EXCLUSIVE: Lineker Forgives 'Genius' Maradona For Hand Of God

Goal.com's Mohammed Bhana exclusively interviewed one of the most recognised faces in English football to talk about a match that will live long in the memory and more...
Gary Lineker needn't be modest. Arguably the most complete striker England has ever produced, he bagged 48 goals in 80 matches for his country, just one off Bobby Charlton's record. You wouldn't expect anything else than humility from a man regarded as football's Mr. Nice Guy, but the truth is that Lineker and England were made for each other.

Since his retirement from playing the game, Lineker has forged a successful career in the media, fronting the BBC's flagship football show, 'Match of the Day'. He began as a pundit in 1995, before becoming back-up to Des Lynam. He was appointed the principal presenter after Lynam's departure to ITV in 1999.

World Cups And The Golden Boot

Lineker was born in Leicester in 1960 and played for his home-town club for seven years before joining Everton in the summer of 1985. That very season, he was voted Player of the Year by both the Professional Footballers' Association and the Football Writers' Association. He went on to play for Barcelona, Spurs and Grampus 8 in Japan before bringing the curtain down on a glittering career.

Lineker became an English institution with his virtuoso performances and canny knack of getting the ball into the back of the net whilst playing for the national side. He speaks fondly about his time as England's principal marksman, and singles out Peter Beardsley - the man who helped orchestrate many of his goals - as the best player he played with for England.

"It's every player's dream of scoring a World Cup goal and it doesn't get any better than when you get a couple of important ones. I was lucky, Peter Beardsley and I had a great partnership playing for England and he was just great to play with - fantastic," he recalls.

"The England team in 1990 was a fantastic all-round unit. We had a compact defence, top goalkeeper and a lot of depth in midfield and wide areas, and we scored some great goals as well. It was very balanced and we could have won the competition."

Rewinding four years, he continued, "The 1986 World Cup was a massive boost for my confidence and self-belief, to prove that I could score at the very highest level - and to have won the Golden Boot was just something else. Every top striker will tell you that they always aim to finish as the top scorer in every competition.

"In international football, luck is very important. I could have been amongst a number of players who were dropped for the game against Poland at the 1986 World Cup, and someone else would have had the chance to make their mark in that game and I may have been sidelined. But I just got on with it and ended up scoring a hat-trick. Before I knew it I was a contender for the Golden Boot. It happened so quickly. However, we were knocked out of the 1986 World Cup tournament by Diego Maradona's 'Hand of God' goal. I made it 2-1. And after the tournament I got the move to Barcelona, and things went well for me."

Meeting A Genius

Before the 2006 World Cup, Lineker went to Argentina to meet Maradona - having previously been stood up by the stocky striker - but this time he did get hold of 'El Diego', who has since been appointed as coach of his country. Lineker claims there was no awkwardness when the pair finally met - they hugged straight away and Maradona said, "Nice to meet you, old friend."

When they shook hands, Lineker joked, "Was that the hand?" referring to Maradona's Hand of God goal. Maradona immediately replied, "No - it was the left."

The second goal Maradona scored in that same match against England was voted FIFA's Goal of the Century in 2002. Lineker is still full of admiration for the great man.

He said: "What can I say about Maradona, the man is a football genius. His solo effort against us was the one and only time in my whole career I felt like applauding the opposition scoring a goal. He showed some amazing individual skill."

The Best

When switching attention to club football, Lineker was a little less forthcoming than many of his compatriots to declare that the Premier League is the best in the world. "I'm not sure," he said. "It's possibly the most exciting along with Spain's La Liga, but I'm not sure if it's the best.

"The likes of Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester United and Arsenal have strength in depth and attract great players but so do the likes of Real Madrid and Barcelona. However, a lot of people will be keeping a close eye on Man City during the January transfer window so that could be interesting.  

"I would have previously said Serie A was the best, but with the problems they have had over the last couple of years I think it's lost a little bit of its quality."

Mohammed Bhana, Goal.com

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