George Best: His name said it all

By Alun Thomas


The death of George Best, one of the greatest soccer players in history on November the 25th predictably did not make significant headlines throughout the United States. While watching ESPN News one of their headlines was the passing of ÔKarate KidŐ star Pat Morita the same day, a man who was not a legitimate sportsman but well known for his role as Mr Miyagi. It shouldnŐt have bothered me that Best was not recognized, but to overshadow the death of not just a soccer icon, but one of sportŐs overall legends in favour of a Z grade actor left me inwardly seething. For those that knew of Best (the rest of the world) and his one of a kind talent the loss is immeasurable, not because of his boozing and womanizing, but the memories of his graceful skill, skills that perhaps exceeded Pele and Maradona and if not surely equaled them.

BestŐs death at 59 was due to total organ failure. Just two years earlier Best had received a liver transplant to replace his failed liver destroyed by constant alcoholism. Unable to change his ways Best continued his drinking which led to his ultimate demise. It was a tragic way to leave the world stage, but upon news of his death the world concentrated on his breathtaking skill with a ball rather than his ability with a glass. I never saw Best play, it was far before my time, but from watching tapes of him the proof of his prowess is indisputable. Anyone from that era, the sixties and early seventies will tell you Best was in a class of his own. My father, the same age as Best, told me that on many occasions. He was there, I believe him. What Best could do with a ball is beyond almost any human being.

 Best was born in 1946 in Belfast, Northern Island. A skinny youth he was picked up by English giants Manchester United in 1963, his skill apparent already. From there Best became the most influential footballer of the decade. Helping the club win the league title twice in 1965 and 1967 and the European Cup in 1968, Best developed an icon status similar to that of any pop star of the sixties. The image of Best and his handsome charm, scraggly hair, stubble and socks pulled down, making mockeries of the opposition is more than legendary. His extra time demolition of Benfica in the 1968 European Cup Final is seen as his crowning moment. He was the highest paid star in the sport and in 1968 was voted English and European Footballer of the year. His lifestyle revolved around women and wine, with antics and a reputation that make Joe Namath look like John Elway.

BestŐs unpredictable genius sadly was never witnessed on the world stage at the World Cup as Northern Island were incapable of succeeding on BestŐs talent alone. Therefore the world was never able to see Best against Pele or Beckenbauer. Pele said Best was the best footballer in the world which according to Best Ôwas enough for me.Ő It all went sour for Best in the early seventies and he quit the game in 1972, making frequent comebacks that never belied his talent. Best played in the United States in the mid seventies to early eighties, which seems to have gone forgotten by the media here, scoring a goal for San Jose against Tampa Bay in 1981 where he took on the entire side before scoring a classic goal. Best had an inexhaustible array of tricks up his sleeve and watching opposing players bewildered is priceless.

BestŐs problems with the bottle ruined him however, the type of wayward behavior which added to his legend in many ways. It works that way inevitably. Over the last two decades Best racked up more incidents than Mike Tyson, but was never reviled for them because he was a footballing master. People want to remember Best beating defenders at will, not the Best who couldnŐt overcome his addiction to alcohol. People will never tire either of his now stale stories of bedding a series of Miss Worlds, as thatŐs what we want from our heroes. Best did it all before anyone.

Growing up as a soccer fan I came to appreciate Best later in life, as watching him in action represented the best the sport had to offer. The art of football, when perfected is the essence of all sport. Best mastered it to the point of near faultlessness. ItŐs hard to make the average American understand as soccer here is largely ignored and reviled, but BestŐs fame and reputation as an athlete worldwide dwarfs a Joe Montana or Dan Marino to the point where itŐs comical. You might never see him on a SportsCentury episode but he is bigger than that. As an architect on the pitch he was a true representation of the beautiful game. In a hundred years he will still be talked about. That is certain.