Saturday, November 26, 2005
"…I did drift down to California and thought, I like this country, I could live here... America would be a fresh start."
With these hopes and words, George Best, one of the most talented footballers of all time, stepped into the New World almost thirty years ago.
The six seasons Best spent in America have predictably been glossed over by most obituary writers, who have preferred to focus on his swinging '60's era of European glory for Manchester United and his subsequent Icarus-like plummet into alcoholic oblivion and death via volatile relationships, bankruptcy and run-ins with the law.
His leaving Manchester United aged 26 in 1973 has been regularly cited as the de facto end of his career, with his American adventure, begun when he was pushing thirty, an irrelevant postscript.
But the fact is the Irishman's time in the States, where he played for the NASL's Los Angeles Aztecs, Fort Lauderdale Strikers and San Jose Earthquakes, were still classic Best years. Classic in that his football was at times superb, including the wondrous goal he scored for San Jose in 1981 (which he has often considered his best), while his off field life was as roller coaster ruinous as it ever was in England.
"I took it all very seriously," Best insisted of the NASL years in his 2003 book 'Scoring at Half Time', one of several autobiographies he wrote in recent years to stave off bankruptcy.
Like many poor Irishmen of his generation, Best had fallen in love with the idea of America from the movies, gazing in awe as a child at Hopalong Cassidy, Shane (the first feature film he saw), Zorro and Spartacus, a world away from the gloom of post war Northern Ireland. Little did he know he would find himself in Hollywood as an adult.
With the NASL eager for a poster boy for their blue ribbon franchise, the New York Cosmos first enquired about Best in December 1972, when he was in the process of finally separating himself from Old Trafford.
For a man who loved London and Los Angeles, the Big Apple strangely failed to impress him during a week's wining and dining with Cosmos' chief Clive Toye and Best returned to England unsigned.
"I love the madness of New York for a few days, I just did not relish the prospect of living there full time," he says in 2001's 'Blessed'. Best's loss would then be Pele's gain.
Three years later, the NASL (in the form of Elton John, co-owner of the LA Aztecs) came calling again and Best's American adventure began when he touched down in February 1976 in Los Angeles.
At his first press conference, Best told reporters with a smile that rather than him being the 'White Pele' as suggested, the great Brazilian was in fact 'The Black George Best.'
In his first season playing for the Aztecs at El Camino College's modest Murdoch stadium in Torrance, California, he scored 15 goals in 24 games and made the league's All-Star Team alongside fellow legends Bobby Moore, Pele & Giorgio Chinaglia.
"I enjoyed that first season in America more than I could have imagined," he recalls in 'Blessed'. Best trained "like a lunatic" and for a while at least, also cut down on his drinking.
Although time has not been kind to the NASL's reputation, Best would frequently remind snipers that it allowed fans their only chance to see greats such as Pele, Cruyff, Beckenbauer and Best face each other in league action.
Yet the NASL came as a a culture shock to any footballer from the British Isles. "The Americans viewed it as entertainment first and competitive sport second," he sums up in 2003's 'Scoring at Half Time'. "Naturally, the standard was not as high and the fans had not got a clue what they were watching, but at first it was great."
"We'd all laugh at the hype and the razzamatazz," he says in his final book, 2005's 'Hard Tackles and Dirty Baths', hype which once saw Best enter the field on a motorbike.
Every recollection Best has of his American sojourn stressed how the anonymity came as such a breath of fresh air, granting him a sense of freedom England had denied him.
"It took me out of the goldfish bowl at home and the drinking, gambling routine I knew I had to stop," he recounted. "It also allowed me to play football without the massive pressure that had been on me when I played for United. I could go into a bar with all these screaming Americans watching gridiron and they would not have a clue who I was."
In his introduction to Stewart Beckett's guide to USA 1994, 'The Greatest Show on Earth', Best's memories of America are equally fond. "I made friends because of me, not because of what I was… and I probably have more close friends in America than I have had in the UK since I was fifteen."
His second season was equally as impressive, with the Aztecs now in the LA Coliseum. Best netted 13 times in 25 times as he once again made the All-Star Team and was also named the league's best midfielder.
He liked the US so much he even asked his parents to leave the battlefield of 1970s Belfast and move to sunny, peaceful California to be closer to him.
But Best's life was a pre-ordained Greek tragedy and when all seemed so perfect, the fall was never far behind. Again, as throughout his life, Best remained aware of the sadness behind the façade of bliss.
"For all its thrills, this period in my life, my first years in the States left me with a deep feeling of emptiness," he lamented a decade later.
