When George Best drew his last breath in November of 2005, it marked the passing of one of the seminal figures in the history of international sports. In the 1960s, with his outrageous individual skill and lifestyle, he personally elevated soccer from a working man’s game to the entertainment form it is today. George was the game’s first true superstar—a cultural phenomenon who, in his time, was on a par with the Beatles. He did the unthinkable, both on and off the pitch. He didn’t just beat defenders, he toyed with them and tormented them. He was a master of ball control and manipulation, yet he had almost no control over himself. In the end, George proved to be a classic, cautionary tale of virtuosity and self-destruction. And even though he admitted that he had never achieved the full flower of his immense potential, George may still have been the best player ever to step on the field.

George Best was born May 22, 1946 in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He was the son of Dickie, a shipyard worker. His mother, Annie, was the athlete in the family. She had once played hockey on the international level. George’s almost supernatural sense of balance and his ability to see how plays would develop likely came from Annie.

The oldest of four children, George would play soccer every day with his friends on the pavement in front of their modest homes. The surface was too rough for a proper ball, so they made their own from wadded and bound-up rags. Every evening, the boys's fathers would trudge home from their jobs at the local shipyards, Dickie among them. They were hard, raw-boned men who wore the disappointments of life and the memories of the last war on their faces. Many of their sons—George’s mates—looked liked this, too.

George did not. He had a birdlike build, delicate features, and an undeniable twinkle in his flinty eyes. The other boys played soccer with their knees, elbows and bums. George played with incredible quickness and impossible balance. In time, he would learn how to dribble right up to a boy, make him commit to a tackle, and then break a move around him before he got a foot near the ball.

George was inspired to become a world-class player by the stars of the Northern Ireland team that advanced to the World Cup quarterfinals in 1958—including Billy Bingham and Peter McParland. They would one day serve as his pallbearers.

Against better, more formal competition, George’s skills stood out even more. His first organized team was the Cregagh Football Club in Belfast. With grass beneath his feet, room to maneuver and referees to whistle rough play, George used the field like a painter uses a canvas. He maneuvered around defenders as if they were fire hydrants—stopping, spinning, accelerating, and shooting with either foot. Playing against boys his age was literally a waste of time. No one in Belfast had seen anything like him.

George Best, 1981 Barratt
 

That was an opinion shared by scout Bob Bishop and Jimmy Murphy, an assistant coach for Manchester United, who discovered George when he was only 15. The wire sent to the club by Bishop is now legendary: “I think I have found a genius.”

George was invited to work out with the team for a couple of weeks in 1961. He arrived with another talented urchin, Eric McMordie. But after one night in Manchester he fled back to Belfast, homesick, scared and completely overwhelmed. George’s father was furious. Opportunities like this didn’t come often to the denizens of the city’s council houses, and his boy was not going to pass this one up. He phoned Man U’s coach, Matt Busby, and told him Georgie would soon return.

Understanding what the boy needed, Busby would function as a surrogate father. A woman named Mary Fullaway, who ran the boarding house at which unmarried Man U players were compelled to stay, would be his mom-away-from-home.

In Manchester, George worked odd jobs for the team and sharpened his skills in practice. He was signed to a contract in 1963 at 17, and four months later was promoted to the big club. He played his first game on left wing against West Bromwich Albion, the second-best team in the Football Association. Time and again he would get the ball and drive right at George Williams, a veteran defender. No matter what Williams tried, George was literally a step ahead of him and would fly right by. By the second half, the entire stadium would rise to its feet whenever George touched the ball, and roar as he worked his way downfield. Manchester won 1-0 and a legend was born.

George did not become a regular right away. That Christmas, thinking he would not be needed in a scheduled Boxing Day match, George went back to Belfast to be with his family. A call came from the club saying that he was needed for the game against Burnley. George agreed to play, on one condition—that the team fly him into Manchester and then back home again right after the match. When the team agreed, George realized he was regarded as something special. Had another teenager tried to strong-arm United, he might have found himself staying home for more than just the holidays. This was not the last time George would receive preferential treatment, nor the last time he demanded it. He took the field against Burnley, scored his first league goal in a 5-2 victory, and was in the starting lineup for good after that.

Over the next few seasons, George would make his impact felt in many ways, including bringing the dribble back to soccer. Not since the heydays of Stanley Matthews and Len Shackleton had a player exhibited such virtuosity. Later in the year, George played an international match for Northern Ireland, becoming just the third player under the age of 18—in the history of soccer—to compete on the world level.

