George Best is undoubtedly the finest soccer player ever, and probably one of the five finest footballers ever. Best was discovered by famed Belfast scout Bob Bishop who told Manchester United manager Matt Busby “I have found a genius.” He was not exaggerating. Best made his debut as a 17-year-old for United on 14 September 1963. For the next ten years, he lit up the football landscape, before alcohol took its toll.
Best was the first soccer superstar. In 1965, he demolished Portuguese giants Benfica almost single-handedly in what was then the European Cup, after which he was dubbed “El Beatle” by the Portuguese press. Best won league championship medals with United in 1965 and 1967. In 1968 he won the European Cup with United, and was named the European Footballer of the Year and Football Writers’ Association Player of the Year.
Then it started to go downhill. The young man who was shy by nature started drinking heavily, missing training sessions and games. The pressure to perform in what was becoming a very poor United team added to his problems. He walked out on United in 1972, returned and then finally quit the club in 1974. The ghost of a wonderful footballer played itinerantly for 11 clubs in South Africa, Ireland (Cork Celtic), Scotland and USA for a period, but he could never beat his drink demons which saw him in 1984 serve a three-month prison sentence for drunk driving, assaulting a police officer and failing to answer bail.
One of Best’s goals for the San Jose Earthquakes in 1981 shows just what Best was capable of even at 36.
Best lived the pop star life to the full. In one of his most famous anecdotes, he tells of a waiter delivering champagne to Best’s hotel room where thousands of pounds of casino winnings and Miss World lay on the bed. The waiter asked: “Mr. Best, where did it all go wrong?”
Best told self-deprecating stories about himself to the day he died 25 November 2005. “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered.”
He was a beautiful man who didn’t know how to handle fame. Jeff Powell of The Mail on Sunday summed the Belfast Boy up best.
“History will rank him among the three best footballers. But the real debate is not the one about whether he, Pele or Maradona is the greatest. George was simply the most beautiful footballer of all, in every sense. The most impossibly handsome, the most poetic in motion, the most romantic lover of the ball.”