Sharing a house on Hermosa Beach with Bobby McAlinden, a journeyman player he befriended in casinos after their English club careers were done, Best wanted to believe life in the permanent sunshine was as good as it got, but he had instead settled into a routine of beach life so comfortable the back door was open for his demons to return.
Always a ladies' man, Georgie found the "skateboarding girls in their bikinis" too easy a temptation to succumb to, especially as he did not have to approach them to get laid.
"They wrote their telephone numbers on scraps of paper and thrust them into my hand," Best remembers in 1990's 'The Good, The Bad & The Bubbly'. "And if you didn't telephone, they came knocking on your door. In the States I was in a bachelor's heaven, I wanted to stay there forever."
One of Best's legendary conquests (which over the years featured no less than seven Miss Worlds, including Indiana's Marjorie Wallace) was a mother and her daughter, together, one night in Hermosa Beach.
"We had all these long-legged suntanned American girls fed up with the local boys rushing in and out of the house day and night," he recounts. "(It was) a sexual paradise for any lad not too ugly and with a British accent."
His fame was increasing and he was invited to appear on the legendary Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. He only missed the greater exposure because Mel Brooks, who was on before him, went down such a storm the show's producer decided to keep him on instead.
He became a frequent guest in the Beverly Hills mansion of millionaire Ed Peters, who introduced him to Hollywood society. "Ed would get us into the most exclusive clubs and restaurants in LA," Best recalls.
True to type, Peters threw wild and lavish parties awash with celebs and a myriad of hangers-on, most of them beautiful and superficial young women, the type Best did not need but equally could not resist.
"Talk about Bacchanalian, it was like the last days of the Roman Empire," he commented.
One woman he met a Peters bash in LA was a beautiful model and Cher's personal assistant, but she stood out because she was English and seemed uncomfortable with the debauchery surrounding her. "She was not an LA airhead," as Best remembers.
Angela Janes would become the major woman in George Best's life, marrying him in 1978 and providing him with his only child Calum, in 1981, before divorcing him in 1984.
Their Las Vegas wedding was a classic Best episode, as the LA Aztec arrived drunk to the chapel in an ill-fitting suit. His best man had forgotten the ring so pulled one off his own hand instead. Then Best lost all the money he had on him in Caesar's Palace and the morning after disappeared on a drinking binge, a feat he repeated after his second marriage, to air hostess Alex Pursey in 1995.
The gambling habit Best wanted to escape was back (not helped by the Aztecs training at the Hollywood Racecourse) and the demon drink had made him its slave. By 1978, Best off field was his old boozing, gambling and womanizing self again, pressing the same self-destruct button he thought he had left behind in Europe.
"It seemed like paradise," thought Best, an ambiguous statement as he cemented his addiction by buying a beach bar ironically called The Hard Times Tavern, renamed as 'Bestie's'.
In his third season, the love affair with the Aztecs waned as they signed players of questionable quality because they appealed to their target market of LA's Mexican community, a situation curiously echoed by Chivas USA three decades later.
After two great years, the stats from his final season said it all: Only 12 games and one goal.
Best was literally forgetting to turn up for training as he disappeared on endless benders walking "sometimes seven or eight miles" in search of a bar. His wife could not cope anymore with her errant husband, knifing him in the backside in one fit of rage.
While Best was "sleeping around all over the place", Angie was being spotted on the town with Dean Martin's son.
A marriage already in trouble and an unhappy workplace were stressful enough for George, but things got worse when FIFA imposed a worldwide ban on him playing soccer after he guested for the Detroit Express on tour in Europe and Fulham reported his breach of contract.
The year truly became an 'annus horribilis' when news arrived that his beloved mother had died back in Belfast, prophetically of alcohol abuse aged only 47.
A change of scenery was required, and in June of that year, Best crossed coasts to join the Fort Lauderdale Strikers under Ron Newman and alongside future DC United coach Ray Hudson.
Over two seasons in Florida, he scored seven goals in 31 games, but threw his shirt at the future Kansas City Wizards coach after the Strikers had surrendered a two-goal lead away to the Cosmos in June 1979 and walked out days later having started a public slanging match. "I didn't have much respect for the coach Ron Newman," admitted Best, consoled by opinion polls that showed the Florida fans were on his side.
Unrepentant, Newman told David Tossell in his history of the NASL 'Playing for Uncle Sam', that Best at Lockhart Stadium was "a nonentity" for whom the 35-yard shoot out was "20 yards too far" and who made the Strikers look like they were playing with only ten men.
"I thought we were carrying him most of the time because he was good PR," he hissed.
