Gary Lineker is laughing, remembering the day before England faced Germany many years ago now. He was playing the role of the team bookmaker and the bets were in. What lines, the players asked themselves, would then-manager Bobby Robson use in his prematch team talk? Lineker had scrawled some of them on the giant sheets of paper on the flip-board in the meeting room at the hotel, each with their odds, before folding the first, blank sheet back over the top of them to keep their coach from discovering what they were up to.
The squad didn’t have to wait long for a winner. Long? They didn’t have to wait at all.
Robson went straight to 1966 and to the war, and the room erupted. As the folded-back pages revealed, that had been the favourite, and now everybody was falling about.
That is exactly what the man who won the Golden Boot at the 1986 World Cup and got 10 goals across two tournaments, scorer of 48 goals for his country, is doing now. It’s what Lineker does often, in fact, as he looks back over a career in the game and outside it too, and forward to the World Cup that is just a week away.
Editor’s note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
ESPN: “Football is a simple game: 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and in the end the Germans always win.” Your most famous line is almost Shakespearean.
Lineker: Shakespeare? Oh! Oh, thank you. That Shakespeare of football! [Laughs] I quite like that. There’s your headline. [Laughs] That’s very kind of you but when I said it, I never envisaged that it would become any kind of famous quote. Why would you?! And yet now I get asked about it all the time, especially in Germany.
ESPN: Would you have not done it if you had realised how big it would become, how it would end up following you around?
Lineker: No. I would definitely have done it! [Laughs] It’s really nice that people remember me for that and it’s not like it’s a line where I have let myself down. It’s a quote that didn’t feel particularly clever at the time — a bit like most of my tweets. Like the tweets, it’s just like trying to put a different angle on things, really. But do you know the context? Where it came from? It was just before the ’94 World Cup and Pete Davies was writing a book trying to explain football to Americans and asked me to write the foreword and that’s what I wrote.
ESPN: Just one line?
Lineker: That was it. He just wanted something pithy and short. Or maybe it was something for the cover or something, I’m not so sure now, but that’s where it came from — and it grew from there so someone must have read the book.
ESPN: Do you still believe that?
Lineker: It was obviously half a joke because they don’t win every World Cup, but it’s always a possibility. This World Cup there is no obvious favourite.
France either win it or implode. They have issues: Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante, injured. Kylian Mbappe and who he is falling out with next. After that, Germany will have to have a chance, although goal-scoring-wise they have not got [a striker], but then France have won a World cup without a centre-forward. Spain? A work in progress, they’re young but I thought they were great in the Euros so they have got to have a chance. England have got a chance but are a bit short at the back. The two South Americans have looked probably the strongest of anyone but a South American team haven’t won it for 20 years. It’s really open.
ESPN: If that line was half a joke, that means it was half serious …
Lineker: Well it was half serious because it was after 1990, so it was slightly personal. [Laughs]
ESPN: What do you remember from the semifinal in 1990?
Lineker: That game was one of the best games we have had with England in a World Cup. We ran Germany really close. I only watched it back in its entirety a couple of years ago for the first time and actually we played quite well. There wasn’t a lot in it. Germany had a lucky first goal and we had a really brilliantly finished goal. It is one the most remembered games in England, too, because of [Paul Gascoigne]: his card, the tears, the reaction, for everything.
I played really well, actually — I was really surprised [Laughs]. I only ever remember the goals: if I score, it’s great; if I don’t, I don’t [remember]. But actually I held the ball up reasonably well, brought people into the game. I didn’t get many touches, as strikers don’t.
That was a very, very strong Germany side. We came in off the back of two extra-times, we had a day less [to prepare] than Germany, nobody really gave us much of a chance. And even though it was massively disappointing, we left there with our heads held high, not feeling like we had let ourselves down. Not that that makes it feel any better — it does in time, though, especially when you watch it back 30 years later. I watched it with Jurgen Klinsmann. He had a really poor game. [Laughs]
ESPN: Did you tell him that?!
Lineker: He told me. He’s very modest. Des Walker was brilliant on him.
