Gary Lineker on football returning: ‘You cannot play football and social distance’

Lineker may need to update the quote again, in light of the German Bundesliga becoming the first of Europe’s major football leagues to resume play this weekend: Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always return first.

In reality, the now 59-year-old Lineker has told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour the day before the Bundesliga starts up again that he is “nervously excited,” pointing out that Germany is “setting the tone for everybody else. I think every league in Europe that wants to try and finish the season that was obviously interrupted, is looking at Germany to see how it goes.

“The Germans have been pretty much very clever during this thing. Their testing is brilliant and they’re ahead of everybody else in Europe really. So it’ll be interesting to see how it pans out, but what happens if three or four players test positive and everybody else in the squad has to isolate? Then you’ve got a problem.”

According to the latest figures, the country has 175,233 confirmed cases of Covid-19 with 7,897 deaths, but Germany’s Football Association (DFB) has worked closely with league organizers (DFL) and trust that the strict safety protocols in place will protect those involved.

As a striker, Lineker scored hundreds of goals for his clubs and country, but took celebrating in front of fans for granted. One of the conditions for the Bundesliga kicking off again is that the matches will be behind closed doors, which lends itself to the question of whether football is truly football without supporters in the stands.

“Well, it is not quite the same,” starts the man whose 48 goals for England place him only behind Wayne Rooney and Bobby Charlton on England’s all-time scoring list, to say nothing of winning the Golden Boot for top scorer during the 1986 World Cup in Mexico.

“I imagine after a few games they’ll get used to it. But even watching football on television … is very much different if you’ve not got the crowd. … It will be a bit more like training in many ways, but more important than training.”

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Ahead of the resumption to the season, which comes after a two-month break in Germany, perennial powerhouse Bayern Munich holds a four-point lead with nine games to go, with the Bavarians hoping to win the title for an eighth straight time. But the likes of Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig and Borussia Monchengladbach are within six points of the champions, with Dortmund able to reduce the gap to a solitary point with victory on Saturday at home to Schalke.

Lineker is hoping that viewers find the new normal in Germany “acceptable” because “in fairness it would be good to finish out the season.” But the striker-turned-broadcaster does acknowledge that there “seems to be a little bit of a rush to do it because they (the leagues) want to start next season on time.

“But I don’t see that rush because the likelihood is … it’s going to go on for some time, so the chances of next season being interrupted are pretty high I would imagine.”

As Lineker well knows, Germany was often ahead of England when it came to success on the field, and the Bundesliga has beaten the English Premier League to a swifter return to action during the coronavirus pandemic.

Dynamo Dresden's game canceled after positive coronavirus tests as Bundesliga resumption approaches

There is still no certainty that the EPL will resume, despite reports suggesting that the so-called ‘Project Restart’ may begin next month to complete the 92 fixtures left to play in the world’s most popular league. The 20 teams are set to meet again on Monday and every side arguably has an agenda, whether it is Liverpool, who is within touching distance of a first Premier League title, with a surely insurmountable 25-point lead, or one of the sides battling against relegation.

“My suggestion is take your time with this one,” Lineker said. “Yes, finish it because I think that’s the fairest thing to do, and then let’s judge from there on. But obviously with the coronavirus, with Covid-19, it’s very fluid. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, let alone in four weeks’ time, so let’s be patient. Let’s see but we’re all keeping our fingers crossed — and I think it’s OK to suggest that you’ve missed football.”

Lineker also maintains that when it comes to the patterns of play, such as tackling, or teammates standing next to each other when defending a free kick, “you cannot play football and social distance.”

And while he understands “why the (UK) government wants it back, I understand why football wants it back, I understand why supporters want it back, I want it back. But it’s got to be under the right circumstances, at the right time, when it’s safe to do so, and that’s the most important thing.”

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