When you reach the business end of a World Cup, you want to hear from someone who knows all about the enormity of the pressure facing the finalists. And in Gary Lineker, we have the perfect man for the job.
Lineker played 80 times for England, scoring 48 goals, which puts him just behind Bobby Charlton on England’s all-time list. But his 10 goals over two World Cups in 1986 and 1990 is still unmatched: he won the Golden Boot at the former and reached the semi-finals at the latter. Lineker is anchoring the BBC’s coverage in South Africa, and puts in as assured a performance off the pitch as he ever did on it. But his celebrated career (where he didn’t just score goals for fun but never received a yellow or red card) took him across England and onto Spain with Barcelona and then Japan for Nagoya Grampus Eight.
Can you give an insight into the atmosphere that you’ve seen at first hand?
I think it’s been terrific in overall terms of the atmosphere of this World Cup. Though it’s been very noisy with the vuvuzelas! People have loved it here. It’s been very friendly and the locals have really got behind it. I think prior to the World Cup there were some concerns over safety and security and maybe that the stadiums wouldn’t be filled. But none of that has come to light. There have been hardly any issues, the stadiums have been full with about half the fans coming from Africa. All in all I think it’s been a huge success.
What have been your favorite moments?
I love watching Spain and the style of football they play. They’re a pleasure to watch and they’re so positive. And the intricate style of their football and their passion is a joy.
A one off moment? South Africa’s opening goal in the tournament was pretty special. At the opposite end, when Asomoah Gyan missed that penalty for Ghana in the quarter-final, it was one of the most emotional moments of the World Cup. But you know, that’s what football does to you. It can be gut-wrenching at times.
And it will be gut-wrenching for one team tomorrow. Turning to the final, do you think the two best sides have made it through?
Well, certainly Spain are head and shoulders above anyone else in the tournament. No one plays anything like the style of football they play. I think Germany had two or three good games but they’re very much a counter-attacking side. Brazil looked very strong in all departments for a while but play in a similar style to the Dutch: they’ve probably got three world class players that are forwards and the rest of the side are very well organized and disciplined and strong defensively. Both Holland and Brazil play like that. So overall I would say Spain are the best team in it but it doesn’t always turn out that the best team wins it so we’ll have to wait and see.
You played in Spain for Barcelona. What will the atmosphere be like in Spain this weekend?
I’m sure it will be unbelievably exciting. They won the Euro’s two years ago so they’ve had a little taster of what it’s like to win a major tournament but obviously the World Cup’s a bit different. They’ve never got to a final before whereas this is the third final for the Dutch and they’ve never won a final so we’re going to have a new winner. But obviously the atmosphere back in Spain will be something else. And it will be the same on the streets of the Netherlands.
And from one England fan to another, what continues to go wrong when we reach the tournament?
Well, it doesn’t always go drastically wrong like it has this time. The last two World Cups were quarter-finals and we lost in tight matches with a degree of respectability. But this time wasn’t like that. This time was pretty abject. And we didn’t play well at all apart from a mildly improved performance against Slovenia. And we had pretty weak opposition at the start and then went out with a whimper. I think the organization was wrong, the players weren’t at their best and didn’t look that sharp.
Tactically as well, we played very naïvely. Two lines of four and two strikers: nobody’s playing that way nowadays. It was very easy to get between our lines as Germany, in particular, showed. I think everyone knew before the tournament there were problems in the defense with the injuries to Rio Ferdinand and Ledley King. So there were problems with the center backs, the full backs played wide and the rest in their lines so all in all, we struggled as soon as we played a good team.
At least one Englishman made it to the final: referee Howard Webb. How do you think he’ll get on?
With referees, it’s a difficult job. I hope he has a good game. As we know, as we’ve seen in the Premier League, just like all referees, he can make a mistake. Let’s just hope he doesn’t do it on the big occasion.
A couple of questions about your own World Cup past: you played in 1986 and 1990, getting further in the latter but winning the Golden Boot at the former. Which was the better World Cup?!?
1990 really. World Cup’s aren’t necessarily about individual performances though obviously winning the Golden Boot changed my life, making me known around the world and at the end of the World Cup, I moved to Barcelona so it had a big effect on me personally. But we had such a good side in 1990, the best England has ever done outside of its own country so to get to the semi-final and lose on penalties to the Germans, I think we can hold our heads up high. We had a terrific World Cup and, for me of course, it’s one of those things you always look back on and think, “if only.”
And have you forgiven Diego Maradona for the Hand of God in 1986?
It’s one of those things that happens in football matches. I did a documentary with Maradona and it went well. He got away with it but the officials should have spotted it. Even then, you see, we should have had technology!