Search icon


19th Jun 2015

Gary Lineker talks to JOE about Messi, Bale and playing for Barcelona…

Nooruddean Choudry

Gary Lineker enjoyed three years at Barcelona in the 1980s, winning the Copa del Rey and European Cup Winners’ Cup. He spoke to JOE about the challenge of playing abroad and what it was like to score a hat-trick in El Clasico…

You went abroad at a relatively young age – would you advise others to give it a go?

You take each case as it comes. In terms of Gareth Bale, it was obviously an opportunity to take. If you’ve got the likes of Real Madrid after you, it’s extremely hard to turn that down.

But it depends on what kind of person you are and how mature you are, whether you think you can adapt and handle life abroad. It depends greatly on the individual’s personality.

There’s a dearth of players who actually travel, yet there are lots who come here. In my day there were more, not a huge amount, but the likes of Trevor Francis, Graeme Souness, Mark Hateley, Laurie Cunningham, Mark Hughes, Steve Archibald, etc.

Some did well, some didn’t. Ian Rush went to Italy and didn’t do very well because he missed everything from home. You’ve got to be the kind of person who would relish the culture and everything else – not just go to earn a few quid and come back.

In my day it was an opportunity to earn a lot more money, whereas nowadays they all earn so much and the Premier League pays as well as anywhere. So these days players don’t need to go for financial reasons. They only reason they’d go now is for the experience of playing at one of the great European clubs, which still has massive appeal.

Gareth Bale did it and it’s been a bit up and down, but it’s a great experience and it’ll make him a better player.

FC Barcelona v Real Madrid CF - La Liga

Is playing abroad something most players consider?

We’ve got that island mentality, there’s no question about that. We don’t necessarily think about living abroad all that much.

When I went abroad, I avoided the ex-pats societies and totally immersed myself in the Spanish lifestyle and pretty much only spoke Spanish. Before I went, I looked at the ones that had been successful – people like Ray Wilkins, Liam Brady and Kevin Keegan – the people who did well all went there and learnt the language, did the cultural thing, enjoyed the lifestyle there. And I don’t think that was coincidental.

I think it’s harder to get an opportunity these days. The Italian league has gone a bit – it was great in my day. It was Serie A and Spain. So you had big clubs in Italy and you had the big two in Spain.

It’s still only Barcelona and Real Madrid that would interest the big players, I suppose – and it’s hard to get into those big two, I mean look at the players they’ve got. You have to be some player to attract their interest.

With the Italian league not being quite as strong, I don’t think there are as many options for the very top players to go. There are other clubs that are really good and would be great for them but they don’t really have that same appeal.

How was your experience of El Clasico?

Oh, great. I was lucky. In the three I played at the Nou Camp, I scored a hat-trick in one, and the winners in the other two. So I did alright against Real. Not so well at the Santiago Bernabeu, but they were all unbelievable games.

The build-up was mad, just huge. It’s just the biggest thing ever. And the ground! I mean generally there’s not an unbelievable atmosphere at the Nou Camp; it’s almost like the opera. They’re all well-to-do, all socio members, and they’ve had their ticket for forever, and they wait to be entertained. And then you might get applause, or whistles if you’re not doing very well. But for that game, it’s [roars].

I remember the first time – I scored two goals in the first five minutes and the noise was unbelievable. I had goosebumps all over me. It was incredible.

Gary Lineker

Did you get a sense of the culture in Barcelona being different to the rest of Spain?

Very much so, yes. It’s very important to them, their history, especially with Franco’s time and how they were oppressed, and they weren’t allowed to speak their own language.

And the football team itself became their way of fighting back at Franco’s Spain. It’s the only place they felt they could speak their own language, and their team represented them. Especially against Franco’s Madrid. Obviously things have changed there, but they’re still very nationalistic about Catalonia.

It’s not ancient history either. It’s only a few decades ago and there are still lots of people alive who lived through it, so it’s understandable. But it adds to the whole theatre of the occasion when they play Real Madrid.

Another thing that’s quite unique is that we talk about big games and derbies and that sort of stuff, but you don’t really get any away fans in these games. So when I played there were 120,000 people and, to a man with probably the exception of the Madrid president, they were all Barcelona fans.

So when the opposition score, you can hear a pin drop. You hear nothing. It’s really weird, so you think it’s been disallowed or something. But it’s actually because they’ve got no fans [does Wealdstone Raider impression]. Likewise if you score a goal at the Bernabeu, you look around and think “that’s weird!”

Nowadays they do have some away fans but in my day there were none. Nobody travelled.

As much as Lionel Messi is analysed by the football media, do you still sometimes wonder how he manages the tricks he performs?

I think it’s just pure talent. He seems to always know what to do in any give situation. He gets surrounded and he’ll find a way through or poke a little pass.

He always seems to know when to do the right thing – when to pass it, the weight of the pass – you can’t teach that. Obviously there’s loads of practice in there as well, but…I mean the way he runs with the ball, it never, just never goes beyond half a yard from his foot.

I’ve spoken to a lot of professional footballers about him and we’re all aghast as to how he can be that skillful. How he can be that good.


What do you think about the comparisons between Messi and Ronaldo?

To be honest they’re very different footballers.

Ronaldo’s the athlete – brilliant in the air, he’s strong, he can smash it, he’s a brilliant finisher, his goalscoring record is unbelievable. But he can’t dribble like Messi, and he can’t pass like Messi, and Messi scores as many if not more goals too.

Messi is an unbelievable passer, the balls he threads through – his long passing, his short passing, his clever little dinks – he’s unbelievable. For me he’s the outstanding player of my lifetime, and I’ve played against Diego Maradona a few times.

He was great as well. He had obvious disadvantages. I mean the pitches are so much better now, and you could kick people in those days for quite a while before you got a booking whereas now you can’t – which is a massive advantage for a dribbler like Messi. But just looking at the difference in the goalscoring rates.

It was tougher to score in our time. The game was more negative. It was pretty dour in the eighties and people just kicked you and stopped you that way. You can’t do that now which is one of the great pluses for the game.

But just the consistency of Messi. Even when he has a poor game, he’s generally just about the best player on the pitch, which says a lot.

You interviewed Maradona quite recently – what is he like as a person?

He’s probably a little bit like Gazza to be honest. He’s hugely charismatic, funny, charming when you meet him, but he’s got a bonkers side. He’s always lovely whenever I’ve met him. He respects footballers. But what a life!

You can read part one of our exclusive chat with Gary, on young players and social media, here…

And part two, on racial prejudice in football and the Rooney Rule, is right here…

For part three, on football politics and the evolution of Match of the Day, come this way…