Lineker scored England’s goal when they lost 2-1 to Argentina in a World Cup clash lit up by Maradona in 1986, and the former forward made reference to the “hand of God” with which the late legend was said to have scored that day in his reaction to the terrible news.

In a choice of words that outraged many, the man who once filmed a documentary in which he appeared close to Maradona told his following of more than 7.7 million: “Reports from Argentina that Diego Armando Maradona has died.

“By some distance the best player of my generation and arguably the greatest of all time.

“After a blessed but troubled life, hopefully he’ll finally find some comfort in the hands of God. RIP Diego.”

Stunned supporters told Lineker that the line was “cheap and pathetic”, warning him that it was “not the time to make puns”.

“Show some respect,” wrote one well-followed journalist. “Being an asshole does not fit you, or so I thought.”

Lineker hit back at his critics. “Don’t be ridiculous,” the 59-year-old tried to convince one, using the platform where he regularly holds forth on his political views. “It’s heartfelt.”

He then claimed that a “translation issue” had caused some to “misunderstand” his crass words before sharing a selection of videos that he said demonstrated his closeness to Maradona.

“I’ve never seen anyone have such a beautiful affection with a football,” Lineker portrayed himself saying, causing Arsenal fan and fellow broadcasting loudmouth Piers Morgan, who is often one of his antagonists, to applaud his “beautiful tribute”.

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