ESPN: When it comes to footballing phrases, there may be none quite like Maradona invoking the Hand of God.
Lineker: There was a time when I thought to myself that it was really bloody clever of Diego to have thought of that: it is a hell of a line. His whole line, not just “it was the hand of God” but it being partly the head of Maradona and the hand of God. Credit where it’s due. You can’t be that good a footballer and not be intelligent. I know he has had his issues, but you can’t play like he did without being smart.
It’s the same with Lionel Messi. You have to be intelligent, especially the spatial awareness. Messi and Maradona are the ones that stand out for me because they play the game like they’re watching from above and can see everything on the pitch and know exactly what to do in every given moment, which for mere mortals is just not a thing [we can do]. You find me someone with Messi’s spatial awareness. Anywhere. Ever. And that in itself is a form of intelligence, to understand what is going on around [them]. I remember watching a game at the Camp Nou, really high up. I was sitting with Rio Ferdinand and Messi saw this pass that we didn’t see from all the way up there, looking down, with that perspective. He sees it at ground level. And you think to yourself: “What kind of brain has he got?” It is like [Gascoigne]: he was daft, but he was smart. He was like a clown, but not stupid.
ESPN: Does Messi need a World Cup win? There’s this idea of him having failed at international level.
ESPN: If England reached three finals in a row, it would be the greatest generation they ever had — even if they lost all three …
Lineker: And Messi’s now put that right with the Copa America anyway. But you also have to remember that when Argentina played Germany in the final in 1986, Maradona sticks Jorge Burruchaga through. One on one and he scores. And they win in extra-time. When Messi played in the World Cup final, he stuck Gonzalo Higuain through and he missed a sitter. If Higuain scores, they win the World Cup. It’s still a team sport. You can’t judge a player on that — it’s ridiculous.
ESPN: Have you ever been in a position where you have missed a chance and you have felt bad for the guy who has given you the ball?
ESPN: Why not?
Lineker: I just feel bad about myself.
ESPN: It’s just that you sometimes wonder if Higuain carries round the weight of that miss.
Lineker: If I did that in a World Cup final, yes, I would. Absolutely. If that’s your chance in a final and it’s a one on one and you miss it, I think it would live with you forever. I have sort of had that in the Argentina game in 1986, with the second header. I headed it and it hit the back of Julio Olarticoechea’s head and didn’t go in. I still think to this day: “if, if, if …” I don’t blame myself, it wasn’t like a sitter, but it stays there.
ESPN: Is that harder to accept than Maradona cheating?
Lineker: I should have punched it in, but it wouldn’t have crossed my mind to do it.
ESPN: Why not?
Lineker: Because it just wouldn’t. I think Diego had done it before. And when you go to Argentina, they love that goal almost as much as the other one because for them that’s like trickery, sorcery, cleverness, skullduggery.
ESPN: His teammates say that Maradona had trained it.
Lineker: Amazing. Fair play, Diego! It wouldn’t surprise me because it was so clever. You could hardly see it. I never blamed him; I blamed the referee for not seeing it. And the linesman who definitely did see it, just bottled it. He even says so himself. He wrote a book and admitted it. He said, “I thought he had handballed it but didn’t feel strong enough to overrule the referee.”
ESPN: You’ve spoken to Maradona about it …
Lineker: Yeah, I did two documentaries with him. Well, one proper documentary and one where he didn’t show up. [Laughs]
We ended up chasing him around Argentina and eventually I played golf with the former Argentinian president Carlos Menem. We were doing this film about Golden Boot winners, so we had done Mario Kempes and we were halfway around the course and he said to me: “Have you not interviewed Diego?” I said: “I’m supposed to be but we can’t get hold of him.” He said: “I’ll call him for you now.” And he called him, right there on the golf course: “Yes, yes, yes, Diego. Gary’s here.” He put me on and I spoke to Diego and he said: “Yeah I’ll do it for you, we’ll work out a time.”
