A small boy carrying a microphone wanders through the BBC’s World Cup coverage launch in London. He’s looking for stars to interview for children’s television, and there are plenty about. Alan Shearer, Jermaine Jenas, Frank Lampard, Gabby Logan and Rio Ferdinand are all here, but the boy keeps looking until his eyes settle on a tanned 57-year-old with a silver goatee.
Gary Lineker is halfway through a chocolate fudge brownie with sprinkles when the child approaches. “Can I talk to you Gary?” he says eagerly. “Hold on a minute,” Lineker replies sternly, “I want to finish this.” But when he does finish, Lineker turns away and sits down with me instead. Crestfallen, the boy lowers his mic.
Few public figures are confident enough to disappoint a seven-year-old in front of the national press. But Lineker, host of Match of the Day, possessor of 7.03 million Twitter followers and still one of the greatest footballers that England has ever produced, is a genuine star.
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Football will dominate British television for the next four weeks. Lineker will introduce the games, discuss the goals and, more importantly for English viewers, be handholder-in-chief if Gareth Southgate’s young team face an early exit. Everyone, bar followers of rugby union and Antarctic explorers, will be watching. That must be terrifying? “Um, no. Not in the slightest,” he says. “I didn’t get nervous when I played, and I don’t get nervous now I’m on TV. It’s a buzz.” Even with millions watching? “More buzzy!”
Lineker is slighter than I expected, despite the fact he had a gym built in the basement of his home in south-west London (which he shares with a golden labrador called Snoop). He wears a soft-collared shirt, a blue linen jacket and narrow trousers. The effect is wealthy hipster, as befits a man who, on £1.8 million a year, is the BBC’s second-highest paid presenter (Chris Evans trumps Lineker with £2.2 million).
The BBC wants to protect its investment, and Lineker, given to Twitter outbursts about the treatment of child refugees and Brexit, is followed by a press officer.
“Can we stick to the football?” asks the press officer. “I quite fancy Spain’s chances, and France have got a lot of talent,” Lineker says, toying, I suspect, with football clichés just for fun. “And, obviously, Brazil. And Germany won’t be far away.”
One thing is for sure – no one’s tipping England to lift the trophy. If Lineker were manager, he says, he would tell England to forget about winning and “just enjoy it”. If that seems like a glum prospect for the fans at home, Lineker is inclined to agree. “It’s the hope that kills you,” he says. “The World Cup starts and our expectations rise, and then we’re disappointed.”
On Match of the Day, in stark opposition to the plain-speaking Alan Shearer, Lineker is wry and vaguely amused by proceedings – even willing to present in his boxer shorts, as he did after his old club Leicester City won the Premier League in 2016. Their social media feeds further demonstrate the differences between the two men. A typical Shearer tweet might be about visiting a golf club: “Couldn’t have picked a better day. Thanks for having me. Loved it!” Lineker offers pensées, like this recent tweet about the retirement of the great Andrés Iniesta from Lineker’s old club, Barcelona: “Humble yet a champion. Modest yet magnificent. Diminutive yet a giant. Never again to play for Barcelona yet remembered for infinity. Gracias y adiós, el Don.”
End of an era. @andresiniesta8 leaves the Camp Nou. One of the greats of his or any other generation. Humble yet a champion. Modest yet magnificent. Diminutive yet a giant. Never again to play for Barcelona yet remembered for infinity. Gracias y adiós, el Don. #Infinit8Iniesta
— Gary Lineker (@GaryLineker) May 20, 2018
This is not standard English footballer stuff, and Lineker is as noted these days for his foreign policy pronouncements as he is for comments on Manchester City’s attacking options. Today he is defending Russia’s right to host the World Cup. “Who are we to start getting judgemental on who should have the World Cup?” he tells me. “We all know how corrupt our country is at times. Perhaps we don’t like some things that Putin has done, but we’ll be there, we’ll be their guests.”
Has he had survival training in case there’s violence in Russia? (“Don’t be ridiculous!’’ wails the press officer.) “I’m not an aggressive, violent man, as my football record suggests,” says Lineker, who famously was never booked during his playing career. “I just hide behind my desk! I don’t know what you’re expecting to kick off. Well, nothing will. Because it never does, it’ll be fine. It’ll be great. What governments do is another matter, but the people of Russia have actually been very welcoming.”
Not everyone likes his outspokenness. On 18 October 2016, Lineker tweeted, “The treatment by some towards these young refugees is hideously racist and utterly heartless. What’s happening to our country?”, after Welsh Tory MP David Davies called for dental checks to ensure child refugees attempting to enter the UK really were children. The Sun demanded that the BBC fire Lineker.
I mention the accusations of hypocrisy that have been directed at a man worth £30 million who expresses concern for penniless child immigrants while sending his sons to Surrey private school Charterhouse. The press officer says, “That’s not a proper question,” but Lineker interrupts. “What kind of hypocrisy? Just because I earn a good salary? That doesn’t mean I don’t have the right to speak as any other person would. That’s just a silly argument. It’s absurd for anyone in any walk of life to not be allowed opinions on other matters. It’s freedom of speech. You know, we’re all entitled to our opinion. Just because I’m a footballer, why shouldn’t I have views on whatever I want?”
