The players zigzag over the sunburned square of grass that carpets the soccer field of El Camino College in Torrance, Calif., calling to each other in a variety of languages as they boot passes downfield toward the goal. Then, abruptly, the flow stops. A small black-haired figure captures the ball. Spinning deftly, he begins weaving through the defense like a magician—sprinting, juking, triple-faking his way back toward the opposite goal. He pauses up close and twirls the ball underfoot, taunting his opponents. Then his leg lashes out. The ball, with an unexpected upturn, glances off a defender's chest and deflects into the net past the bewildered goalkeeper whose body is blocking the area where the ball was supposed to have gone.
The virtuoso is George Best, the onetime bad boy of English football, now 30 and playing right wing for the Los Angeles Aztecs. Once rated one of the top five soccer players in the world, Best was both England's Player of the Year and European Player of the Year in 1968. When he was with Manchester United, the team won the prestigious European Cup, the English Football Association Cup and twice won the English First Division Championship. In his prime, Best was the most feared player in all of Europe, and his talents—both on and off the field—were legendary.
But that was long ago, and when George Best arrived in California in February, most of the glory was gone. He had been out of big-time soccer for two years. His personal life had become a tangle of litigation and unpleasant headlines. There was just enough of the magic name left for the Aztecs and the North American Soccer League to pay him well and give him another shot. John Chaffetz, the Aztecs' managing general partner and the man responsible for recruiting Best, was candid about what he had in mind when he signed him. "Soccer fans know George from what he does on the field," he said. "The rest of the people know about him because of what he does off the field. Those are the people we want to attract."
Born in Belfast, Northern Ireland, of Protestant parents, Best played his first professional game as a knobby-kneed 17-year-old, taking the field in 1963 as an outside right for Manchester United. He became a starter immediately and by 1968 had reached a level of brilliance that made him a superstar. His ability to kick the ball with either foot, fire curveball scores around goalkeepers, make precision passes off the top of his head and dribble uncannily through the defense—plus an intuitive understanding of what ought to happen next on the field—brought fresh imagination and flair to the game.
July 18, 1976
It was the right time for Best. The same year he made his debut, the Beatles had become successful. Best's sheepdog coiffure and iconoclastic behavior earned him the label "The Fifth Beatle." His fame skyrocketed. The George Best Fan Club was established with branches as far away as Moscow and Tokyo. He was beleaguered by teen angels, and letters from pubescent and not-so-pubescent "birds" ran to 10,000 a week. The BBC did a documentary, The World of George Best, a ghosted autobiography appeared titled The Best of Both Worlds and the Communist Morning Star called him a working-class hero. Best owned men's boutiques and nightclubs and endorsed everything from cosmetics to eggs for the Egg Marketing Board. His dimpled smile stared out from posters, tea mugs and packets of chewing gum. Georgie, Georgie, the Belfast Boy was a hit record.
At a time when soccer players were supposed to be clean-cut, chivalrous, modest, sober, early-to-bed-and-early-to-rise, George Best, with his taste for booze and eye for the birds, was a press agent's dream. Gossip columns and sports pages recorded his every move. He was rich and handsome and a bachelor and he played the Don Juan role to excess, getting involved in an endless series of romances with celebrated, and sometimes not so celebrated (but always stunning-looking) women.
In time, however, Best's cavortings became less amusing. He was sued for slugging a 22-year-old woman and breaking her nose in a Manchester nightclub and had to pay her ¬£100 in damages and costs.
Buoyed by beginner's luck (in his first serious fling he took home $52,000), Best also began gambling. "I thought it was the life—staying up all night and gambling until five in the morning," he said later when he was deep in debt. "I thought I'd never have to work again. That is, until I found out that you don't always win." He also found he couldn't sleep unless he had "more than a little to drink." Soon Best was downing a quart of vodka a day. "He was the only footballer who was 70 proof," a biographer reported.
