Few men in games ever express the temper and rhythm of their times to the point of becoming the embodiment of a social climate. It is not only a matter of authentic genius; there is also the pure accident, a collision between a man and his age, and today only three men would seem to qualify as more than statuary passed in our race to crush boredom: El Cordob�s, the bold vagabond from Andalusia who spoke in the bullring for an unshackled Spain; Muhammad Ali, whose courage spoke for sanity; and finally George Best, who is.
Just who George Best is accounts for volumes of opinion and thesis, agreeing only that he is the most gifted soccer player in Great Britain, that he has tippled his way through half of England's import of Russian vodka, that he has a Faroukian collection of girls, that he is—God willing—an outside wager to reach the age of 30. He is one of the few figures, perhaps the last, of mythological dimension in the history of English soccer. A man of only 25 whose appeal is so vast, so hypnotic he is daily matter for talk from Parliament to Soho, a source of vicarious pleasure and pique for millions. "Why, why do we make so much fuss over him?" muses an English critic, fearful that George Best dwarfs the game itself and dims its sanctity.
" George Best is an endless job," says his agent Ken Stanley. "We've a full-time staff of six people working continually on Georgie." The work includes handling roughly 2,000 letters a week from every part of the world and the control of maybe one of the largest fan worships ever founded. "A lot of people don't like the fan club," says Stanley, "but it makes sense. If George gave everyone what they want, his mailing costs would run to �10,000. The club helps cut the costs. And we have never asked anyone to join, people begged us to form it—15,000 of them." By the time he is 30, says Stanley, George Best will be worth a fortune, so extraordinary is the power of his name, attached to everything from eggs to men's shorts.
Going by train to Manchester, the besooted, deadly austere city north of London where Best reigns like a prodigal prince, one tries to put him in some perspective from the convenient valley of ignorance. Less dramatic than Ali, closer to El Cordob�s, Best seems at first to be simply another totem in the current cult of image that can hardly bear much more traffic—another of those who are sold like the latest aberration in fashion, surface rebels who are trendily precocious and craftily practical, all of those free-form souls who have now become as prosaic as the crew cuts who adorned the Eisenhower era, the backlash of which may have visited upon us this even more boring species.
But George Best is a soccer player. Sung about in music halls, fought over in pubs, the game has always been the primary release for the working class. The cloth-cap tides eventually swept it to the top of English sport and forged themselves, for one brief moment each week, into a new community. "All brothers together," wrote J. B. Priestley, "for...not only had you escaped from the clanking machinery of this lesser life, from work, wages, rent, doles, sick pay, insurance cards, nagging wives, ailing children, bad bosses...but you had escaped with most of your mates and your neighbors, with half the town, and there you were, cheering together...swopping judgments like lords of the earth, having pushed your way through a turnstile into another and altogether more splendid kind of life...."
For decades soccer clubs harvested the fanaticism and religiosity of the men from the mills and factories, and fed on the abundant talent that came from them. Niggardly to their players, rigid in their demand for absolute servitude, the clubs thrived and stood contemptuous and aghast at periodic suggestions that they adopt a more liberal spirit. "I used to look at those crowds," recalls Jimmy Logie, a star in the 1950s, "and think I was the only star who earned less than the people watching me."
Peonage ended early in the '60s, but it was not until Best came from Ireland, out of a council house in Belfast, that a new era became personalized.
To calibrate the rise of George Best, his impact on a generation, go back to what was commonly known in 1965 as Swinging London. Harold Wilson was talking about a classless New Britain. The Kings Road in Chelsea, with its lovely girls from every corner of the earth, its m�lange of Cockney burglars and escapist aristocrats, its air heavy with the scent of a New Day, was the first center of what would later be called social revolution. Even the old gray Tatler sensed the surrounding decomposition, and its owners reorganized in an attempt at a journal that might appeal to England's "new aristocracy." But the grubby absolute of soccer remained as so much else was slipping past, though nobody on the Kings Road—the sybaritic, the searchers for any old high—talked of a game so rooted in another time.
Then came George Best. For the first time, in a nation just as team conscious as America, a single presence seemed to dominate the stage; from the appearance of the players to the style of the game itself, things would never be the same again. Even though now he seems one of many, it is sheer nonsense to group Best with his imitators. He was an original, he was to soccer what the Beatles were to music out of Liverpool, what Carnaby Street was to fashion. He not only brought a new genius to the game, he transformed it into entertainment, a word some officials still cannot abide.
But George Best did not create himself, did not sit down one day at Old Trafford and say, "I think I will be different." It was the mood of the people that made him, and he moved upon it like a bottle on the sea, sometimes smoothly, often turbulently. Expressing that mood more and more with each new day of his young life, he became, and is, the epitome of the hero, meaning that he is what we are not, that he is unlike anything or anyone who trudges through our environment. It is a time of romantic longing, and few have satisfied it more than George Best. He is now the ultimate hero of the working class, which gorges itself on pieces of him every Saturday afternoon, and a flesh and blood fantasy to English soccer's growing new audience, the young and the beautiful and the hip who cannot distinguish between reality and role, to whom everything is a scene out of a movie ("like a scene out of
, damn it...you know, with a fan on the ceiling in this Moroccan bar").