This is absolutely true, right: I was in bed and I got a call at about 1, 2 in the morning. And it’s Menem and he says: “Diego can see you at this club at an hour and half’s time.” So like at 3 a.m. And I just said: “I will do my best,” and I went back to sleep. I thought: “I’m not going to chase him around a nightclub, there’s no way this will actually happen.” [Laughs] Can you imagine?
ESPN: I can imagine it being the best night out ever.
Lineker: Now I regret not going!
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ESPN: Tell us about Maradona’s second goal
Lineker: I remember watching it so clearly. If we had VAR that would have been disallowed, you know. There’s a tackle just before he gets it on Glenn Hoddle. Unbelievable. But anyway, that’s by the by.
I remember my jaw dropped watching him do what he was doing, and on a pitch that was like a cabbage patch — it was awful. You know when you relay turf and there are little squares everywhere? Every time you put your foot down, they slide away. … When he scored, it was the only time in my whole career that I thought I should applaud, it was that good. I didn’t, obviously, because I would get killed at home, but it was unbelievable. Unbelievable. I argued with my mates a couple of weeks ago: is that the most famous game of all time in the world? I think it is. I don’t know what else it could be.
Lineker: Yeah, that was the other one we talked about. And it is amazing, but even that — and it was an incredible football match and I would put it No. 2 — but it didn’t have the Hand of God and the best goal ever scored in the same match. In England, you might say ’66 or 1990, but if you’re talking about a game that the whole world would remember, it’s the Hand of God and the best goal ever. It’s Argentina-England, it’s a World Cup, a quarterfinal, post Falklands. I just don’t know what would come close. Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt? But the game? People only remember the head-butt. People remember the game, the [attempted England] comeback. The only thing no one remembers is who scored the England goal! [Laughs]
ESPN: That goal ensured that you were top scorer in 1986.
Lineker: The first goal against Poland at the ’86 World Cup changed my life. I had gone about five games without a goal for England and I didn’t think Bobby Robson would keep me in the team because we’d lost the first game to Portugal 1-0 and we drew 0-0 with Morocco. I played with Mark Hateley. I thought Robson would bring Peter Beardsley in and leave me out. We never played two short centre-forwards with England. He did bring in Beardsley and it transformed things. He kept me in, too.
The first against Poland changes everything for me. It’s not the greatest goal — I didn’t score many great goals — but I score one, then another, hat trick, another two follow [against Paraguay], then one against Argentina, I win the Golden Boot, I transfer [to Barcelona]. That’s life-changing. Without that first goal, does any of the rest happen? Probably not.
Barry Davies in commentary says: “Lineker passes when he might have gone straight on” and I thought: “Anyone who has seen me play knows I can’t take anyone on, so of course I passed it!” Always better to get it wide, make the winger give it back, and get into the box myself to get the return. I saw Erling Haaland do it recently, it was a perfect example. He played it just wide enough that the winger can’t shoot himself and has no choice but to give it back.
ESPN: That’s deliberate?
Lineker: Oh, 100% yeah! You can’t have some winger shooting when he’s not likely to score. Just push it far enough forward or far enough wide so he can’t shoot, then you go like that [Lineker points to where he wants return pass]. He did it, it was beautiful. Ian Wright did it, Alan Shearer did it, we all did it. Make sure they can’t shoot! Absolutely. It’s selfish in a way but it’s much more effective the striker finishing the move than some winger.
ESPN: Let’s go back to your famous line: what do you make of Germany’s evolution over the last 10 years or so and their failures at major tournaments?
Lineker: I am not the person to say that you can’t win every time! [Laughs] I’m not that person. But it’s true: you can’t always be brilliant. Ultimately it is about players — and obviously, the coaching as well.
Four years ago, Germany played that super high line without any pressure on the ball and a slow-ish defence, and that was a recipe for disaster. You can play that way if you have got a little bit of pace, but if you have got Mats Hummels … then it kind of fell apart. But you’re allowed to have one bad tournament every now and then. Germany have done OK! At the Euros, Germany were a bit unlucky against England. Normally Thomas Muller would have put that [chance] away and we would have been in trouble. I think it just shows that even Germany don’t have a divine right always to win. But I don’t think there is a lot wrong with German football. They’re still producing very good players and will be one of the favourites.