He also began missing practices and, occasionally, entire games. His soccer-playing ability declined and his behavior deteriorated even more. He was suspended for knocking the ball out of a referee's hand and, another time, for throwing mud at a referee. Had he not been one of the world's greatest players, he would have been dismissed. In 1972 Best retired from Manchester United and confessed that he was a wreck, drinking heavily and close to a mental breakdown.
He returned briefly to Manchester United in 1973, but lasted only a few months. After that he began playing for any team that would have him and became sort of a freak who could swell audiences by performing for local teams around the country. In August of 1974, the Daily Telegraph reported, "George Best, 28, the wayward soccer star once described as the world's greatest, made his comeback last night playing beside a lorry driver and a mechanic in the happy-go-lucky obscurity of Dunstable Football Club." It was downhill from there. Last November, Best signed a one-month contract with Stockport County, a fourth division club. But his value as a curiosity had waned, and when the contract expired he went to play for a club in the Irish Republic, Cork Celtic. He lasted three games before he was let go.
On Feb. 20, 1976 George Best arrived in Los Angeles. He came off the jet sporting a white T shirt that boasted WHO THE HELL'S GEORGE? On cue, a buxom cheerleader emerged from the waiting crowd with GEORGE DOES IT BEST emblazoned across her chest. The hype was on.
During the airport news conference a reporter asked Best if he was to be the second Joe Namath. George crowed in finest form, "I'm better than Joe Namath in both sports he participates in." On Pelé: "I'm better than Pelé. I can kick with both feet." He also said, "I do not expect to play on a losing side. You'll find I have a nice personality when we start winning."
On that point, he appears to have been in earnest. He is indeed once again serious about soccer. Before signing with the Aztecs, Best flirted with a handsome offer from the New York Cosmos. The drawback was a long-term contract. Best wanted a one-season deal in order to assess the team and get his personal feelings sorted out. He is the second-highest-paid player in the NASL, Pelé making ah estimated $4.5 million for three years.
NASL champions in 1974, the Aztecs have a 9-7 record and are second in their the work, scoring 10 goals and making 4 assists in 16 games, putting him in a tie for second in scoring in the league.
"George is not an asset, he's a necessity," says Aztec Coach Terry Fisher, 26, a former UCLA soccer coach. "Seven goals scored by him have been game winners. With him, if we are within two goals, we can still win the game.
"Of course, getting George was the easy part; building a supporting cast around him is the hard part. He is improving in every game, gaining lost time. But sometimes he forgets how gifted he is and gets frustrated when other players don't match up. He can do it all."
But Best is not the player he once was. Part of the reason is that the Aztecs are not Manchester United. "I don't think he'll ever be as good, because he was part of a great team then," says one opponent who played against Best years ago.
When Best is asked how he rates the Aztecs as a team, he says tactfully, "They have some good lads on the squad, but I think they need a few more." Already he is responsible for bringing over Charlie Cooke, a Scottish international star, and Bobby McAlinden, who played for Manchester City. A couple of months ago Best created a small furor by resigning from Team America before it played England, Italy and Brazil in the Bicentennial Cup. The reason was not pique. The Aztecs had just been trampled 6-0 by the Cosmos and had recently taken on three new players, and Best felt he was needed.
Before Best arrived in Los Angeles there were qualms about whether he would adapt. "We had heard all the stories," says Fisher. "The night before he was scheduled to get in, Chaffetz and I sat around making excuses in case he didn't show." But to their surprise, Best has been nothing but polite and cooperative. "I secured a Beverly Hills bachelor pad for him equipped with all the playboy paraphernalia," says Chaffetz. "After seeing it, George said, 'I don't want to live here, it's too far from practice.'
"He calls and asks if there is anything he can do. And to date, he's never missed practice. There are no pretensions. He has no limo, no special food. At the first pregame meal, the team ordered steak while Best ordered cornflakes and bananas. Sixty-four cents instead of six bucks. Now the rest of the team orders cornflakes."
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.