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When Gary Lineker Failed

Where? Råsunda Football Stadium, Stockholm, Sweden

When? June 17th 1992

We all have to stare failure in the face at some point. Do we let that moment of disappointment define us, or do we stare back, tell ourselves and everyone else the truth and move forward?

Gary Lineker is the BBC’s highest paid presenter, and in recent weeks he’s attracted support and disdain in equal measure for sharing his thoughts on the British government’s asylum-seeker policy. No one aged under 30 will have any memory of his time as a footballer but the name of his production company, Goalhanger Films, offers a clue. Lineker was a hugely successful centre forward who, towards the end of his career, appeared to be closing in on the England goalscoring record. Going into the 1992 European Championship finals, having announced that it would mark the end of his international career, he’d scored 48 goals, needing just one more to equal Bobby Charlton’s then-record and two to surpass it.

Two summers before, Bobby Robson’s England had come within a penalty shootout of the World Cup final at Italia 90. That team was ignited by the creativity of Paul Gascoigne, Chris Waddle, Peter Beardsley and John Barnes. The 1992 model, though, was packed with honest triers, workmanlike individuals who Robson’s replacement, Graham Taylor, could see himself in. Players more comfortable running after the ball than running with it. Lineker had survived the talent cull by scoring repeatedly when it mattered, but he entered England’s final group game against Sweden on a dry spell and with half an hour left, and his team huffing and puffing in search of a winning goal, he was substituted.

Some photos of the substitution show Lineker, his fellow players and assorted faces in the crowd looking baffled by the decision, others show him trudging disconsolately from the field and one shows him tossing his captain’s armband to the nearest team-mate. There were no tantrums, though. That wasn’t his style. Whatever was going through his mind, he encouraged his team from the bench and consoled them when they inevitably lost and exited the tournament, signalling the end of his England career and his failure to break the record.

No one agreed with the decision to take England’s best striker off the field when they desperately needed a goal apart from the man who made it, and Graham Taylor, a decent man with no aptitude for international football management, would be sacked a little over a year later after a disastrous World Cup qualifying campaign.

Shortly after the final whistle, a journalist asked Lineker how it felt to fall just short of Charlton’s record. His answer?

“Bobby deserves to keep the record. He was a far better player than me.”

That was true, of course, but it’s not always easy to see past our own anger and disappointment and tell it like it is. What would you have said? At the precise moment when he had every reason to feel let-down and every excuse for self-pity, Lineker stared failure in the face, told the truth and moved forward.

Some of us would say he’s still doing it. This time, though, he isn’t facing up to a sporting failure. He’s trying to make sense of Britain’s failure, and the consequences are infinitely more serious and far-reaching than anything that could happen on a football pitch.

When people in power speak of the threat posed by vulnerable people in small boats, are they accurately describing the problems facing our country? Are they exaggerating? Are they fabricating?

When British people express their fear of asylum seekers, are they doing it in full knowledge of the circumstances that might lead a parent to put their child in a boat and take their chances on unforgiving waters?

When British voters express their hostility towards immigration, are they doing it in full knowledge of the cultural and economic contribution that immigrants have made and continue to make, given the opportunity?

When we point the finger of blame at others whose faces we’ve never seen and whose names we may never learn, are we abdicating responsibility for our own choices? Are we doing it to feel better about ourselves? If so, does it ever really work?

Gary Lineker didn’t fail in 1992. He was let down and used as a scapegoat for collective failure by a national leader who was out of his depth, prone to bad decisions and set his country’s cause back years. Deja vu, anyone?


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