Maradona Good, Pele Better, George Best: 60 Years Of 'El Beatle'

George Best debuted for Manchester United 60 years ago today
07:00, 14 Sep 2023

It was sixty years ago today, ‘El Beatle’ taught the world to play…

Lionel Messi. Cristiano Ronaldo. Pele, Diego Maradona. Your age probably at least partially dictates your choice as the greatest footballer of all-time. There are a few outliers but the four named above are largely cited as the contenders. Even then, time has been unkind to some. Type “Pele” and “fraud” into X (or Twitter, if you’re not a delusional billionaire) and you’ll find a disarming amount of results. Maradona too has seen his influence blunted by Gen Z’s fascination with Messi and Ronaldo. The unassailable march of time fades us all eventually. Out of sight, out of mind. 

Perhaps no footballer has suffered from this more than George Best. An oft-quoted phrase used to sum up the otherworldly abilities of the Belfast boy. “Maradona good, Pele better, George Best”. Yet the man who debuted for Manchester United on this day in 1963 rarely gets brought up in the “GOAT” debate any more. If the enigmatic icon were here now, he’d probably be confused that all discussion of the greatest players now comes under the designation of a farmyard animal.


Confusion was a commodity Best dealt in expertly. Confusing defenders by twisting their blood with close control so precise you’d swear the ball was glued to his foot. Confusing his managers with an attitude to training that flitted between lackadaisical and nonexistent. Best even confused football itself when he spent his late 20s and early 30s touring football outposts like Dunstable Town and Stockport County at a time when most players reached their peak.

It is this maverick streak that doesn’t play as well with younger fans who expect their GOATs to be all-business. Ronaldo and Messi have sculpted their bodies and honed their minds to keep playing even as they approach 40. Best didn’t play a game of top tier football in England after he left United at 27. 

But the influence he had cannot be overstated. The Irishman is still United’s joint-fifth top scorer of all-time with 179 goals. Even with a truncated prime, only 14 players have made more appearances for the club than Best. While his career would reach a trough by the mid-1970s, the peaks he reached as a teenage prodigy and in the first half of his 20s have scarcely been touched.


One fact that is often lost these days is that football isn’t just about what you do, it’s about how you do it. There isn’t as much Best footage out there as you’d hope. This was long before even the most mundane league dead rubbers and throwaway pre-season friendlies were televised globally. But what is out there shows a magician with the ball, pitch, teammates and opposition at his total command. A man who could make pitches that resembled a viciously ploughed field behave like a lush carpet. 

Football isn’t just about results. It’s about how it makes you feel. Something often lost in this xG-obsessed world of statistical uniformity. But if you want results, prime Best had those too. As manager Sir Matt Busby chased his white whale, the European Cup in 1968, Best put United 2-1 up in extra time. They would win the game 4-1 to secure the club’s first continental honour. He would go on to win the Ballon d’Or that year, partially for his bewitching efforts in Europe. Best also won a pair of league titles at United and formed one-third of the iconic ‘Holy Trinity’ with Denis Law and Bobby Charlton. The three attackers were the catalyst for United’s post-Munich rebuild and keep watchful eye over the stadium to this day in the form of a statue outside Old Trafford.

The ensuing decade from when Best left a relegated United in 1974 to his retirement in 1983 is often lumped together as a tragic postscript to the story of ‘El Beatle’, so-called because of his haircut and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle at a time when four boys from Merseyside were tearing up the charts and stadiums worldwide. But Best is well-remembered at clubs like Fulham, where he won Second Division Player of the Year and Hibernian where he endured a relegation and enjoyed a promotion. 

Best’s decline would run concurrently with his fall into the grips of alcohol addiction. It robbed the pitch of a precocious and irresistible talent but it stole so much more from Best and his family. A player so adept at humiliating defenders found the one marker he could not slip. Best would tragically pass away in 2005 

Each generation anoints its own greatest players. It felt unthinkable at the time that anyone would come along who played football with the boyish brilliance and improvisational beauty of George Best. There will be players one day who are judged to be better than Messi and Ronaldo, as much as voicing that opinion today would invite an online pile-on. But for now we must look into football’s past for the players that compare to today’s greats. Pele. Maradona. And may I offer, George Best.

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