In the process, George was on his way to becoming a new kind of soccer star. His good looks, sublime skills, and devotion to the good life came at a time when talented rule-breakers were starting to be glamorized in other forms of entertainment. The fact that the Beatles were soaring at the same time certainly helped George’s evolution. They were, in many ways, parallel phenomena.

The timing was good for George in other ways, too. He rose to prominence in an era when defenders in British soccer were allowed to do almost anything to stop an offensive player. George's ability to weave through them almost effortlessly made him a hero to fans around the country, not just in Manchester.

He was a piece of work. On those occasions when he thrown to the ground, he got right up and tried even harder to make the back-liners look bad. He would taunt them like a bullfighter, and when they were sufficiently enraged, he would nutmeg them—fake them into spreading their legs, then dribble the ball through and pick it up on the other side. Nothing is more embarrassing than having this done to you again and again, and George knew it.

He was no slouch on defense, either. Despite weighing a mere 150 pounds, George tackled larger opponents with abandon and absorbed constant abuse at the hands and legs of enemy defenders.

George was also joining the right team at the right time. During the 1957-58 season, Manchester’s world-class squad had been decimated by a plane crash in Munich. Busby had spent several years rebuilding the club, which won the FA Cup in 1963, beating Leicester 3-1 in the final at Wembley Stadium. Man U starred Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, a pair of highly skilled soccer heroes who had the level-headedness to balance George’s fiery brilliance.

George Best booklet

 

 

Though frustrated at times by the teenager’s thirst for scoring (there was a lot of No-No-No—Yes!), Charlton and Law received his wondrous passes often enough to stay happy, and the three developed a terrific working relationship. They played their first game together in January of 1964, against West Brom, winning 4-1 on a sloppy pitch. Each player scored in the game. George’s goal came after he outflanked the defense on the dribble, then threaded the needle on an odd-angle shot. It was a ridiculous attempt, but as he would do time and again, George found a way to put the ball in the net.

United finished second in the league in 1963-64, and fell short of defending their championship with a loss in the FA Cup semifinals. Later in the year, they made it to the quarters of the European Cup Winners Cup, a competition between the 1963 champions from the various European leagues. Manchester’s last visit to the continent had ended with the tragedy in Munich, so it was an emotional yet cathartic return.

In 1964-65, Manchester won the FA Cup again. By now, Nobby Stiles had joined George, Charlton and Law. George was a complete player at this point. He understood the English and European games well enough to adjust his style for each, relying on great balance and the ability to unleash shots with either foot. Though only 18, George had already risen to international prominence.

As Charlton would often observe, what separated George from other scorers was that whenever he shot, he made the goalkeeper make a great save. Once, he scored on a corner kick—a shot that requires a wicked spin and perfect placement. After the game, the press claimed the goal was fluke. So George went out and did it again. He was too good to be true, and already too famous for traditionalists to comprehend.

In 1965-66, the United offense got off to a slow start. George was actually benched for a couple of games to shake things up, but his return to the lineup was memorable. Playing HJK Helsinki in the European Cup, he scored twice in a 7-0 blowout. On one goal he snaked through half the Helsinki defense before unloading on the helpless goalkeeper.

Next up for Man U was Portuguese powerhouse Benfica. Their star, Eusebio, was presented with the European Footballer of the Year trophy before the match. United stunned Benfica in front of their home crowd, 5-1, with George scoring twice in the first 12 minutes. Busby had ordered his men to play it tight for the first half. “Obviously,” he told George at the half, “you weren’t listening.” Manchester lost in the semis to Partizan Belgrade. George hurt his knee during the game and was out for the rest of the season. He watched that summer as England won the World Cup.

In 1966-67, with George permanently stationed at right wing, Manchester won the FA Cup with a 6-1 trouncing of West Ham in the final. They advanced to the semis of the European Cup again in 1968 and this time they won, beating Real Madrid. The final against Benfica pitted George against the great Eusebio again. After Charlton opened the scoring, Eusebio netted the equalizer. The game was knotted 1-1 after 90 minutes, thanks to a pair of brilliant saves by Alex Stepney on Eusebio shots. In extra time, George scored on an astonishing solo effort to break the game open, and Manchester scored twice more before the final whistle blew for a 4-1 triumph. On his goal, George received the ball with his back to the defense, spun around his man, faked the keeper out of his shorts and neatly banged the ball home.