ESPN: But they don’t have a No. 9.
Lineker: Not at the moment, no. If you have got a No. 9, you play one. “False nine” is the excuse when you haven’t got one: if you have not got a top-class centre-forward, you invent, you work a way around it. And that may be what Germany have to do. Kai Havertz: I don’t really know what he is, not quite. I don’t know what his best position is but it’s certainly not a 9. But France have shown you can win a World Cup without a 9. Twice.
ESPN: What about England? They don’t seem to know what they want to do.
Lineker: Not at the moment, and that worries me. Even in the tournaments where we have done reasonably well, it’s like one game it’s five [at the back], then it’s four, and that worries me. In 1986 and 1990, we made changes: we had always been stuck with 4-4-2, which is easy to play against, and suddenly we changed to three centre-backs in 1990 and it was like, “Oh, a bit of freedom here” and it worked. But that’s 20, 30 years ago and I am just looking at how now it seems to me that the elite coaches generally have a way of playing that’s clear. That makes it easier for the players: everyone knows their roles. And I don’t see that with England.
ESPN: Does playing in the winter change things?
Lineker: It’s really hard to predict. It will be interesting to see who it suits, who is fit and fresh and who is not. Germany have always been sensible, they have a winter break in their club football. That’s good sense. A couple of weeks off, another preseason and they get there in good shape; we play Boxing Day, midweek that week, New Year’s Day, and we wonder why our players are not the sharpest when it comes to the summer because the end of the seasons drags on and on and on. Losing that disadvantage this time might help but I do worry about us at the back. I hope that Gareth Southgate plays to our strengths — but I’m not sure he will.
ESPN: Do you have a preference beyond England? Is there someone you would like to see win it?
Lineker: Yes, yes. If England don’t win it, I would love to see Messi win it. I would much prefer to see England win it, of course, but after that, yeah. His career merits it. Not that it would really affect my mood like it would with England. In all honesty, I would be supporting Argentina in the final if England weren’t there. I have met Messi a few times and I am a big fan. He has given me so much pleasure in my post-football playing life watching him week in, week out.
ESPN: Messi and Maradona are very different personalities
Lineker: Oh, totally. One is this huge charismatic figure, a big ego. Messi, I am sure he has got an ego, but he’s quiet. But he’s driven: you can’t do what he has done without that. You need that ego to achieve. And you can see that with Cristiano Ronaldo now: he is struggling to cope with his own ego. He is 37, he is coming to the end and I feel for him a little bit because in his mind and his body, he will still feel like he’s that player he always was and he won’t be able to understand why [he’s not]. But Father Time gets us all in the end, it doesn’t matter who you are. It’s a difficult thing dealing with it.
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ESPN: What’s the day after like? Is there a huge void when you retire?
Lineker: There is a lot of life after football. You have to prepare: everybody knows the moment will come, but it’s still hard. I was fortunate because I was injured the last two years in Japan and I was so fed up that I just wanted the rest of my life to start — and I knew what I wanted to do.
But for many, it’s really hard. The divorce rate in footballers between 35 and 40 is something like 70%. The career finishes: now what are we going to do? The adulation gradually diminishes, the worship of the fans. The money dries up. Then the self-esteem might go. Then they might invest some money in a business they don’t really know much about and they lose that. Then they get problems at home because of that change in your psyche. And then perhaps that distorts the marriage. Your wife then goes. And that’s another half of you gone, and maybe half your wealth.
I’m not going to pretend footballers have a terribly hard life because it’s an amazing life and what they earn is huge: if they’re sensible they can keep going for years. But it is much more difficult than people think. And whatever you do in life afterwards, you’re never going to realistically be as good at it as you were at football.
ESPN: You might be an exception there, given your broadcasting success. Are you even more well known as a TV personality than as a footballer?
