usual rivals? “People go: ‘What’s happened to Man United?’ But football’s cyclical and it was always going to be very difficult for United after Fergie. It’s the same at Arsenal. Soon as you lose such a massive personality, who was so dominant in running the club, it’s going to take an era, a decade or so, to turn it right. Football fans are not patient. But when it gets better again, it’ll actually be good. It’s sometimes good to suffer to savour the best moments.”
Who would Lineker have loved to play for – Guardiola or Klopp? “That’s a great question. Sometimes I think Klopp, sometimes Guardiola. They both improve players but I’d be more suited to Man City. At Liverpool the front three drop a lot into midfield and that was not my great strength. I was more the side-on striker who likes to spin behind. More like Agüero. I’d score a hell of a lot of goals for City. But I would’ve adapted to Liverpool. I always think holding the ball up was difficult, but I remind myself the pitches we played on were shit.
“That’s the one thing I’m envious about now. The playing surfaces today are like billiard tables. When I played, once you got past August it started cutting up. Then it got heavy. It got frosty. Then when it dried, you got bouncy. The pitches were more testing than the opposition sometimes. You get balls rattled into you, and it’s bouncing all over the place. Now it’s ‘boom-boom-boom’. It’s made the game so much better.
“You also can’t just kick people any more. Imagine Messi in the 80s. Like Maradona they’d be whacking him down. One of the things I love about Messi is he never play-acts and he always tries desperately to stay on his feet. But if he’d played in the 80s, when basically you had to commit GBH to get sent off, it would have been harder. But there’ve been a lot of changes in football. The grounds are better – modern and beautiful. And it’s still loved. While there’s always a dark side to football, it’s better placed than it’s ever been.”
Is Klopp’s current Liverpool side among the best teams he has seen? “Unquestionably. Man City also. Their numbers in a competitive league tell you that. The game evolves and so, if you put my team from 1990 against a modern team, we’d get murdered. But if we had time to adapt, the best players then would still be among the best now.”
This season the introduction of VAR has been less successful. “It was always going to have teething problems,” Lineker says. “But they’re hamstrung by the laws – and the offside law really annoys me. I went to see the Ifab [International Football Association Board] a few weeks ago. They were very affable and wanted my views. I said the dot thing has to go. As soon as the blue dots come out you’re in trouble. None of us know exactly where the dots start – and it’s not a clear and obvious error. So go with the on-field decision.
“I told them what I think VAR should be. The referee on the pitch needs a mate sitting with all these monitors. He’s watching the game and he lets it go, lets it go, and then he says: ‘Mate, you absolutely f****d up there. You’ve got to change that otherwise you’re going to look a complete d**k.’ That stops the Maradona/Thierry Henry handballs. The absolute howler. That’s all you need VAR for.”
Unlike Peter Shilton, whom I interviewed recently, Lineker is admirably philosophical about Maradona’s Hand of God goal from the 1986 World Cup. “The Diego thing doesn’t bother me. Never has. He got away with it. I would never think of doing it but some Argentinian footballers grew up in the roughest conditions. They were ready to do anything to win.”
I was contacted by a few people in Argentina who, after reading the Shilton interview, pointed out that if there had been VAR then Steve Hodge would have been sent off first for elbowing Maradona in the face. “Yeah. And Diego’s [second] miracle goal wouldn’t have been allowed because Glenn Hoddle was hacked down.”
Lineker laughs. “Anyway, if we’d had VAR it would have been 1-0 to us and I scored the winner. Happy days.”
It is 30 years this summer since Italia 90 when Lineker and England were knocked out of the World Cup semi-finals by Germany. “I look back with a mixture of joy, because we were such a good side, and a feeling we didn’t do ourselves justice. We didn’t always play well. Cameroon were brilliant in the quarters. They outplayed us most of the game but Shilts made three world-class saves. I scored the two penalties and we won. Then Germany. I only watched it back a couple of years ago. I didn’t realise we were that good. We were the better side.
“Italia 90 was a watershed for English football. Post-Hillsborough, post-Heysel, post-awful 80s hooliganism, it wasn’t just a working class sport anymore. It was the national sport for everybody. Women and the middle classes became interested. The reaction after 1986 was extraordinary but 1990 – my God.”
That tournament propelled Lineker towards his role at the BBC – which is again beset by problems. “The BBC is something that I am genuinely passionate about,” Lineker says. “I’ve worked with them for 25 years. And I think it’s something we should be proud of in this country.
“It’s really difficult for the BBC,” he admits. “They are the standard bearer and balance is difficult. Both the right wing and the left wing complain like mad that the BBC are biased. The truth is the BBC is full of thousands of people with varying political views. To say the BBC is fundamentally leftist, or fundamentally rightist, is wrong. It’s been a difficult time because of Brexit and people have been very tribal. But the BBC is unbelievably respected around the world.
“The licence fee is our fundamental problem. You’re forced to pay it if you want a TV, and therefore it’s a tax. The public pay our salaries, so everyone is a target. I would make the licence fee voluntary. I’ve always said for a long time, I would make it voluntary. I don’t know the logistics of how it would work. You would lose some people, but at the same time you’d up the price a bit. It’s the price of a cup of coffee a week at the moment. If you put it up you could help older people, or those that can’t afford it.”
Does his position at the BBC, and over Brexit, expose him to the threat of physical attack? “No, it’s remarkable. For all the grief I occasionally get on Twitter, people are a lot kinder face to face. I’ve only had one incident. About two years ago I was getting the train at Euston to Manchester. I got shoved in the back. I turned around and it was a little old lady. She’s going: ‘You let her in?’ I think she was talking about the girl who came back from Isis – which I made no comment on. She said: ‘You let her in, have her in your house. Effing this, effing that.’ She was on her way to a Tommy Robinson rally outside the BBC. But people are usually incredibly warm.”
As Lineker stretches out on his sofa for a photo in his front room, I remind him he will turn 60 this year.
“Yeah,” he says wryly, “but it’s just a number. I’m still in good shape. Seventy is the one to worry about. I would love another 10 years of working like this and having a good time.” – Guardian