Bobby Moore & George Best,
1964 World Soccer
 

George was voted England’s—and Europe’s—Footballer of the Year for 1968. After the Benfica victory, he was spotted wearing a ridiculously oversized sombrero with his jet-black bangs hanging out from underneath. The press dubbed him “El Beatle,” and the nickname stuck. George’s fame by this time had spread all over the world. He received as many as 10,000 letters a week, and had fan clubs as far away as Moscow and Tokyo. A record entitled "Georgie, Georgie" soared to the top of the charts, and there wasn’t a store in England that didn’t sell something with his mug on it, including mugs.

Under the reign of King George, soccer in England ceased to be the sole property of the working class. Upper-crust types, artists and musicians, hippies, swingers—you name it—they could all be seen waiting in line for tickets when George was playing. Most noticeable in the stands were the screaming teenage girls, now more than happy to accompany their dads to the games. And housewives, too—the same women who grumbled about their husbands abandoning them on Saturdays. At Old Trafford, attendance increased by a whopping 15,000 fans a game after George became a star.

George also had a profound affect on the look of soccer. When he came into the game, players were expected to sport crew cuts and keep low profiles off the field. He changed all that within a couple of seasons. And by the time every FA player was sporting a mop top, George had moved on to the full-blown "Let It Be" look, complete with lion’s mane and beard.

Despite George’s great year in 1968, all was not well with United. His teammates were sometimes frustrated when he stubbornly tried to score instead of pass. There was also some jealousy on the part of bachelors on the club. They were made to room in the same boarding house, while George was allowed to purchase a home in the tweedy Blossoms Lane section of Manchester.

Some players were also beginning to resent his celebrity, which had grown to insane proportions. Women threw themselves at George wherever he went, and those he spurned either took him to court or did tell-all interviews in the British tabloids. He became an occasional flashpoint for the ongoing battle between Ireland’s Catholics and Protestants, receiving death threats for himself and his family. His sister was actually shot in the leg by a suspected IRA sympathizer.

In 1969, Busby announced his retirement from coaching. George obviously missed his fatherly leadership, and began acting out in games and skipping practices. When he swatted a ball out of a referee’s hands after a bad call, the team’s new coach, Wilf McGuiness, suspended him for a month.

At this point, George’s drinking binges, already well documented, were beginning to affect his performance. When he was chewed out by the club when he showed up for practice stinking of champagne, he responded by switching to vodka and was soon consuming up to a fifth a day. The dangers of alcohol were obviously lost on George, despite the fact that his mother essentially drank herself to death in the 1970s.

Manchester’s last hurrah came during the 1970 FA Cup. The team did not have the talent to win, but they made a spirited try. In an early-round match against Northampton, George unleashed his full offensive fury, scoring six times.

Despite playing outside right—essentially a set-up position, George was Manchester’s top goal-scorer six season in a row. During those years he netted 116 goals in 290 games. But as good as the 1960s were to George, the 1970s were bad. Very bad.

By 1971, Manchester had become a mere shadow of its former self. Its key players were injured, old or retired. Without a formidable supporting cast, George was targeted for rough tactics even more than in the past. He used to live for the thrill of playing soccer, and now he spent his time away from the pitch looking for that thrill elsewhere.

He found it primarily in gambling. George won $50,000 his first time at the tables, and spent the next several years trying to duplicate that initial run of luck. He would rack up enormous debts at the same time he was trying to run a nightclub and boutique, and soon his finances had become precarious. George was not paid a high salary by the famously cheap Man U brass, but he made a small fortune endorsing everything from men’s cologne to eggs. Unfortunately, he lost a small fortune, too.

In 1972, coach Tommy Docherty—tired of George missing practice—kicked him off the first team and made him practice with the juniors. Later George retired. Nine months later he returned, but it was only a matter of time before his relationship with the club would end. In January of 1974—in what should have been the prime of his career at age 28—George played his last game at Old Trafford.

George Best, 1968 Buchan's
 

Wincing through the pain of a creaky right knee, George attempted his first of numerous comebacks later in '74. He signed to play for Dunstable, a team made up of part-time players. The normal crowd for their games was around 200. When George played, more than 5,000 people showed up. In 1975, he signed with Stockport County, a fourth-division club that would be the equivalent of a single-A baseball team in America. Later, he played for an Irish club, Cork Celtic, and was let go after three games. Out of shape and 30 pounds overweight, he still had the talent and insincts to dominate, but had become a parody of himself to serious soccer fans in the British Isles.

