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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Best, 1981 Barratt
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.”
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Moore & George Best,
1964 World Soccer
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Best, 1968 Buchan's
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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