Under the Neem Tree

Who Was The Best Footballer Ever?

Who Was The Best Footballer Ever?
  • PublishedFebruary 1, 2006

“Pele called me the greatest footballer in the world. That is the ultimate salute to my life… If you had given me a choice between beating four defenders and smashing in a goal from 30 yards, or going to bed with Miss World, it would have been difficult. Luckily, I had both” – George Best at his best.

If you are not a lover of football, then I am afraid you’re going to have to migrate to another planet in the next six months. For the World Cup “season” has already kicked off, though the tournament proper won’t be coming along till June 2006. George Best, the former Manchester United and Northern Ireland star, was the one who started it all by taking it upon himself to die on 25 November 2005. His sad death, at the early age of 59, immediately kicked in an interminable argument amongst football lovers. Was Best the best footballer ever? If not, who is or was, the “best footballer” of all time?

On the Saturday following the Friday (25 November) on which  Best died, I went to my usual barber-shop to have a haircut. My barber is a young Caribbean and his barber-shop is always congregated with young chaps who never stop arguing. On this day, they were really excited, for the argument was about whether George Best was “the best” footballer that ever lived. I thought this was amazing – after all George Best played his best football in the decade between 1964 and 1974, during which time NOT A SINGLE ONE of the young lads arguing about him had yet been born! They had only seen TV clips of him in action, yet they were prepared to argue about him in as animated a manner as if they were talking about the great Caribbean cricketer, Brian Lara.

The comparison is apt, for Lara holds the world record for the greatest number of runs scored in Test Matches (11,187); the highest score by an individual player during a Test Match (400 Not Out); and also, the highest number of runs scored in a First Class Cricket Match (501). I guess the reason why they would be more excited about Best than Lara is that football is a more popular game, which is played in every country in the world, and in which it is far easier to identify with the best players than in cricket.

Anyway, as the argument raged on passionately, I kept marvelling at my newly-discovered fact that Caribbean lads could be as maniacal about football as Ghanaians – something that shouldn’t have surprised me, however, as tiny Trinidad and Tobago had qualified for the World Cup in Germany this summer.

Anyway, one of the Caribbean chaps said: “You talking about Pele? You ever hear that Pele score six goals in one match? George Best done that.” What the guy was saying was true. It happened in February 1970. George Best scored six times – a double “hat-trick” – in a match in which Manchester United beat Northampton 8-2 in the FA Cup. The British prime minister at the time, Harold Wilson, was so gob-smacked that he invited Best to No.10 Downing Street for tea.

Another chap disagreed: “Look, Maradona take the entire midfield of England and Italy apart and score. He’s better than Best.” “Ah,” came the retort, “you forget that George Best never play in the World Cup. He was from Northern Ireland and they never qualify for the World Cup. If Best been on that stage, you will see something. If your team no good, you can’t do much – no one ever win a match by himself.”

Another one asked: “You think Maradona can last in Best’s days, when referee no show yellow card, no red card, and players butcher you when you dribble them bad? Dem days, no foul for cutting down; no send-off for extra bad foul.”

All true. George Best was tiny in physique – just over five feet tall, and his weight was nothing to write home about. Yet he survived the attacks of the strongest defenders he met. One of them said: “Football was different then. In those days, if a forward had the ball at his feet, you just kicked through both of them and there was no foul. Defenders kicked the s*** out of George. In football, in life in general, people don’t like being made fools of, and George paid a severe price, physically, for his talent.”

Another defender described this encounter with Best: “I started the game at right-back and Bestie began on the left wing. He tore me apart. Inside, outside; I couldn’t even catch him to kick him.”  This is why one writer said of Best: “Opponents were there, it seemed, not to stop him but to showcase his art. Pat Crerand, a former colleague, used to claim that one of Best’s markers was taken off, suffering from ‘twisted blood’.”

Hugh McIlvaney, one of Britain’s most famous sports writers, described  Best in The Sunday Times (London): “On the field, he was the incarnation of the game’s most romantic possibilities. He appeared to regard gravity as an impertinent con trick unworthy of being taken seriously, gracefully riding tackles that looked capable of derailing a locomotive.”

