Saturday, December 09, 2006

A footballer anecdote (or three, or four)

I thought I'd pick up from yesterday's courtroom stories by recording my favourite tale about George Best.

Best was a magical football player - he could dribble, cross, tackle, score goals, was impishly inventive; and he exhibited an arrogant swagger in confronting defenders, his close control being so perfect that he would often simply defy his opponents to try to take the ball off him.

Sadly, his national side, Northern Ireland, was too weak ever to give him the opportunity to show off these skills in a major international competition. He was signed by Manchester United as a teenager, and almost immediately had a sensational impact. 5 years later, when still only 21, he almost singlehandedly won the European Cup Final for them (a feat the club was not able to repeat for 31 years). In his native Belfast, they like to say, "Maradona good; Pelé better; Georgie best."

Alas, his career soon went downhill. His brooding good looks and sly charm made him one of the first 'pop stars' of the football world, and he became an incorrigible ladies' man - and also a hopeless alcoholic, a problem which blighted the second half of his football career, and the whole of the rest of his life, finally causing his death - at not yet 60 - earlier this year.

The best of many stories about his wild days:

In the early '70s, when Best's football career was already in decline, he was asked to be one of the judges at the finals of the 'Miss World' beauty contest. Naturally, he got off with the winner. The next morning, room service was summoned to his luxury hotel suite to bring yet more champagne and caviar. A tired-but-happy George opened the door, wearing only a bashful grin and a bath towel around his waist. Looking over Best's shoulder into the room, the waiter saw a tableau of debauchery: designer clothes torn off and dropped on the floor, wads of cash (from a brief but evidently very lucky visit to a casino) strewn around, a small army of empty bottles.... and a gorgeous blonde sprawled naked on the bed.

The waiter, a devout football fan, could not contain himself. Shaking his head sadly, he said, "Oh, George, George, George - where did it all go wrong?"

Best always seemed quite unrepentant about his self-destructive lifestyle. One of his most famous lines (from a TV chat show appearance, I think) was:
"I think I must have spent a good half of all the money I ever earned on women and drink. The rest I just wasted."

And while on the football theme, I've always loved this story about an archetypally bluff and pragmatic English football manager.

The star striker is sparked out cold by a clash of heads. The trainer runs on to administer the smelling salts, and the big lad comes around, but is very woozy. The trainer reports back: "It's no good, boss. He's got no idea who he is."

"Marvellous!" retorts the gruff manager. "Just tell him he's fucking Pelé and get him back out there."

Surely an apocryphal tale? And yet, and yet.... I can imagine it being true. I wonder if it ever has been attributed to a particular manager. I can well believe it of Jim Smith or Joe Royle, or maybe the notorious Ron Atkinson.

Ah, and that reminds me - one final football-related line. In recent years, Joe Royle has become one of the UK's most distinctive and insightful match commentators on TV. Describing Poland's burly pair of central defenders (painfully slow on the turn, and regularly being slaughtered for pace) in a game in the European Championships a few years ago, he came out with the brilliant phrase:
"They do look a bit like the Terracotta Army at times, don't they?"


Anonymous said...

Going through your archives. Hoping you see a new comment posted way back here.

I have been watching all the episodes of Pitch Internationals "The Greatest" series. As a yank, I have not had the opportunity to watch a lot of the players for the majority of their careers as we simply didn't get overseas football broadcasts until Fox Soccer Channel came along, so I am being really introduced to a lot of great player like Best.

I am going under the assumption that they have put together a solid highlight reel covering each player's body of work. In watching the series, so far, I have been the most impressed by George Best. Just brilliant.

Without the ball he trots around like an uncoordinated and knobby kneed scrub. With the ball he seems like some kind of crazy incarnation of Kazparov, Picasso, and Houdini. Always seems to be one step ahead and finishing with a master stroke that makes the Keeper wonder what the hell just happened.

Froog said...

Ah, there's a lot of great Georgie moments on YouTube.

I think my absolute favourite is where he worked out the timing of Gordon Banks's punt, and stole the ball off the famous keeper during that fraction of a second where it was dropping from his hands to his boot. The referee, over-protective of the goalkeeper, bizarrely ruled it "dangerous play" and disallowed the ensuing goal.

Late in his career, he played a bit in America (LA, maybe?). There's a very famous clip of him scoring a great individual goal, where, just inside the penalty area, he seems to take several seconds twisting first one way, then another, before he finally finds an angle to shoot at goal. The defending side are like bunnies caught in the headlights, utterly mesmerised, incapable of putting in a challenge; the commentator is almost equally non-plussed: "Look how many defenders are around him!" It was five, I think.