Gary Lineker is the self-confessed football addict who watches up to four games a day on a Sunday, despite not getting home from the BBC Match of the Day studios in Salford until 3am the previous night. And now he is about to indulge even more, as he prepares for another season working for LaLigaTV, and coverage of Spain’s top flight in this country.
Can he ever get bored of football? “Well, it has been the one ever-present in my life,” he says. “I have been married twice, got [four] kids, my parents are no longer here so it’s the one thing that’s been part and parcel. I genuinely love the game. And it evolves. People moan about the modern game but I actually think it’s better than it’s ever been.”
In a wide-ranging interview with Telegraph Sport, Lineker is in expansive mood, happy to discuss everything from being the only Englishman since the Second World War to play for his “second team” Barcelona, the challenges of modern broadcasting and – inevitably, given his profile – the perils of social media pile-ons.
But first his surprise decision, last year, to leave BT Sport’s Champions League coverage and take his role fronting games on LaLigaTV, broadcast via Premier Sports. It was partly because Lineker wanted to free up some time, partly because he could, and also because of an enduring love for Spanish football.
“I watched it all the time anyway and it seemed like a good fit,” he says, having spent three successful seasons at the Camp Nou, where he is still fondly remembered.
“They stuck with me, the fans,” Lineker says, recalling his final campaign, where he was played out-of-position on the wing. He returned to England the following year, joining Tottenham, but had been changed by the experience.
An incident in training early in his Barca career shaped his thinking. “The ball went out to the left-back and I charged out, trying to intercept, with a sliding tackle,” he recalls. “I got in at half-time and a couple of players said, ‘What are you doing?’
“And I said ‘that’s what we do’ and they said: ‘No, no, you stay in the middle’. And I just thought: ‘I like this.’ When I came back to English football I had got into the habit and all of a sudden I was getting stick for being lazy. So, yes, there was a degree of irritation because we were still playing that old school, up-and-at-'em neanderthal type of football and Spain were well ahead of the game.”
The gap has narrowed, courtesy of better pitches, the Premier League’s financial power and attracting players and coaches such as Pep Guardiola. But Lineker balks at the suggestion that La Liga and Spanish clubs have actually now fallen behind, calling the claim “ridiculous”.
“They [Spain] have dominated European football for two decades. I think the Premier League is challenging and pushing but they bounced back last season [with Real Madrid’s Champions League triumph].”
There has been one potentially significant shift this summer, with Lineker citing Erling Haaland choosing Manchester City over Real Madrid as a tipping point in the balance of power. “It made me think that was the first turning,” he says.
'I thought presenting would give me longevity'
Suddenly the former England international, who went into broadcasting when his playing career ended 28 years ago - initially as a pundit, then as the BBC's main football anchor after Des Lynam quit in 1999 – is something of a veteran; a TV doyen even.
“It’s not something I spend too much time thinking about,” he says when the claim is put to him. “I am thrilled by the way my broadcasting career has gone because I say I was born to be in the box not on the box. It took me a long time to get comfortable with it and feel like I could do the job and now I just enjoy it.
“When I first started I used to look at people like David Gower doing the cricket and Sue Barker doing the tennis, Peter Alliss doing the golf. I was always interested in journalism, I used to write match reports as a kid every time I went to a game, and I was always interested in that side of it. So I thought cracking presenting would maybe give me longevity.”
It has certainly done that, with football commanding so much coverage, debate and interest, and across both genders. Lineker did not present coverage of the recent Women's Euros but was an avid follower.
“It’s fantastic because it’s growing the interest in football,” he observed. “The Spain-England game at the Euros was really good and what it’s doing is introducing more people to football, especially young girls. So many women told me after the Euros: ‘I get football now, and I get how it gets you.’ And that’s what football does. You can talk tactics forever but it’s what it does to the heart and the soul and how it kills you at times.”
The one downside to that intensity, Lineker admits, is the “anger” the sport can generate. With 8.5 million followers on Twitter, he is often a lightning conductor for social media outrage – whether it be a slightly clunky joke about Chloe Kelly in the wake of England's Euros final over Germany, or his take on the BBC's decision to end the classified football results on Radio 5 Live.
The inevitable pile-ons are an occupational hazard, but not one he relishes.
“It dismays me. You have always had to be careful what you say but now I think it’s another social media addition where people will pounce on anything.
“I like debate, if it’s civil, but when it becomes abusive that’s a different ball game. I can’t quite get my head round why people need to do that. But then there are angry people in the world and social media gives them a platform to be angry.”
I can only imagine that those who were offended were not watching the game and didn’t see Chloe Kelly’s brilliant celebration. https://t.co/ZlGp72xUOm
— Gary Lineker 💙💛 (@GaryLineker) August 2, 2022
Still Lineker understands, given his following, that he can also be an incredibly powerful voice. It is a responsibility he takes seriously. “I have a huge platform. It’s mad, really. For a footballer of my age, and obviously I am a broadcaster as well, it’s quite remarkable.
“It’s so easy just to tweet ‘oh, that’s a great goal’ but I try and play with words. Otherwise you are just reporting on a match. So I try and play around – hence I get myself into trouble occasionally by people taking things out of context. So I have always done that. It’s like making an opening or closing line on ‘Match of the Day’. My editor [Richard Hughes] has that kind of pun-disease that I have got so we can’t help ourselves!”
There is an ongoing debate among broadcasters that young people may not have the interest in watching a live football match in full. Lineker is dismissive. “We can see TV is changing with the exception of really big reality TV shows – and sport.”
Lineker has no intention of winding down. “I certainly won’t stop watching football and I still enjoying working on it,” he adds. “La Liga this season, Match of the Day. I have cut back a little bit – with BT [Sport] – and I wanted to free my life up. I love what I do and have no reason to change. I am fortunate and it’s a great position to be in.”
Watch all of LaLiga this season via Premier Sports, with 10 games also broadcast live on ITV. Sign up to Premier Sports here.