To a new generation of England fans, the concept of glorious failure is an alien one.
The desperate feeling of falling short is still all too familiar. But the idea of clasping onto memories of greatness and trying to snatch them from the miserable jaws of defeat?
That was the story of the Three Lions’ World Cup campaign in 1986, Bobby Robson’s men returning home from Mexico as the side unjustly knocked out by Diego Maradona’s Hand of God. Once the dust had settled, however, Gary Lineker’s achievements in South America could finally be admired for what they were.
The former striker remains the only Englishman ever to win a Golden Boot at a World Cup, scoring six goals in total.
Mexico was humid. It had been widely acknowledged that European countries were going to find it very difficult to adapt. Off the pitch, the England squad appeared to be lapping up the sun, but on it, it could be sensed that a heaviness could be felt on the players’ shoulders.
Lineker was not weighed down by the weight of expectation, at least, if a little exhausted by the conditions. Two years after making his debut, he went into that summer on the back of something of a goal drought for the national side.
On a personal note, and for his team more generally, things got off to a relatively slow start. Perhaps inspired by the muggy atmosphere, as soon as it began to rain goals for Lineker, it poured.
First came a hat-trick against Poland. Those three goals epitomise the debate over whether he was simply an extremely effective goal-hanger, the first and third sliced home from a few yards out, the latter capitalising on a piece of luck as the goalkeeper failed to claim the ball and Lineker scooped it into the top of the net. For the second, the ball was whipped in and found him in an opportune position, but it was how he got himself there that counted. There was very little time for him to race into the box, yet his pace and intuition took him there.
That victory helped England escape Group F, which had seen them face Morocco, Poland, and Portugal. The north Africans topped the group but finishing second was enough to set up a meeting with Paraguay in the last-16.
By that time, Lineker had well and truly got going. It was characteristic of his ambitious yet modest mentality that he was unhappy with his brace in that game, insisting afterwards that he should have made it a hat-trick. Nevertheless, his second made him top scorer in the tournament.
There was one last big moment to come, even though it was ultimately to be overshadowed by the other events of the day. The quarter-finals pitted England against Argentina, their rivalry deeply engrained in their respective national psyches in the aftermath of the Falklands War, which had taken place four years earlier. It was a circumstance that could not be separated from football, with Ossie Ardiles having to leave Tottenham on loan for Paris Saint-Germain.
Lineker found himself unmarked in the 80th minute and headed home a consolation thanks to a perfectly-placed ball from John Barnes. Considering the Albicelestes’ goals that day – first, the Hand of God, and then the Goal of the Century – it’s understandable that the significance of their opponents’ goal is often overlooked.
All that he had done on the biggest stage of them all earned Lineker a move to Barcelona from Everton, for the then-lofty sum of £2.8million. In Catalonia, he would win a Copa del Rey in 1988 and a Cup Winners’ Cup a year later. While it wasn’t ground-breaking for an Englishman to enjoy success abroad, his integration into the local culture was notable.
He is just as well-remembered, if not more so, for his role at Italia ’90. One of the first images that springs to mind is of Lineker imploring the bench to keep an eye on Paul Gascoigne once the midfielder had been booked, ruling him out of the final if England were to reach it and prompting his famous tears.
Yet, it was ’86 that established Lineker as an England great. Only Wayne Rooney and Bobby Charlton have contributed more in terms of goals, with Jimmy Greaves and Michael Owen the only others to have scored more than 40 for the national side.
Simply put, it was not to end in glory, but Lineker contributed more over the course of a World Cup than any England player since 1966. If Harry Kane is to emulate him this summer, it will be a tall order, but he will be Gareth Southgate’s best hope.
The Lineker we see today is a very different one, changed by life experience and defined by his politics and his crisps adverts as much as by his football career. When the question is asked how that career should be remembered, the answer should be for the time he took on the world almost single-handedly.
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Also published on Medium.