Well schooled in the art of self-publicity, Best understands and tolerates the promotional hype. ("I score goals and do tricks for people," he once said.) This season, however, showmanship is secondary. "I realized I had only three or four good seasons left," he says. "To get through those seasons, I couldn't live like I had been living the past few years." When Best checked in with the Aztecs he was some 30 pounds overweight. Goalie Bill Mishalow puts it bluntly: "George was a pudge." Fisher adds, "We knew he was unfit. We talked about weight, measured his fat and worked out a program. Then it was up to him."
Today Best, who is 5'8", is down to 150 pounds, his playing weight at 21. "It was terrible at first," he says. "I could barely keep up with the others." He now jogs two to three miles on the beach daily and supplements his training with tennis. "I have this picture taken of me about two years ago," he says. "I really should get that thing blown up so I could look at it every day. The way I looked then and the way I look now are so different. If I had kept on that path, well, I just don't know where I would have ended up."
The lodgings Best chose over the Beverly Hills pad is a sunny three-bedroom house in Hermosa Beach, which he shares with McAlinden and a constantly changing stream of friends from England. Waves wash the shore just a block away, and an inconspicuous Chevy Malibu is parked in the garage downstairs; gone are the six Jaguars, the Ferrari, the white Rolls. "I think I'm happier about myself. I've gotten my head together," Best says.
According to Best, it was boredom that created the frenetic libertine. "The game that I loved playing had gone a bit sour. The team that had been so good was running on its past reputation and wasn't bringing in any new players. I was bored and upset with the whole situation."
The future is hazy. Although Best views himself as a gypsy—"a bit of the nomad"—he misses seeing his younger sisters and little brother grow up. In August he hopes to move his' family out of strife-torn Belfast, but hasn't decided whether the U.S. or England will be the destination. Not always overjoyed with the Aztecs, he is still optimistic about the future of soccer in America, insisting that soccer here is far more than a happy hunting ground for semi-retired players.
"It used to be that anybody from England could get on a U.S. team," he says. "That's not so anymore. In 10 years at the very most, America will be in competition for the World Cup. If the Russians win the Cup, it will be the best thing for U.S. soccer. And the American style of play will be identical to the European, because so many of the players on the teams are European. Our biggest differences are primarily limited to terminology and have little to do with playing style."
Soccer has never been a job for Best, and staying away from the game these last two years hurt him. "I really came to prove I have all of my old skills," he finishes softly.