In some ways Lineker is just the sort of self-made man a tabloid would normally support. As well as hosting Match of the Day and the World Cup – and being, for 24 years the face of Walkers crisps – Lineker also presents Champions League games for BT Sport and has his own production company, Goalhanger Films – pretty impressive for a man whose family ran a fruit and veg stall on Leicester market and who left school at 16 with only four O-levels. But his relationship with the papers soured long ago; his personal travails – one divorce from the mother of his four children, Michelle Cockayne, in 2006, another divorce from his second wife Danielle Bux in 2016, and the childhood leukaemia of his son George – were all front-page news.
In 2017, the Daily Mail attacked Lineker when the Paradise Papers information dump revealed that he’d used an offshore firm to buy his £2.2 million Barbados home. At the time, Lineker said: “I have always paid my taxes on time and in full. The Daily Mail continues its vendetta against me because they don’t agree with my views.” Now he sounds a little more vexed. “I didn’t mind when I was a player; if I was criticised for my performance, that wasn’t a problem. It’s when there are falsehoods about me. When there are obvious lies printed. That’s when you feel wronged.”
He also defends current players. When The Sun called England’s 23-year-old forward Raheem Sterling “sick” for having a rifle tattooed on his right leg, Lineker was outraged. “Leave him alone,” he complained on Twitter. “Unique to this country to destroy our players’ morale before a major tournament. It’s weird, unpatriotic and sad.”
Lineker – who was on the suspected list of victims of the tabloid phone hacker Jonathan Rees – is a supporter of Hacked Off, but tells me he doesn’t need to sue newspapers because social media allows him to set the record straight. “It gives you the chance of a reply,” he says. “Before, the only other route was having to go through lawyers and courts, and that’s a nightmare – super expensive, stressful and dangerous if you don’t win. Now, there’s a way of immediately saying, ‘This story is wrong. This is not true. This is a pack of lies.’ You’ve actually got a right of reply, especially if you’ve got a platform the size of mine.”
Which Lineker should we believe in most, the one on TV or the one on Twitter? “I’m a football presenter,” he says. “But on my social media, that’s me. There are certain things that I feel strongly about and I’ll put it out there. If people disagree, fine – I’ll run with it. If you want to be abusive, I generally ignore it. And if you met these people in the street they would never do that. I’ve never had that happen.”
Apparently impervious to media attack and driven by moral purpose, perhaps Lineker should go into politics. “I have zero political aspirations,” he says. “It would drive me bananas. You get enough grief just airing your views occasionally.” But you’re a natural? “I don’t think I’d be very good. I get too frustrated by the fact that nothing ever gets done, and there’s too many rotters around.”
He’s always been self-assured, whether stealing crisps from a child in a noughties advert or, after a poor start, winning the Golden Boot for being top scorer at the 1986 Word Cup. As well as playing for Barcelona, there were less glamorous berths at Everton, Tottenham Hotspur and his home town’s Leicester City. He ended his career in Japan and has commentated for Al Jazeera. “In all those places I have been gathering experiences and beliefs. Now I look at life more objectively. You think about things more as you get older.”
Lineker the player will always be remembered for a moment in the 1990 World Cup semi-final against West Germany.
Looking to the bench, he indicates to manager Bobby Robson that Paul Gascoigne, who had just been booked for the second time in the knockout stages and would therefore miss the final, is going to have a meltdown.
In the end, England drew 1–1 and then, after extra time, lost on penalties – so everyone missed out on the final. Ever since that night people have been worrying about Gascoigne’s mental health, but what about Lineker – was he scarred by the experience? “I’m not scarred at all,” he says. “But if there’s one thing I look back on in my career, and think, ‘If only’, it would be that penalty shoot-out.”
For a quarter of a century, he didn’t even watch the game that has become a totem of England’s penchant for failure. “I’ve seen it for the first time in its entirety recently. It was quite interesting.” If that seems cold, Lineker tells a childhood story that might explain his distaste for excessive enthusiasm. “It was when England lost the 1970 quarter-final to West Germany,” he says. “I was ten and I remember my dad had a card school at home – him and his mates playing poker. They stopped playing to watch the game. When we lost I was heartbroken, but they just started playing again.”
His father Barry died last year and his mother, Margaret, in 2015. “I’ve lost both my parents in the last three years,” Lineker says. “And it is difficult. My dad was a massive football fan, he was probably the only person that had any money on me to win the Golden Boot in 1986 at about 14/1, so he was quite happy with me! I’m sure the World Cup will remind me of him.”
Would the younger Gary Lineker like who he has become?“I wouldn’t say ‘like’ is the right word… I think the young Gary Lineker might be surprised by the old Gary, by the way he airs his views. We’re all human beings, we’re all fallible. But I believe in trying to do what’s right.”
And to prove just that, as if there were ever any doubt, he turns to the small boy wth the microphone, who’s still hanging around hopefully. “Come on then,” Lineker says. “Let’s do your interview.”