Football: Lineker returns as the affable ambassador: The English inspiration of his Japanese club looks forward to meeting Leeds tomorrow. Mike Rowbottom reports

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The Independent Online
THE CLINCH with the lady Mayor of Leeds was over. Sportingly, at the behest of the photographers, she had kicked one of her legs into the air. Now a figure in a rabbit costume beckoned Gary Lineker to make a presentation of football kit to some of the city's needy youngsters. 'Can you just sign this while you are walking, Gary?', he was asked. Gary signed - and smiled - while he was walking.

In importing this particular foreign player on a two-year, pounds 2m contract, the Japanese team Nagoya Grampus 8 have claimed for themselves a performer as diligent off the field as on it. Yesterday's event - which served to publicise tomorrow's match between Leeds United and Grampus that will raise funds for a children's holiday centre on the city outskirts - allowed Lineker to display once again his almost inhuman affability.

But Lineker shies away from the suggestion made by his agent, Jon Holmes, that he is hoping to do for the newly formed Japanese J League what Pele and Franz Beckenbauer did for the US Soccer League.

'I'm just there to play, really,' he said. 'The other side of things is not something I've worked at, although I do believe that players have a responsibility to behave in a certain way. I will count myself a success in Japan if I have enjoyed it, because that will probably mean I have done OK with the language and the football. Living there is not a problem - I'm enjoying that already.'

Home for the Linekers - Gary, wife Michelle and son George - is a spacious house on the edge of Nagoya, just down the road from the head of the Toyota Motor Company, Grampus's major sponsors. There has been little chance to establish a routine since he went out in February - a pre-season tour of Australia, Singapore and now England has put many of his plans on hold. But once the J League starts on 15 May, the Linekers will set about learning Japanese with the same determination they applied to mastering Catalan during Gary's period with Barcelona in the late Eighties.

Lineker has always said that a failure to adapt to a different language and culture has been a prime reason for the unhappy experiences of other British footballers abroad. The effort he put into adapting in Barcelona earned him an enduring affection there. Among those watching him train at Elland Road yesterday afternoon were a Catalan TV crew with whom he conversed fluently.

Becoming fluent in Japanese is a taller order, however. 'It is incredibly difficult,' he said. 'I will be satisfied if by the end of my time I can hold a conversation and get by well. I won't be learning to write - it would slow me down too much.' Considering that Kangi, one major form of written Japanese, has around 6,000 different characters, you can see his point. .

Only one team-mate speaks English, and he's at the wrong end of the field - the Dutch goalkeeper, Dido Havenaar. But life is made a little easier by his colleagues' football vocabulary.

'For some reason, they use English for a lot of things during the game,' Lineker said. 'They say 'near' and 'far' and 'offside' and 'goal-kick'. If the keeper saves it's 'nice keeper'. If you score it's 'nice shot'.'

Lineker admitted to a little twinge when his old team-mates at Spurs reached the FA Cup semi-final, but he expresses no regrets about what he refers to as his 'unknown adventure'.

Had anybody tried to tell him not to go? 'Nobody that really matters,' he said. 'Not the England manager.'

Waspish. Thank God. He can be waspish.

(Photograph omitted)

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