Sunday, July 30, 2006

FIFA World Ranking : George Best

This morning when I woke the first thought that flickered through my mind was – how is George Best? I thought he’d died during the night, but there is nothing on the news confirming this, so all must be well with the world. But regrettably, not for long.

I had the great pleasure of seeing George in the flesh over a hundred times, and many of those matches remain clear in the memory. He was the kind of player you couldn’t keep your eyes off for long, for if you did, you might miss his latest piece of magic, kind of Rooney with many more goals.

There are so many stories of George, most of them you will have heard before, but I like the one of when he was a young lad and he first arrived at Old Trafford as a very skinny kid. He took the ball up to Harry Gregg, coolly dribbled round him and tapped the ball into an empty net. "Come here you little *******! How dare you do that to me," snarled Gregg, a senior pro from the old school who hated to concede goals, even in training.

George promptly did the same thing, three times more, and Gregg knew they’d discovered a star.

I suppose one of his most famous games was the match in Lisbon against Benfica in 1966. United had won the home leg 3-2 and were widely expected to go out in the return. (United having to win or Draw in Lisbon to stay in the competition, familiar eh?) Benfica were a much bigger club then than now, recently European Champions. But Best was unplayable that night, scoring two fine goals and United won 5-1 in that famous stadium. Even the locals applauded his brilliance and christened him "El Beatle", shades of Ronaldinho at the Bernabeau last weekend, or Thierry Henry at Portsmouth a couple of seasons ago. When the home fans applaud, you just know you’ve witnessed something special.

But my favourite match was for Northern Ireland in Belfast. The one against a very good Scottish team in 1967, and he didn’t even score, but I have never witnessed a game where a single player dominated the whole of a game from beginning to end, as George did that day, not until Maradona came along anyway.

If ever there was a game of one player against eleven it was that day. George demanded the ball, and the lads in green gave it to him at every opportunity, because they knew he was simply unplayable. If you ever have a chance to see a video of that match, watch it, and you will see what I mean.

So where does Besty stand in the all time rankings? Right up there of course, for me, admittedly I’m bias, he is head and shoulders above anyone else who ever came from these islands, certainly a better player in my humble opinion than Cruyff, which leaves those famous two old rivals, Pele and Maradona, both truly brilliant, but George was right up there with them, he was that good. The great Pele when addressed as the world’s greatest player said, “no, the greatest player is George Best.”

When he was at his very best he was unstoppable, and when he was like that, Bobby Charlton and Dennis Law (European footballers of the year both) would simply give him the ball, stand back and admire, and let him get on with it. He packed the grounds wherever he went, he played the game with an outrageous smile on his face. He inspired kids the length and breadth of the land, in playgrounds and on scruffy fields everywhere, he inspired them to try something special, something different, because they had seen Georgie do it on the telly.

The Liverpool Daily Post, a one eyed newspaper if ever there was one, as I suppose local newspapers are meant to be, once ran a huge headline which read: EVERTON FALL TO THE GENIUS OF BEST. I took the Daily Post for thirty years, and I can never remember them ever writing about an opposition player in such glowing terms, before or since. George had the habit of winning over the most hard-hearted of opponents.

Yet he was a man of many weaknesses, hands up those of us who don’t have any of those, yet the people who knew him best, spoke of him as a generous and caring man, and I believe that to be true. On the football field he had no weaknesses. None whatsoever, he could shoot with either foot, he was a good header of the ball, a great tackler, an unsurpassed dribbler, (a rare talent today), he was quick, and don’t forget he played in an age of ferocious tacklers, where the tackle from behind was legal and sendings off a rarity, and he gave as good as he received, but most of all, he had the ability to produce the unexpected, the true sign that marks out the great ones.

And now he is gone, and I for one will miss him greatly. But all those memories will live with us forever, and for those George, I thank you. George Best died peacefully in hospital in London with his family around him.

George Best

22nd May 1946 – 25th November 2005.

Rest in peace.

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