Lineker goes from soccer star to TV host to liberal champion
It looks like the BBC picked on the wrong guy.
In choosing to make an example of Gary Lineker by suspending him for criticizing the British government’s asylum policy on Twitter, the network went up against a national treasure.
In soccer terms, call it an own-goal.
Because, as the rapidly moving saga unraveled over a weekend when English soccer coverage — for some — was decimated by Lineker’s absence from the BBC studio, it quickly became clear there was only going to be one winner.
The 62-year-old Lineker, who was reinstated by Britain’s national broadcaster on Monday, is a former soccer star — indeed, one of England’s greatest players — who has transitioned into being a slick, witty and knowledgeable TV personality and an all-around media darling.
For that reason, the support for him in the soccer world and further afield was hardly surprising and something the BBC badly underestimated ahead of its climbdown in a controversy entirely of its own making.
In fact, Lineker — with his hair gray and his Twitter following up to nearly 9 million — might almost be as big a deal now than he was in the 1980s when he was racking up the goals for England’s national team and high-profile clubs like Barcelona, Tottenham and Everton.
As a player, he was the ultimate penalty-box poacher — rarely did he attempt a shot from outside the area, never mind score from one. And, somewhat remarkably, he never received a yellow or red card in his 16-year career.
“I never tackled anyone, that’s probably why,” Lineker said with a smile in a 2021 interview with the BBC.
He saved his best work for in front of the goal. He scored 48 goals in 80 games for England, which places him fourth on the nation team’s all-time list, and was the leading scorer at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico. Not bad for a guy who, before becoming a professional soccer player, often worked at his father's fruit-and-vegetable market stall in his home city of Leicester.
In English league play, he scored 113 goals in 170 matches for Leicester, Everton and Tottenham from 1983-92. In the middle of that period was a three-year spell at Spanish club Barcelona, where he scored 42 goals in 103 league games — including a hat trick against Real Madrid in the “clasico” — to earn himself the nickname “El Matador.”
After finishing his playing career with a trailblazing move to Japanese team Grampus Eight from 1992-94, Lineker embarked on a media career that didn’t immediately seem a natural fit for someone who, initially, was awkward, wooden and slightly timid in front of the cameras, despite having appeared in TV commercials for British potato chip company Walkers.
That would soon change. He switched from being a pundit to a presenter at the BBC in the late 1990s, hosting soccer and later golf — such as the Masters and the British Open — for the corporation. His appearances on BBC comedy game show “They Think It’s All Over” helped him come out of his shell and exhibit the kind of wry humor and quick-wittedness for which he has become known.
Lineker then started to excel as the main host of “Match of the Day” — a late-night soccer highlights program that has been running since the 1960s and is regarded as an institution in Britain. He even presented one show in his underpants, sticking to a promise he made if Leicester won the Premier League title, which the team did in 2016 despite pre-season odds of 5,000-1.
He used his status as a freelancer to work for other broadcasters such as NBC, Al Jazeera and most recently BT Sport, which he left in 2021 saying he wanted to spend time traveling with his sons to watch his beloved Leicester on the team’s campaign in the Europa League.
It’s only in recent years, by which time he had become the BBC’s highest-paid TV personality and a master of his craft, that he has emerged as a champion of liberal causes through his regular Twitter posts. He welcomed refugees into his home to live with him for some weeks in 2020 and ’21, and became more bullish in his comments about immigration.
“How can anyone have a total lack of empathy for people in the most dire circumstances?” he said in a separate 2021 interview.
Lineker accepted it would make him a target for the right, but it has strengthened his status as one of Britain’s most popular figures to many.
Hence the outpouring of support over the past few days after the BBC took him off the air for describing the government’s plan to detain and deport immigrants arriving by boat as “an immeasurably cruel policy directed at the most vulnerable people in language that is not dissimilar to that used by Germany in the 30s.” It was a tweet that, according to the BBC, breached its impartiality rules and was pounced upon by the Conservative government as offensive and unacceptable.
In solidarity with Lineker, his “Match of the Day” colleagues, like English soccer greats Alan Shearer and Ian Wright, and the program’s commentators said they were not willing to work. And there was a general outcry at the show being reduced to 20 minutes — instead of its usual 80 minutes — and without commentary.
Now, Lineker is back. He will return to British screens for Saturday’s “Match of the Day,” which will no doubt start with arguably the most talked-about figure in Britain these past few days making a joke about a saga that quickly spun out of the BBC’s control.
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Steve Douglas, The Associated Press