After wintering twice at Fulham and once at Hibernian, Best was back in the USA in April 1980, joining the San Jose Earthquakes at Spartan Stadium.
"I was pleased to be going back to California and the sunshine," he said, buoyed by a new team and Angie's decision to move back with him. But before long, his second California dream would become a nightmare, leaving Best to recall years later that "San Jose turned out to be the worst place ever for me in just about every aspect of my life."
The liquor, as always, possessed Georgie, and his daily craving for alcohol turned him into a barfly, befriending complete strangers who did not know him from Adam.
"Hermosa Beach was the weirdest place… I spent a whole day walking around knocking on doors and crawling through backyards, very fortunate not to get shot by the security guards or ripped apart by guard dogs… I had turned into a beach bum, actually sleeping on the beach some nights."
He spent one night as a guest of the LAPD "with a crowd of drug-crazed loonies screaming and shouting and rattling the bars of the cell" after his wife refused to bail him out following an arrest for drunk-driving.
An Earthquakes official collected him the next morning and drove him home whereupon Best changed his clothes and went out drinking again.
One bright moment was the birth of Calum Milan Best in '81 (his middle name not a tribute to Italian giants AC, but to Milan Mandaric, now Portsmouth FC owner and then the Earthquakes' supremo).
But a month after Calum's birth, his father was in Vesper Hospital in Hayward, California on an addiction recovery program at the behest of his club - in vain, as it turned out.
Despite all the pledges and good intentions, Best just could not mend his ways and "conned his way across California," as he put it, pretending he was on the wagon while checking into motels alone and hitting bars for hours on end.
Angie decided to finally call it a day when driving home one rainy afternoon in San Jose, she braked sharply to avoid what she thought was a jaywalking wino, "a creature huddled over like a homeless person," whom she quickly realized was her husband.
On the pitch, it was not much better for Best as the NASL was on a downward spiral, shedding teams. In his own words, the league was beginning "to disintegrate from what had been a half-decent league to a virtually amateur one."
Playing an indoor Winter season for the first time also took its toll on his aging body, particularly his tender right knee. On August 19th 1981, he played his last NASL game, a 3-1 loss away to the Vancouver Whitecaps (although he would wear their shirt one last time when they toured England that October).
"For the sake of my health, it was time to leave California," concluded Best in a reversal of the reason he had gone there in the first place.
Over six years in America, Best had played in 150 games and scored 57 goals, the best of them coming almost at the end of his stint in July 1981.
Having just gone 2-0 down to Fort Lauderdale and argued with the referee, Best received the ball from the restart and took off on an amazing slalom, beating six defenders and the goalkeeper before scoring and turning to the referee in smug celebration.
That goal has been much replayed in the TV tributes to Best as he often claimed it was his greatest ever, while David Tossell unearthed a charming anecdote from a teammate at Spartan Stadium.
Defender Derek Evans bet Best he could get the ball off him in only a few seconds so Best responded by offering him $100 if he could do it within a minute, waving the bill in his face as he tormented him for 59 seconds before gifting him the ball and the money in sympathy.
"He could spin on a dime," as Aztec colleague Charlie Cooke recalled (the equivalent of 'He could turn on a sixpence', as they said about him in England). San Jose colleague Charlie Calloway went further – "He could do things Pele could not."
Best had made good money in the States, but a year after returning to England was declared bankrupt. In 1983, his then-partner Mary Stavin (another former Miss World) asked him to come back to California with her so she could pursue her acting ambitions. Best said no, as he had already lived his Hollywood dream, a dream he wisely knew was over.
His six and a half years in America are now largely forgotten, although hearing son Calum's American accent on the TV broadcasts from the London hospital where his father lay dying was an important reminder of the Belfast Boy's US connections.
The contribution of the NASL in kick-starting the American soccer revolution should not be overlooked and soccer's current success in the US must owe something to George for helping lay the foundations. Best wanted to see soccer advance in the USA, and would have been sad to hear his former team the Earthquakes may soon be no more.
"I enjoyed my time in the States and I admired American attempts to develop the game in such a short space of time," remembered Best. "I would like to think that through the coaching, I may have contributed in some small way to the resurgence of grass-roots soccer in America. It was nice to go there and be at the start of something really exciting."
US soccer fans should not forget the presence on American soil of a player both Pele and Diego Maradona have called the greatest of all time, and you can't get higher praise than that.
George Best was a man as great in his failings as he was in his triumphs, who destroyed himself with alcohol because fame, wealth, success and women came so easily to him he was bored with life.
But for a few years he was loved by a little corner of America, a country he loved equally in return. "I felt the people there appreciated me," he said, "and maybe that is why I felt at home."