Gary Lineker on football racism, Twitter spats and being a Leicester City fan: ‘We’re all going …
Gary Lineker is studying a picture I’ve shown him of a tanned and ripped Cristiano Ronaldo wearing nothing but a pair of skimpy white underpants.
It’s Ronaldo wearing the skimpy underpants, not Lineker – that would be weird, given that we’ve only just met, although we might be seeing it soon on Saturday-night television.
Back in December, Lineker posted a tweet saying that, should his beloved Leicester City football club – top of the Premier League at the time – end up as champions come the end of the season, he would present the first episode of next season’s Match of the Day in nothing but his duds.
“At the time, though, I categorically knew there was no chance that would happen,” he says. “Zero chance.”
In a blow to his predictive powers, it’s April and Leicester are not just top of the league but ahead by a staggering seven points with just five games to go. For non-football fans, this scenario is about as likely as Donald Trump being made president. Of Iceland.
Leicester were strongly tipped for relegation at the start of the season, with their odds of winning the title placed at 5,000/1. Over the summer, there was no oil-state takeover – just a couple of smart signings and the arrival of a new, likeable manager in Claudio Ranieri, who likes to celebrate each victory by taking his team out for a pizza. And yet, with most of the favourites fading dismally and only Tottenham Hotspur – another of Lineker’s former clubs – and perhaps Arsenal looking capable of challenging them, it is clearly now the East Midlands city’s title to lose.
Which is why we’re sitting here, at an athletics club opposite Wormwood Scrubs prison, in west London, flicking through pictures of men in their pants. So Gary, how do you think you’d look in a pair of Ronaldo’s tighty whiteys?
“I could carry off the body bit, no problem,” he decides, “but I’m not sure I’ll be going for a pair like that.”
What kind, then?
“Honestly, I’m not getting ahead of myself on this. At the moment, I still think there’s only a 50% chance of it happening.”
Does he regret that tweet now?
“Well it was a bit of fun at the time. And if they do it, I suppose it will bring a bit of attention to the first show of next season.”
It could be the highest ratings ever.
“Or the lowest!” he laughs. “I think a lot of people will switch off. Crikey, it’s going to be a bit cringe.”
Leicester City mean as much to Gary Lineker as it’s possible for a football club to mean to anyone. He went to see every home game with his dad and grandad from the age of seven, joined them straight from school in 1977 and scored 103 goals in 216 games before leaving for Everton in 1985. In 2002, when the Foxes found themselves in the financial mire, he was part of a consortium that put forward £5m to save them. The last few seasons – promotion to the Premier League, survival and now this – is a stunning turnaround. What we could be about to witness has already been described as the most unlikely event in the history of competitive team sport. No wonder, then, that the former England striker is loving every minute of it. Sort of. Well, OK. Not really.
“It’s excruciating!” he says. “I was in Barcelona at the weekend, and took my four boys. Three support Leicester and even George, who’s a United fan, has come around a bit. We ended up in this tiny Moroccan restaurant – the only one we could find with a TV in it. And we’re 1-0 up and we’re all going through absolute hell. It’s like a great film or comedy – so tense it’s hard to watch.”
There’s something endearing about watching this most unflappable of footballers – he claims to have never got nervous on the pitch, not even when taking penalties for England during the 1990 World Cup – freak out as a fan.
One of the key players in Leicester’s title charge is Jamie Vardy, who has scored 21 goals already this season, not to mention a couple for England. Lineker says there are obvious similarities: both he and Vardy were late to reach their peak – Lineker didn’t play for his country until his mid-20s; Vardy only recently got a call-up last year aged 28 – and both owed their success to blistering pace.
But whereas Lineker had an almost entirely controversy-free career, Vardy was caught on camera at a casino last summer making racial slurs. How does Lineker, who has spent time backing anti-racist groups such as Show Racism the Red Card, square this with his celebration of Vardy’s football skills?
“Well,” he says, a little cautiously. “People make mistakes. They say stupid things. He did it and he apologised.”
Can you really write a racist remark off as a mistake, though?
“I think it depends on how you say it, and where you say it,” he says. “But I know footballers, and they are generally really not racist at all. I’ve heard things said on football pitches that players clearly don’t mean, whether it’s racism or just an abusive comment in the heat of the moment.”
He exhales and searches for the right words. “Fundamentally, footballers don’t look around a dressing room and think: ‘He’s a black player … he’s Japanese.’ They don’t think like that. They think: ‘He’s a good player, he can help, he’s not very good.’ I’m not trying to defend anyone’s actions,” he adds, “but there are going to be isolated incidents because it’s an emotive, passionate sport.”
This seems a bit of a sketchy argument, especially given that Vardy was in a casino at the time of his incident. Lineker prefers to point to the bigger picture on how the game has handled this kind of poison: “Whether it’s Show Racism the Red Card, Kick it Out or whatever, I don’t think anything, anywhere, in the workplace, has done more than football to stop racism, and that sets a great example.”
Of course, controversy and football are rarely far apart. Earlier this month, the Sunday Times revealed it had recorded private doctor Mark Bonar claiming he had prescribed banned performance-enhancing drugs to more than 150 British athletes, including footballers from Chelsea, Arsenal and Leicester (allegations vigorously denied by all three clubs). Lineker says he just can’t see it. “You can either play football or you can’t,” he says. “It might improve your stamina a little bit, I’m not an expert, but it ain’t gonna help you pass.” Football is not like sprinting, he says. You have to perform week in, week out, with no single event to aim for. And it’s not the kind of sport that involves maximising a single skill. “It’s a totally different thing. You’ve got to be skilful and calm. Now, obviously if people are doing that, then you condemn them, and let’s have as many investigations and secret tests as we can. But it won’t make you a better player – it’s not cycling or athletics.”
