One of my favourite footballers is Gary Lineker. I don’t remember watching him much; I was 3 when he won the Golden Boot in Mexico 1986. And my memories of him from Italia ’90 are also vague.
Lineker, who presents football games on TV these days, has many claims to fame. He belongs to a select group of footballers who have scored 10 or more goals in World Cup finals. He captained the English side for two years, won the Copa del Ray and the Cup Winners’ Cup playing for Barcelona, and is also England’s second highest scorer in international games.
But the one record that sets this favourite son of Leicester apart from other great players is this: he has never received a yellow card in his entire playing career (and no red cards either). Not a single booking in such an illustrious career. This record he shares with very few others (Wikipedia names only 3 others), and he is the only practitioner of the modern game to hold this distinction.
That is not say that footballers should take to the game with the sole intent of being labeled “Mr. Nice Guy”. Not being booked at all, or being booked sparingly during a top-flight career spanning a decade or two speaks highly of the discipline which these footballers bring to the field.
One can easily turn Machiavellian and retort that it is only what is achieved on the field that counts, and not how. Future generations might remember Lineker the Golden Boot winner, while relegating his disciplinary record to a piece of trivia. But nothing can erase the fact that Lineker, while being just as competitive as anybody else, also brought a humane touch to football. Indeed, we call football the beautiful game. We talk of “joga bonito”; we give our competitions taglines such as “a time to make friends”. Why? To headbutt opponents?
Should Zinedine Zidane’s act of crashing into Marco Materazzi disturb the pedestal he was standing upon? That is something for posterity to decide. My guess is that we will remember him as one of football’s all-time greats, but (just like we have done for his fellow countryman Eric Cantona) we will also reserve a footnote for his disgraceful, even shameful exit from the final.
A better stage could not have been presented to the Frenchman. Had France won, he would have held aloft the same trophy he helped win eight years ago. Even as a losing finalist, he could have held his head high, could have heard a few words of consolation from the great Franz Beckenbauer, and could have thanked the whole world for cheering him on.
But that head, that famous shaven head, that struck twice in St Denis in 1998, it only struck a poor (provocative?) Italian defender, and has been missing from public view ever since. Before the final began, a friend has set his IM status message to “employez la guillotine”. It is sad that the guillotine fell on — rather, was self-inflicted upon by — France’s favourite son. Monsieur Zidane, surely you could have had a better farewell!
They say that it only takes a moment of madness to bring down years of hard work. In Zidane’s case, “bring down” might be an exaggeration, but no one can gainsay that his reputation has not been dented. Zidane lost not just his head, not just the World Cup, but also his status as an ambassador for the game.
Meanwhile, Gary Winston Lineker watches on…
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