Welcome to the eighth in the "A Tribute To..." series. Today's tribute is to the man who was the first to cross from mere footballer to huge celebrity: George Best.
Best boasted the ideal image for the swinging 60s—young, handsome and talented. He was the first "pop-star" of football, and made as many headlines off the pitch as he did on it.
Born on May 22, 1946, Best was raised in Northern Ireland, and joined his first youth club at 14 years old. A year later he was spotted by a Manchester United scout, who said to then manager Matt Busby "I think I've found you a genius."
Best joined Manchester United's youth team that year, and soon started to impress. At this time, United were trying to re-build after the Munich Air Disaster, and Best was coming through the ranks.
In 1963, at 17 years of age, George Best found himself playing alongside the likes of Bobby Charlton as he made his debut for United, against West Bromwich Albion. It took just two weeks for the young Best to make a goalscoring impact, when he netted against Burnley.
16 more games followed for him that season, along with five more goals. Best had arrived, and his manager and fellow players could already he that he was something special.
His displays had also alerted Northern Ireland, and he was soon called up for international duty. It didn't take long for him to establish himself as an important first-team player.
He took this talent into his second season at Old Trafford, becoming a virtual shoe-in at just 18 years old. He played in 41 of United's 42 League games that season, his deceptive dribbling, lightning pace, and sharp-eye for a goal enabling him to score ten that season, and help Manchester United to the League Championship.
It was not only the first trophy George Best had won as a professional footballer, but the first Manchester United had won since the tragic demise of the Busby Babes.
Best was beginning to get noticed, not just in England and Northern Ireland, but throughout Europe. Impressive displays in the Cup Winners' Cup in his first season at United had already alerted some clubs to his talent, most famously Sporting Lisbon.
However, in 1966, Best was to return to Portugal, this time in the European Cup, as this time United faced Benfica. Here, United came up against one of the best strikers in the world—the great Eusebio.
At 20 years old, Best outshone Eusebio. In fact, Best outshone everyone else on the pitch. His mazy runs and hypnotic dribbles which the English public had been used to dazzled the Portuguese, and his two early goals led helped United to a 5-1 win.
They went on to lose in the semi-finals, somehow, to Partizan Belgrade, but Best had left his mark on Europe. The Portuguese press dubbed him "El Beatle" or "O Quinto Beatle" (the fifth Beatle), for his pop-star looks that wouldn't have looked out of place among Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr of the Beatles.
By now he was a superstar, and was almost single-handedly carrying a mediocre Northern Ireland team. Despite his individual genius, one man doesn't make a team, and Northern Ireland failed to make the 1966 World Cup.
However, lack of success at international level was more than made up for at domestic level, as in the 1966/67 season, Best helped United to another league title. He was improving every year, and was now one of the most feared players in the world.
On his best form he was unmarkable and unstoppable. Some say that, when he was on top of his game, he was the best in the world. Considering he played in a time with the likes of Pele, Eusebio, Sir Bobby Charlton, and Bobby Moore, among others, this is a very high accolade.
However, it was the 1967/68 season where Best really hit his peak. United had the chance to get the trophy they most wanted—The European Cup. They had reached the final against Benfica at Wembley.
Best was awesome again. He went past players with ease, and scored one of United's four goals. Benfica only hit one in reply. Manchester United were European Champions. George Best was the star. He later went on to win the European Footballer of the Year award, the FWA Footballer of the Year award, and the First Division's Top Scorer award.
His career was at its zenith. Unfortunately, the only way from there is down. United's successful team started breaking up. Best himself started suffering from problems off the field.
He had opened two nightclubs, and soon the partying, gambling, alcoholism and womanising of his celebrity life-style was being exposed, and was catching up with him. He continued putting in good displays for the next few years, but not the type of displays people had come to expect from him.
In 1974, after eleven years, 466 appearances, and 178 goals, George Best and Manchester United parted company. Over the next ten years, Best played for eleven different clubs, ranging from Fulham, where he thoroughly enjoyed his time, to Tobermore United.
At 37, Best formally retired from football. His overall career stats stand at 204 goals in 579 appearances. He also won 37 caps for Northern Ireland and scored nine goals.
From then on, his life deteriorated. Multiple drink-driving offences and an assault on a police-officer put him behind bars for three months, and his consistent drinking was doing himself serious harm.
On the 25th November, 2005, George Best died due to liver problems. The whole world mourned the death of a superstar and one of the best players to have lived. As they still say in Northern Ireland, Manchester, and various other places around the world—Maradona good. Pele better. George Best.
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