The Best? Football As Never Before
In looking at George Best Fußball wie noch nie (Football as Never Before) it would be logical to set the work next to the more widely viewed 2006 film, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait and analyze the similarities and differences, but, in my eyes, I don’t think it would be fair to either film. There’s no doubt the Zidane edition is a direct descendant of the 1971 work by German filmmaker Hellmuth Costard, with the exact same premise driving both the storyline and singular character focus. But where the two differ is outside the film itself – particularly, in the eyes of this viewer. Anyone who has followed the game during the past decade and a half would need no introduction to Zidane. The player crowned as Best in the World (three or four iterations ago, depending on whom you ask) performed in the hyper-individualistic environment of the modern game, with super stardom fueling jersey sales and advertisements. Growing up in middle America long after Best had hung up his boots, and not a particular fan of Manchester United, my exposure of Best as the player was next to nil.
Contrarily, my perception of the Zidane film was already influenced by knowledge of his entire career, from the time I was first introduced to him in the 96-97 Champions League final via a borrowed VHS tape from a middle school teammate, all the way through to the infamous incident in which he decided to mark the end of his career. I have to only assume that the era and football world Best played in was far different from that of Zidane, but that Best played a major part for the existence of the modern football superstar. So what follows is a raw attempt to interpret Best as the player and what he brought to the game, technically, through the limited focus of the 6 camera lenses. (The film is rarely screened in the United States, but I was lucky enough to catch it recently at an indie filmhouse in Chicago.)
The film flyer set the tone, Football as Never Before was a work that followed “the mercurial George Best” for an entire 90 minutes of a 1970 match between Manchester United and Coventry City. In absolute terms, a camera following George Best for 90 minutes is exactly what we were treated to. But it is the “mercurial” nature of George Best that allowed a football aficionado to derive more of his footballing lore from only the limited view of what met the eye. Whether he was out wide on the left letting loose raking balls towards the final third, or at the corner of his own 18 beginning a counter-attack, there was an immediately apparent higher quality to everything surrounding Best. This quality is somehow different than the word “quality” we loosely throw around describing players or the game today. This sort of quality, in the most literal sense, is the type that words do no justice, the one that sets players possessing a rarefied singular talent apart from the rest of pack. The once-in-a-generation quality, if you will.
This being my first exposure to any sort of extended footage of Best in action, his talent was instantly recognizable and the impression left on my mind was a lasting one. Such was his life that, as a twentysomething football junkie, I knew far more about his off-the-field exploits than the specific skills he possessed while on it. And those skills were nothing short of brilliant. Once again, a word that is thrown around so much these days to the point where it’s nearly devoid of its meaning, but brilliance seems well suited to sum up the play of Best. Watching the film I had to think back to the Northern Irish phrase “Maradona good, Pele better, George Best” and wonder if it wasn’t something more than just an exaggerated witty colloquialism…
Languid, yet not lazy – extremely quick, but still efficient with his runs – he held the ball well under pressure, while not afraid to get stuck in himself – and had that shared quality that all the Greats possess, a true vision of the game which allowed him to stay one step ahead of the pace. Yes, perhaps it is a stretch to ascertain so much of the player and his importance to the team while watching with such a limited viewpoint, but I think in a way this restricted profile only magnified his incredible talents.
By my count, there were only 2 or 3 legitimate tackles where Best lost the ball, and to the credit of Coventry City players in this match, they were well-timed and well-executed tackles. It seemed that only such would do to dispossess the ball from the feet of Best. Weaker challenges were shrugged aside, and even if they were momentarily successful, Best was quick to regain possession of the ball and continue the play forward. His sublime approach looked cool under pressure, as Best was never hurried and decisive with his actions. If we only relied on the limited frame of the picture, it would indeed make it hard to say he was certainly playing the right ball… but for this conclusion we owe to the Old Trafford faithful. Often times in the middle/attacking third the ball Best played forward would eventually be met with a collective sigh from the crowd, followed by applause – which leads us to assume that the ball went on to be part of a chance (or near-chance) on goal. An interesting way of deducing the end product, but at the same time it was a pleasure to see Best observe the play he orchestrated.
His pace was blistering, but what impressed the most was how quickly he reached that top gear. At the drop of a coin, Best was off and flying down the flank in support of an attack, or starting the attack itself. Numerous times Best dropped into the middle of the pitch to receive the ball around the center circle, turned and off he went. The turn, in many instances, was where the beauty of his play truly shone through. Almost an afterthought, he changed the direction of the ball with his thigh or outside of the boot and was off and running. He had the mind to look for what was next, while making the turn with an effortlessly second nature-like approach, while a lesser being may have been caught up in the turn itself and fault all that followed. After the turn, how the ball stayed glued to his foot as he slalomed past defenders was another element of wonder.
Best had obviously mastered the simple drop of his shoulder to leave challengers yards behind scrambling in a futile attempt to catch him. We were lucky enough to see this move executed to ultimate perfection, as 10 minutes into the second half Best dribbled a few defenders to leave him one-on-one with the Coventry keeper. The ball ever-attached to his boots, the keeper came to meet Best at the top of the box. At full speed, Best merely suggested of a dipping shoulder feint to the right, and the goalie went to ground with the intention of getting the ball, Best, or both. None troubled by this mortal creature in his path, as the prey bit hard on the feint to the right Best simply cut the ball across to his left and he was well alone for a tap-in. All the while so eloquently executed.
The workrate George Best displayed was perhaps the most surprising thing to me about the film. The idea of him as a glamorous footballer, even the first glamour footballer, led me to believe I would be watching a somewhat relaxed player spraying passes around the pitch as he pleased. Much to discredit my thoughts, Best worked tirelessly to receive the ball, in the build-up and during the attack, as well as the occasional tracking run on defense. One sequence showed Best dispossess the opposition near his own 18, and go on a rampaging run for a good 40-50 yards as the people in the front rows of the terrace blurred in the background, releasing an unseen player, followed by an assumed near-missed opportunity and a round of applause a few seconds later. The second goal of the match was scored in a similar fashion, where Best beat a few defenders, unleashed a shot towards goal…. and after a presumed botched effort by the goalkeeper or a Coventry defender, Best is running towards his teammates in celebration. And 2-0 is the way it ended.
There are some points during the match that he appears to be standing around, but never is it in a disinterested fashion. To the unaware eye this may be interpreted as laziness, but it would be foolish for any player to be running for the full 90 minutes. Even in his idle moments, Best was keenly aware of the right moment to unleash a flying run on the side, or when to come to and receive the ball. He even cracks a smile here and there, leaving us only wondering what could be playing out on the rest of the pitch.
Later on this workrate and pace must have dwindled, accelerated no doubt by his social excesses off the pitch, so it was a blessing that we have this game preserved while he was still fully fit. It’s not hard to imagine Best still dominating without the pace, though, as this was clearly not only aspect of his game. One of the first clips I can recall of Best in his later years, showed he had kept that mastery of the dribble after his physical prowess was on the decline.
Judging from where Best was filmed most often, United were the better side and Coventry appeared to rarely threaten the opposing goal. This experience was not really one of watching the game itself, but it was the act of seeing the game through the eyes of a genius that gave us an understanding of what was happening on the pitch. To be so focused on a single player for the entire game carries the inherent risk of monotony, but with Best the dull points are carried as an exercise of watching a man operate in his natural surroundings. The focused cameras give us an opportunity to get an almost primordial feel of what is like to see the game as a top class footballer…. and a legend who shaped the groundwork for the lifestyle and scrutiny afforded to those superstars that followed after his playing days were long gone.