fI talk to Gary Lineker the day before he leaves for Russia. Organising an interview has been complicated because of his bewildering schedule, but he manages to free up some time for me to talk to him. If you cast your mind back to that point, it was a time of cynicism. Far from thinking that ‘football is coming home’, England fans were already preparing themselves for yet another disappointment. We were not expecting a tournament fraught with excitement. It has already been a World Cup which has mirrored our wider context: completely unpredictable and constantly changing. As England make their final preparations for their round of 16 match against Colombia, I look back at the transcript of my interview with Lineker.
The England team
What would you say a good tournament would look like for England?
“I think if we got to the quarters that would be a really good effort. It is a long time since we actually won a knockout game in a tournament so if we could do that, that would be a reasonable performance. If we do get to the quarter finals then I don’t know but that would be a good effort.”
Is this England team any different to previous teams, or have we just got more cynical about football?
“No, I think we have just entered a period where we are not introducing enough world class players over the last 12 years, or players who would be close to world class. So, we are going through a bit of a tough phase where we have not had enough world class players to really compete at this level. This squad is inexperienced and the expectations, because of that, are low. I think we have the youngest team in the tournament and fewer caps than any other squad. I think expectations are relatively low for this one and probably quite rightly so. But we have a plethora of really good talent coming through and certainly in two years’ time, or four years’ time, I think we will be very competitive. But this squad, while we have some talented players, is still a little while away from what teams have had in the distant past. There is a bit of light at the end of the tunnel from some of the players coming through and they will benefit from the experience of playing in the team. Perhaps the fact that expectations aren’t too high means they might surprise us.”
This generation of footballers are paid more and have larger advertising contracts than in your day. Do you think they still care as much about playing for the national team?
“Oh yeah, I think they still care a lot. I think sometimes because they haven’t performed so well, media people in this country put it down to a lack of effort: that they don’t care much and it’s all down to the quality of football. But I am absolutely positive that the players what to be on what is the biggest stage of all. Yeah, of course they still care.”
Media speculation in the run up to the tournament has been mostly cynical and negative. Even after a 6-1 win against Panama, which saw a team unity foreign to England teams of the past, The Times ran with a headline in their sports section of ‘Hmmm…did we score too many’. The headline was written in jest but some media coverage has been less playful. The coverage of Raheem Sterling’s tattoo showed a crueller side of some parts of the British media. Lineker himself is no stranger to negative and harsh media coverage – The Sun once called for his sacking from the BBC because he was a “leftie luvvie”. I ask him about the effect that this type of coverage could have on the players.
Has the media scrutiny intensified in comparison to when you were playing?
“Oh definitely, it’s definitely intensified. There are now more televisions, more magazines, more radio stations, and there’s more games shown on television so people are more aware about the players. So that intensity is naturally greater because of that. The media is far more intense in its scrutiny compared to what it was 30 years ago – that is for sure.”
Do English players get it worse than in other countries?
“No I think it is the same everywhere, it’s massively importance to the Spanish, the Brazilians, the Argentinians, the French so it’s no different. What is different in our country is the tendency to focus on footballer’s private lives. That’s being ever thus and I have never quite understood why we have that insatiable interest in how people are behaving. That’s the one difference.”
Was the Raheem Sterling reporting part of that?
“Well that’s the exact type of thing. I can’t quite understand why there have been so many negative stories and most of them are non-stories about Raheem. He’s a young man who has a terrific work ethic and has proved it in season and out of season. I never quite understood the negativity that some segments of the press direct towards him. The best way to put that right is performing on the field, which he has certainly done for his club. Four years ago, he was a very young kid and he actually had a number of really good games. He’s one of our best players and I guess it always helps if he plays well. Confidence is always a massive help with national sports.”
Does that kind of press coverage have an impact on the players or can they leave it on the plane?
“Well I am sure he will get it out of his minds come the World Cup but it doesn’t help – no one likes to have it. The stress that comes with it is something that you could really do without as a player and you don’t need the added stresses, you just want to focus on the football and your game. But I am sure that the management team within England will make sure that that is the case and that it won’t affect him or any of the other players.”