After going two years without playing top-flight soccer, George decided it was time to straighten up and get back in the game. His name still meant something to soccer fans in the United States. The New York Cosmos offered him a lucrative long-term deal, but he turned it down. He was not interested in more than a one-season commitment.

Instead, he signed with the Los Angeles Aztecs of the North American Soccer League, the NASL champs in 1974. Owner John Chaffetz wasn’t sure what to expect. In fact, when George’s plane landed in L.A. in February of 1976, he was not even sure he would be on it.

But he was. George strode down the jetway wearing a t-shirt that said, “Who the Hell’s George?” A woman emerged from the crowd to greet him. Her t-shirt read, “George Does It Best.” At a press conference held at LAX, George was asked if he considered himself the second Joe Namath—the American athlete to whom he was most often compared. George replied that he was better than Namath—”in both sports.”

It took George a while to get back in shape. Even huffing and puffing, however, he was good enough to rank among the NASL scoring leaders. In the Aztecs first nine victories of 1976, George netted the game-winner in seven. His teammates relished the chance to play with a legend. At their first pregame meal together, the team ordered steaks and George had cornflakes. Before the next game, everyone had Cornflakes.

George’s success in L.A. convinced a couple of his pals from England—Charlie Cooke and Bobby McAlinden—to join the Aztecs. George even became something of a leader, begging off Team America during the Bicentennial Cup so he could spend more time working out with his new teammates.

George Best, 1977 Flik Cards
 

The Aztecs finished that first season 12-12, and George was among the NASL leaders with 15 goals. He played two more seasons for Los Angeles. During that time, he lived in a house one block from the water in Hermosa Beach, yet he claimed he never made it to the ocean. There was a bar on the way.

In 1979, George joined the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers for two seasons. He was injured most of the time, and finished his career in America with the San Jose Earthquakes in 1981. He scored 13 goals in 30 games, then returned to Europe, where he played a few games primarily as publicity stunts. George appeared inhis last professional game in 1983—two decades after taking the field for Manchester United. In a career that included incredible highs and shocking lows, perhaps the saddest thing was that George never got to play in the World Cup. He earned 37 caps for Northern Ireland, but the team never made it out of qualifying.

As a person, George was an unmitigated disaster—and the worst was yet to come. As a player, however, he was roundly hailed as the greatest performer in English soccer, and perhaps even the best in the world. Ever. Pele, who was commonly conceded this honor, was quick to say that George was better.

As everyone knew, George was deadly with either foot. Pele was a marksman with just his right. The Charlton-Law-Best combo was also regarded as the best threesome ever to combine forces on the same club.

By 1984, George was adrift. He was arrested for drunk driving and assaulting a police officer. A few years later, he appeared on a popular talk show semicoherent and clearly drunk. His life and reputation were slipping away, though never to the point where the soccer world turned its back on him. In the 1990s, he worked for Sky Sports and did some writing for newspapers. He made a decent living off appearance fees and was invited to every major soccer function in the British Isles.

Unfortunately, all those friends and functions meant a lot of opportunities to booze it up. By 2002, George’s liver had deteriorated to the point where he needed a transplant. The operation was nearly a catastrophe—he almost died from blood loss on the operating table, consuming 40 pints in 10 hours. Afterward, he joked that he had “beaten my old record by 20 minutes."

George Best, 1986 Fax Pax
 

The new liver got George back on his feet, but his disease eventually got the better of him. He started drinking again, and the end came quickly. George, Britain’s most famous alcoholic, passed away at the age of 59 on November 25, 2005—a day after the government passed a law allowing bars to stay open 24 hours. Denis Law, his old Man U pal, was at his side. George’s body was laid to rest in Belfast, with tens of thousands of fans and mourners attending the service. More than a half-million people lined the streets as his funeral procession drove by.

George Best’s final numbers—704 professional games, 252 professional goals—barely hint at the level of his genius, much less his profound impact on the game. He was a great instigator, an amazing finisher and an artist on the ball. He was a complete disaster off the field, and yet a total revelation, too.

George began as a rock star competing against coal miners. When he left the game, it seemed that every soccer player had a little bit of George in him. Indeed, when today’s top stars look at their bank accounts, they should say a quiet thank you to Georgie the Belfast Boy.


George Best, 1990 Panini
 

 
 

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