With 48 goals in 80 international matches, including 10 in 12 at the FIFA World Cup finals of 1986 and 1990, Gary Lineker is considered by many as England fans as the country's greatest-ever goalscorer.
A winner of the adidas Golden Shoe at Mexico 1986 and a FIFA Fair Play Award four years later for his exemplary disciplinary record, which saw him go through his entire 568-game career without receiving a booking, Lineker is now the anchorman for BBC Sport's coverage of football and golf. In a revealing interview, he reflects on his FIFA World Cup memories to FIFA.com, the official website of football's showpiece event.
Lineker arrived at Mexico 1986 after scoring an incredible 38 goals in 52 games for Everton in the 1985/86 season. Despite that incredible total, the then 25-year-old ended the domestic season without a trophy, as the Toffees' city rivals, Liverpool achieved the league and cup double. In his opening two games, he drew a blank as England drew with Morocco and lost to Portugal, but broke his duck in style with a 25 minute treble against Poland in Monterrey.
From there, he bagged a brace against Paraguay in the Round of 16 and then grabbed a consolation in a 2-1 defeat by Argentina in the quarter-finals. Of the three goals scored that day on 22 June 1986 in Azteca, Lineker's barely gets a mention, being completely overshadowed by Diego Maradona's incredible double; the ‘Hand of God' and arguably the finest goal scored at a FIFA World Cup finals. But the Englishman bares no resentment towards his fellow No10, preferring to concentrate on the penalty shoot-out defeat to West Germany in 1990 as his biggest disappointment.
"The highlight of my two World Cups has to be against Poland in 1986 and scoring the hat trick," he told FIFA.com. "Not because they were great goals - I don't think any of mine ever were! Obviously, I'd had a good season with Everton and scored a lot of goals, but I'd gone five or six games without scoring for England so I was under a bit of pressure, especially as the World Cup was such a big tournament. The Poland game transformed things on a personal note, I went on to score a few more goals and win the Golden Boot which earned me a move to Barcelona. That was definitely the highlight in terms of a one-off match.
"The World Cup is special. It's the highest stage that any player can ever perform on. It puts you in the spotlight, but it's also the best chance to test yourself against the best players in the world. The Azteca is a fantastic stadium and the atmosphere is unbelievable. To play there was a great experience. However, the pitch was lousy! They had relayed it just before the tournament and there were divots all over the surface. Every time you put your foot down, the whole pitch moved. That made the goal that Maradona scored all the more remarkable, the second one that is, not the one where he punched it in!
"The only regret I have was from the World Cup four years later, because I think we were a better side and more equipped to winning the trophy. Whereas in 1986 we weren't one of the best teams, in Italia 90 we were as good as anybody. We were desperately unlucky to lose the semi-final against Germany; the only regret I have is that we didn't win the penalty shoot-out."
Ah yes, penalties. One of Lineker's most famous sayings is: ‘Football is a simple game; 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans win.' On 4 July 1990 in Turin, England were left with a sinking feeling as Chris Waddle's penalty ballooned over the bar and West Germany were through to another final against Argentina. But as the striker readily admits, Bobby Robson's side were fortunate to reach the last four after almost underestimating Cameroon in the quarter-finals.
"The Germans had a great mental strength, resilience and that little bit of luck that was probably the only difference in the end. You have to say that they've produced lots and lots of good players over the years. Cameroon surprised us a lot. I remember a team meeting we had with Bobby Robson, who told us one of his scouts said that we'd been given a bye to the next round. They were brilliant against us and we were very lucky to win that game. Thankfully, they were quite poor defensively which gave us an opportunity, but going forward they were something special.
"Failing to win the trophy is the one thing you look back on and think ‘if only,' because we were so close to becoming the first England team to win the World Cup outside of our own country. It would have been so special. But on the flip side, if someone said to me at the start of my career that I would have played in one semi-final and one quarter-final of a World Cup and scored that many, then I just wouldn't have believed them! We always want more, don't we?"
Following Lineker's decision to hang-up his boots, he made the decision to move into the media. In fact, his nickname among the England squad was ‘Junior Des', a reference to the legendary BBC anchorman, Des Lynam. The jibes from his team-mates have turned out to be strangely prophetic, as he is now hosting ‘Match of the Day', the corporation's flagship Saturday evening highlights programme, which Lynam himself fronted between 1988 and 1999.
"Waddle came up with the name in 1986," smiled Lineker. "I was always with the journalists and the TV people, because I always knew that was what I wanted to do when I finished playing. I tried to learn as much as possible and gain a bit of experience. It's not the worst nickname you can have, is it? To be honest, I never fancied the move into management. It's just such a tough job. It is interesting now because many of the players I played with are managers or coaches. You see some of them suffer from stress and it is a thankless task; dealing with fans that all think they can do the job better, players who aren't happy, plus meeting the demands of chairmen and agents. It's a 24-hour job and ultimately 99.9 per cent of them get sacked at some stage."
Aside from working in football arena, Lineker who is now 48, has kept himself extremely busy since retiring. He has appeared in a film and a play, had a flavour of potato crisps named after him and actively supports a number of charities. But the move which seems to surprise the majority of people is the sight of the footballing legend as the face of the BBC's golf coverage! Yet the keen golfer, who plays off a handicap of five is enjoying every minute of being taken out of his comfort zone.
"I've always watched the big golf tournaments," he concluded. "The only thing I find a bit frustrating is when I have to do interviews with the players and I miss the final few holes. I just want to stay and watch the climax. I think I'm more of a fan than a presenter!"
Clubs (player): Leicester City (1978-1985), Everton (1985-1986), Barcelona (1986-1989), Tottenham Hotspur (1989-1992), Nagoya Grampus Eight (1992-1994).
Honours: adidas Golden Shoe (1986 FIFA World Cup Mexico), FIFA Fair Play Award (1990), Copa Del Rey (1988), UEFA Cup Winners Cup (1989), FA Cup (1991), English top-flight's leading scorer (1985, 1986, 1990).
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