I was never privileged to see George Best play in the flesh, but I too have watched the TV clips and I think those who compare him with Pele, Maradona, Di Stefano (Real Madrid), Johannes Cruyff (Ajax Amsterdam) and others, are missing the point. Comparing George Best to them is like comparing apples to oranges. Best may not have scored as many goals as either Pele or Maradona, nor did he, presumably, dominate matches in the way that Johannes Cruyff or Di Stefano could. And he could be “selfish” – hanging on to the ball for too long at times, without passing it to other players who might have had a better chance to score with it.

What was peculiar about Best was that he brought an impish quality to the art of playing football that was completely unique to himself. You couldn’t believe your eyes when you saw some of the things he did on the field. The only modern player who has that knack is Ronaldhino of Barcelona. But Ronaldhino exercises his talent with an amount of discipline, whereas Best allowed himself free rein to follow wherever his imagination led him. That’s what Hugh McIlvaney meant when he talked of “romantic possibilities” in relation to Best’s play.

You see, Best was a complete show-off, but a show-off of the best kind; the kind that actually has something worthwhile to show to the world. He would not simply dribble past an opponent in the most stylish manner imaginable, and then pass the ball to someone else – as a “normal”, very gifted player might do. No; he would then find a way to dribble past a second player; then do the same to a third; and when everyone was saying, “but this is impossible?”, he would dribble past a fourth player. And having done all that, he would just shut you up by weaving the ball past  the goalkeeper as well, and then tapping the ball into the net: GOAL!

The sheer magic of all this brought tremendous enjoyment to all who saw Best. It was the sort of display that animated the stands and brought a triumphal  yell of ‘GOAAAALLL!’ into the throats of even the supporters of the team that had the misfortune of playing against Best’s side. What everyone who saw his antics asked was: “But how did he conceive that?”. Even as you asked yourself that, he would have gone on to brew another incredible concoction out of his pot of football wizardry. When George Best was on the field, there couldn’t be a dull moment. You prayed for him to get the ball, and whenever he did, tension rose high over the stadium.

I have seen the same thing happen with players like Osei Kofi, Baba Yara and Edward Acquah, all of the Ghana Black Stars of those halcyon days. You expected miracles to rise from their feet when they got the ball. And miracles did rise from their feet every now and then. With Best, it wasn’t every now and then. It was every time the ball landed at his feet.

Osei Kofi is the only Ghanaian player whose approach to football, in my estimation, came close to George Best’s rascally style. I once saw Osei dribble past two or three players, approach the goal, and then turn away from the goal at the last moment, shooting the ball into the goal backwards. I am sure that if he had looked at the goal before he shot the ball, he would have scored. But because he turned his back, the goalkeeper was able to catch it. The spectators sighed in disappointment, for if that ball had entered the net, it would probably have been the cheekiest goal ever scored on earth. Unfortunately for Osei, it did not enter the net. And he probably was criticised for allowing a good goal-scoring opportunity to slip by, through sheer puckishness.

But it didn’t matter: the attempt alone was worth it. I mean, I still remember it, some 40 or so years later. Whereas I can’t say I really remember, in such a vivid manner, any single one of the actual goals that Osei Kofi scored.

Poor George Best was “loved” to death, if one can say that. Girls, girls, girls. And booze, booze, booze. It was a fatal combination. It sapped his energy, destroyed his liver and bankrupted him. I met him, shortly after he had recovered from the liver transplant operation he had had, at a reception in the British House of Commons. I found him to be a very friendly chap in real life.

I asked him what he thought of the African footballers who were transforming the British game. He said: “They’re wonderful, just wonderful. Sometimes I can’t believe some of the things I see them do on the field!” Now, that, coming from Best, was a great compliment indeed to our boys. 

We shouldn’t mourn Best too much, for this is how he summed up his own life: “Pele called me the greatest footballer in the world. That is the ultimate salute to my life… If I had been born ugly, you’d never have heard of Pele… If you had given me a choice between beating four defenders and smashing in a goal from 30 yards, or going to bed with Miss World, it would have been difficult. Luckily, I had both. It’s just that you do one of those things in front of 50,000 people.”

Written By
Cameron Duodu

Cameron Duodu (born 24 May 1937) is a UK-based Ghanaian novelist, journalist, editor and broadcaster. After publishing a notable novel, The Gab Boys, in 1967, Duodu went on to a distinguished career as a journalist and editorialist.

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