Part of an elite selection of players who have reached double figures for goals at the FIFA World Cup™, top scorer at Mexico 1986 and his country’s second-highest goalscorer of all time, few can rival the international experience of Gary Lineker.
The former England striker, who was never booked or sent off during his 16-year career, bagged 48 goals for the Three Lions - second only to Sir Bobby Charlton on 49 – and was on target almost 300 times for clubs including Barcelona, Everton and Tottenham Hotspur.
Now a successful football presenter on television, Lineker enjoys an ideal vantage point to view the game in England and abroad. FIFA.com met the 51-year-old to discuss England’s chances of glory in Poland and Ukraine, his appreciation of Spain, and the quality of the Premier League.
FIFA.com: What are England’s chances at UEFA EURO 2012?
Gary Lineker: I don’t think our expectations should be too high this time. We often overhype ourselves but I don’t think there’s that feeling around at the moment. We’ve seen a generation of really good players getting towards the end and we’ve got a generation of very young players that have shown a lot of promise, but in the middle of that - with the obvious exception of [Wayne] Rooney – there aren’t that many world-class players. It’s going to be hard. But if we go there with less expectation and we play cagey, get a good back four together and a couple of holding players – a little bit like we did against Spain – and regard ourselves as underdogs, you never know. We haven’t got much up front, and in the first two games we have no Rooney either, but if we play that way and hit teams on the counter attack we could go somewhere.
Are lower expectations a better approach for England?
It might take the pressure off a bit if the expectancy levels are not so high. I think it’s very important that we get it tactically right. We can’t play too open because we’ll be beaten. Teams are quite clever and technical, and we know that we’re not as technically efficient as some of the nations in the tournament so to have a chance we’ve got to be really cute.
If we get this kind of football emerging – which could be described as a return to the beautiful game – it’s a great thing.
Who do you think will win the tournament?
It’s hard to look beyond Spain, they play this brand of football where you know they are going to get 70 per cent possession in pretty much every game they play. I’ve never seen a team play like this, they have introduced this style of play that has moved the game on. Now we’re seeing teams trying to copy and emulate them, not just when they’ve got the ball but when they’ve not got the ball as well, with the work rate and closing down. I think it has taken the game forward and it’s so wonderful. Some people are trying to copy them and it’s great, and if we get this kind of football emerging – which could be described as a return to the beautiful game – it’s a great thing. Look at the last few World Cups, there has been a lot of fear and negativity, and all of a sudden we’re seeing a team that just play in the opposition half and they try to keep the ball and enjoy it and express themselves, and it’s wonderful. Beyond Spain, Germany are re-emerging with some good players. Possibly Holland are the other team you would give a chance too, maybe France.
How have you rated the 2011/12 Premier League season?
I think in terms of excitement, it’s one of the best seasons. In terms of quality of football, perhaps we’ve had better eras but we’ve seen some extraordinary events this season – some high-scoring, crazy games, the comeback of [Paul] Scholes, the miracle of [Fabrice] Muamba. We’ve had a whole gamut of stories right across the board and we look like we’re going to get the most thrilling of finales possibly after arguably the biggest Premier League game there has ever been. As is customary it is going to be tight at the bottom as well, so overall there’s always something to talk about.
Do you think the standard of the Premier League has decreased in recent years?
From our performances in Europe, you can tell we’re not quite as strong as we were. Chelsea are an exception and could still go all the way. But you look at Spain with five teams in the two semi-finals [UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League], we’ve got one, who struggled to get there, and our big two Manchester clubs were both knocked out of the Europa League. It suggests that we’re not as strong as we were, and I think that’s probably a fair point. But these things go in cycles.
Has football changed in the way teams regard cup competitions?
It’s an interesting one. You should always judge yourself by your league position as that’s the fairest way of all, because cups can be hit and miss. Look at Liverpool – there’s no way with their history they would like to judge themselves as just a cup side. They have been struggling badly in the league, but they have some silverware. Having said that, it’s been a long time since Liverpool had any success in the league. When Kenny [Dalglish] took over they were a long way from it and they still look quite a distance from challenging for a title. So it’s about slowly building a team, and you need your supporters behind you. Football is a fickle game. Everybody wanted Kenny in and then they have a bad run and there are calls to get him out. You look at the most consistently successful clubs in this country over the last 15 years and they are Manchester United and Arsenal. They are the teams who have stuck with good managers.
Your former team, Tottenham Hotspur, have struggled since their manager Harry Redknapp was linked with the England post. Can you explain their loss of form?
I’m not a great believer in coincidences and it did seem to coincide with the time that he was being touted for the England job. I’ve played with managers who I knew were leaving. I played with Terry Venables when he was going to move upstairs, I played with Bobby Robson in 1990 when we all knew he was leaving and it didn’t affect us in any way. I just think they’ve had a couple of bad results and lost confidence, I don’t think there’s anything more to it than that.