If social media is often the cause of some of football’s controversies, then it can also help solve them. Lineker thinks the likes of Twitter can help reconnect fans with the increasingly distant players they idolise, and explains its impact in almost punk rock terms: “The gap between footballers and the fans was growing wider, but [Twitter has] pulled them a lot closer together,” he says. “Fans can have some sort of contact with players now.”
This hasn’t always been of the welcome kind for Lineker. His followers never tire of reminding him of an incident at the 1990 World Cup, in which he admitted having to make an unfortunate toilet stop mid-game (with a quick wipe on the grass).
Check out pretty much any tweet Lineker sends (“Back in the dentist’s chair. It’s like pulling teeth” he posted last week) and the first replies will reference it (“Shat on dentist”). It got boring years ago, yet you almost have to applaud his followers’ stamina for keeping it going.
At first, Lineker just ignored it, and that made no difference. Then he said he’d block people who did it because it was getting boring – that didn’t work. “At some point, surely, someone will get tired of it. It’s what I’m going to end up being known for, isn’t it? It will be on my tombstone: ‘Shat on Lineker!’”
Lineker has cultivated several relationships on Twitter, from brief spats with Guardian sport columnist Barney Ronay to a knack for putting Piers Morgan in his place. His affectionate, matey relationship with his son George is also on display – and George has developed something of a cult following off the back of it; he seems to encapsulate the modern lad with his banter, betting mishaps and frequent drunken escapades.
“Well he’s quite amusing,” says his dad with a knowing smile. “Sometimes I’ve had to call him – he launches into a vague impression of what a strict dad might be like – “‘George! Are you sure about that one!’ But he’s quite witty and bright. Although very shy if you meet him.”
“Oh yeah. So quiet, a very shy kid, really. He gets a different personality on Twitter.”
You get the feeling he draws an element of one-upmanship from revealing this.
Another brief Twitter skirmish involved a war of words with footballer Joey Barton, after Lineker had criticised him on Match of the Day. Barton tweeted that he would open a “vast closet of skeletons” on the England legend.
“He was just being silly, because there aren’t any,” says Lineker. “I think if I’d ever had any skeletons in the closet they’d have been out a long time ago.”
Does his nice-guy image mean people want to knock it down?
“People can look for things all day long. Everyone does – we’re a negative society in many ways, or we can be. Sometimes it’s good, in the sense that we’re very self-deprecating as a nation, which kind of works, especially with our footballing success, but … we don’t have that positive energy, we don’t always look for the good in people. It’s a bit of a national trait.” He adds: “We’ve got a very knocky media, which I think is a bit of a shame.”
Digging for dirt on Lineker isn’t easy. He has his stock lines for shutting down enquiries (“The meanest thing about me? I don’t share my crisps”). Does he still maintain that scoring a goal is better than sex?
He looks confused: “I’m not sure I, er … I mean, they’re incomparable in many ways. But the one thing about scoring a goal is you never know if it’s going to happen again. Whereas with sex, there’s always the chance that something …” he starts laughing again. Then he says: “That was an interesting question, came out of nowhere.”
But he did say that once, right?
“Many players have, I’m not sure if I did.”
Oh … okaaay. Aware that the interview is possibly becoming a bit strange – let’s not forget, we started off by looking at pictures of a half-naked Ronaldo – we head back towards football. Or more accurately Leicester, whom he can’t stop talking about throughout the interview, and even after it’s finished.
“I find it weird when people say ‘Leicester might get nervous right at the end’,” he says. “You just don’t as a player. And you can tell by looking at their faces – they’re enjoying it, having fun.”
Then his anxiety kicks in, his face etched with sporting panic. “But if they lose a couple on the trot – then the confidence can drain, then things can go wrong. They can’t just keep doing this and run out, winning the thing with three games to go. It doesn’t work like that!”
Lineker knows that this isn’t your usual sporting story: it almost certainly won’t come around again next season; if Leicester don’t win now they may never win it. As he wrote in the Guardian: “I don’t think I have ever wanted something to happen more in sport in my entire life.”
You start to get the feeling that nothing Lineker has achieved – not his Cup Winner’s Cup victory with Barelona, or his FA Cup win with Spurs, not even bagging the World Cup Golden Boot – would mean quite as much to him as being able to present Match of the Day in his pants.
Lineker on …
“There’s nothing I can do about it, or anyone apart from Gazza himself. He’s trying, bless him. But he’s always had issues, always been a complex individual with massive addiction issues all his life. I feel for him, I just hope he keeps battling and trying and hopefully he will be OK.”
“He’s been brilliant, but we all know that once you get in your 30s, your powers begin to wane. Harry Kane has to start, and so then it becomes about who plays with him. Wayne knows he will be fighting for his place. But then, we all know that when it comes around, everyone will get injuries and we’ll just take whoever’s fit anyway.”
Johan Cruyff, who died last month
“He was an unbelievably good coach, and always the best player on the training field, even as a manager. I learned so much from him. But he deliberately messed me about. He wanted to bring in his own players so he put me on the wing all season, hoping that I would retaliate, and turn the fans against me, saying I’m a prima donna. But I just stayed professional, played down the wing all season. I got it, I understood. He ruined my goal-scoring ratio, though.”
England’s chances in the Euros
“I think we will be competitive. We’ve got a great group of young players, especially as an attacking threat. But the defence might be a problem.”