Lineker: Yes, but only because you have to be a certain age to remember me as a player! I have been lucky: I have found something else I can do and I have found something else in football that I can do, which is a blessing because it’s the only ever-present in my life. But it doesn’t mean I can’t empathise with those that don’t — and that’s most footballers. I think perhaps the bigger the player you are, the more difficult it is to be able to cope with not being the most important man in the room all the time.
ESPN: Were you always going to end up in the media?
Lineker: From my mid-20s I knew what I wanted to do. Even as a kid, I knew I wanted to be a journalist if I wasn’t going to be a footballer. From 10, 11, 12 years old, I used to go to watch Leicester City and write match reports. In Mexico and Italy, in 1986 and 1990, I would sit with journalists while they were writing their copy, I would go with the radio people and watch what they did. I was always just interested in it. A lot of the journalists then would remember me.
ESPN: Did you do a diary?
Lineker: I wish. That’s my one regret. A mate of mine said recently: any regrets from what you have done? And I said: “Yeah, not keeping a diary.” My memory’s not brilliant.
ESPN: Jorge Valdano says he found his diary from 1986?
Lineker: Really. Wow, I wish I had done it. It never crossed my mind at the time and that’s very annoying.
ESPN: What’s the funniest headline you ever read about yourself?
Lineker: The best ever for me, my favourite, was when I scored four against Spain at the Bernabeu, the headline when I got back to Barcelona the next day in Sport was: “Catalan player scores four against Spain.” [Laughs] My second-favourite was also Sport. Some days I think there wasn’t too much news and one day the headline was: “Terry Venables has diarrhea.” I should have kept that like I should have kept a diary! [Laughs] That was the headline, and it didn’t even say “verbal diarrhea.”
ESPN: Are you conflicted about this World Cup, with it being in Qatar?
Lineker: I am conflicted, yes. Although not about what I do personally, because I am going to report it, not support it. I am doing my job. I was asked to do the draw for FIFA and I refused to do that because I thought that would be supporting the World Cup. They totally understood. I said I would feel a hypocrite because I was anti this World Cup being in Qatar. It shouldn’t be there. So I think I would have been wrong to then do the draw for them. But reporting it for the BBC is a totally different thing, I think.
We have had Zoom meetings with Amnesty International about how to deal with sportswashing. It only really works when you stop talking about the issues and we will talk about human rights, stadium issues, we will probably do it in the opening show. It was quite clearly a corrupt bid, we all know that. Half of them are either in jail now or banned.
ESPN: Are things changing?
Lineker: I still think they make mistakes but I don’t think the current FIFA regime, with people like Arsene Wenger in quite high positions, is corrupt. I think they make bad calls but I think the old Sepp Blatter days of dodgy things going on are a thing of the past. I hope, I hope. I don’t think Gianni Infantino is like they were before. There’s no evidence. Maybe I am being naive, but I don’t feel it’s quite like it was. But I don’t think it should be there. It’s wrong. But once the football starts, it will be all consuming.
ESPN: But is that the conflict? You don’t want to be carried away by the football and ignore what lies beneath?
Lineker: Indeed, but we also sometimes forget that we’re not exactly perfect closer to home, that we sell arms to that part of the world, yet we expect footballers to do something about it.
ESPN: There’s an injustice in demanding that of players?
Lineker: Absolutely. Politicians will use football however they wish to use it because it is powerful and it does have an impact. They will gladly tell you to stick to football when it doesn’t suit them but then they’ll say, “Why aren’t you making a stand?” when it suits them. And if England start to do well, all the politicians will say, “We’re behind England,” when actually they’re not. Well, some are, but lots don’t really care about football. And I think that’s probably the same in many countries. That’s how it is.
ESPN: Should the centenary World Cup in 2030 go back to Uruguay like the first one?
Lineker: In 2030? I’m just hoping to still be alive! [Laughs] It’s a proper football country and they have not had it for a long, long time. It feels like South America has not, either: Brazil 2014, Argentina 1978, and then a long way back. You know, they used two balls in the final back then: each team supplied their own, one for each half. Brilliant.