You have obviously had some scrutiny as a pundit as well as footballer, The Sun calling for you to be sacked being an example of that. Did that affect you?
“No not overly, I mean sometimes it can be frustrating. But with things like that at least it does give you the right of reply whereas before social media that was frankly pretty impossible. So, it does give you the chance to do that and obviously they can take things too far, but it has never really perturbed me. We know there’s agendas involved sometimes when they disagree with your politics, they can tend to get overly personal. We are all allowed different opinions unless they disagree with you.”
This tournament has not just been about football though. Although there has not been recent controversy, the location of the World Cup has caused tension. Within the first week of the tournament, Mo Salah had been criticised for accepting honorary citizenship from the Chechnyan leader and Peter Tatchell had been arrested for protesting the oppressive treatment of LGBTQ+ people by the Russian government.
In terms of the tournament more generally, how are you feeling about being in Russia in the midst of a tense political situation?
“There is always something prior to a major tournament. We had it four years ago in Brazil with demonstrations about the amount of money that was spent on the stadiums, demonstrations because they were going through tough financial times there. South Africa also had protests for different reasons. So, there is always something prior to a World Cup but once it starts everyone focusses on the football. Once it actually kicks off, it will put behind all the other stuff and the political climate especially in Russia. It’s a football tournament and ultimately once it starts that pretty much all it will be focussed on. Hopefully, hopefully there won’t be anything else outside of the game.”
So you wouldn’t take the Boris Johnson line that this is the chance for Putin to propagandise and cover up abuses through sport?
“I wouldn’t take Boris Johnson’s line on anything. I mean every country that hosts the World Cup will obviously take advantage of that situation in some way. But this is a football tournament and there is only so much you can do in terms of scoring political points. It’s basically about what happens on the pitch.”
How have you felt about covering this World Cup?
“I love the World Cup –its always exciting. It’s a huge stage and we’ll probably get the biggest audiences that you will get on any TV programme. Especially if England start to decently and get to the knockout stages, we will get huge viewing figures and that is exciting. We have a great coverage team, we got some great pundits who have all played at the highest levels. For us it is not quite the same as playing, but it is our biggest stage that we ever do TV shows from.”
What’s it like making that transition from football to commentary like some of your commentators have done recently? Is that a tough shift?
“It’s a different skill but these players have done it at the top level and they understand the game pretty well. It’s a different skill getting that across to viewers but I am sure that the new boys will be fine with the change. It will take two or three games to get a feel for the analytical side and explaining that to an audience. So naturally, it’s a first and I am sure that they will be nervous. They are in at the deep end, it’s a World Cup as a first time.”
Lineker doesn’t restrict himself to football nowadays. Twitter has enabled him to add political punditry to his CV and he is known both for his political commentary but also his constant disagreement with hired agitator Piers Morgan.
Talking about your life now. You’re obviously active on social media and twitter, is that something that you are enjoying?
“I do enjoy it, I enjoy it for all sorts of different reasons: following people that I find interesting, the immediacy of news on twitter, and obviously it’s a big platform when you have a lot of followers. It is a different way of expressing your views on opinions on all things, but for the next month it will be predominantly football obviously.”
It’s also been somewhere that you have got into spats with other prominent people like Piers Morgan for example, are those personal arguments or are you slightly playing around there?
“A bit of both really. I have a few disagreements with him but if we all agreed with each other, life would be fairly dull. Occasionally it can be a bit of fun, and at other times things are quite irritating. At least it does give you the chance to put your opinion and your views and try to argue a point.”
England won their last World Cup fixture against Colombia 2-0. It was such a significant match that Kirsty McColl, of ‘Fairytale of New York’ fame, wrote a song about it. England fans have already begun the nail-biting process of preparing for a knockout match and will be questioning whether it will ever really return home. But Lineker seems to have confidence in the side. He realises that this is a group of players who are young, humble, and genuinely excited by the competition. Long gone are the days of English players who seemed bored by the greatest football stage on earth. Whatever happens in the upcoming matches, this tournament has been a success and a renaissance for English football. The players are approachable, the manager is genuine, and England fans are finally hopeful. Lineker says that a good result for England would be a place in the quarter finals – only time will tell whether his wishes come true.