It seems apt that the 50th anniversary of George Best's introduction to English League football should occur in the current climate of footballing discussion.
A week ago, Greg Dyke launched a frank assessment of the English game, bemoaning the lack of talent emerging. Pundits, current and former players, and fans too have been in debate: the reoccurring theme is dissent against the lack of technique being imparted into young British players.
Envious and, at times, spiteful, comparisons have been made with the foreign players to whom clubs have turned to for a sprinkling of magic, a quick fix solution to stop their teams being chock full of functional, British warrior types.
We've had this debate before: between 2008 and 2010 when the artists, groomed in La Masia, painted Spain and Barcelona's names onto every available piece of silverware. Before then, in 2000, when the graduates of France's Clairefontaine ruled the world.
Way before then, George Best spoke out on this issue 20 years ago. In his 1990 autobiography, The Good, The Bad, and The Bubbly, Best complained, "all you hear managers talk about today is graft and work... Where's the skill? Where's the entertainment?"
Best was an artful dribbler; he combined immaculate close control with an explosive burst of speed. A true flair player, he was also tough, hurdling challenges and playing for the thrill of entertaining the fans who adored him.
His brace in the European Cup final of 1968 was his pinnacle and a moment of glory for those who play with an almost infantile joy and element of daring. "If football is an art, I was an artist," Best declared.
The following list commends the artists of today, who keep this spirit alive.
5) Jack Wilshere
Positional differences aside, Wilshere carries an abundance of George Best's most admirable traits. His selection in this list is partly as, much like George was in the early 1960s, Wilshere is the most precocious and technically gifted, young player currently playing in England.
The Arsenal youngster is already seen as a nation's biggest hope after only ten caps for England and 65 appearances for Arsenal. Stylistically, Wilshere's acceleration, balance, and quickness of thought and feet are what sets him apart from other midfielders in the Premier League and make him most akin to Best.
Like Best, he is never shy of receiving the ball in a tight situation and taking on (and going past) opposition players. Unique, in modern football at least, is the passion, honesty, and integrity that he plays with, happy to battle physically for the right to express himself with his technique. Likewise, George took pride in always giving that same level of commitment on match days, regardless of what he may have got up to the night before.
Barcelona's £48.6 million new recruit is more than a footballer. Like Best, Neymar is a showman whose appeal transcends football. Whilst Best's off-field exploits (drink and women) may have led to his downfall, his extravagant lifestyle was a reward for an eccentric and charismatic style both on and off the pitch.
Neymar embodies this idea. His flashy array of step-overs and elasticos bewitch his opponents, enthral the fans and grace adverts for companies as diverse as Nike, Panasonic, and Volkswagen.
Like Best, his unique fashion sense, Mohawks et al, is as recognisable as his playing attributes. On the pitch, it is the way Neymar moves with the ball that most resembles Best: the grace, the poise, and the speed.
Perhaps most importantly, it is also his attitude. Although the pressures of playing for Barca may mellow this feature, for Brazil and former club, Santos, Neymar has played with a playful arrogance, showboating mercilessly even against rugged defenders.
3) Cristiano Ronaldo
It is one of the many tragedies of George Best's story that his death in 2005 robbed him of the chance to see the player Ronaldo is today.
He famously said of Ronaldo: "There have been a few players described as the new George Best over the years, but this is the first time it's been a compliment to me."
That was back when Cristiano was still being criticised by the British media for lacking end product. United's first ever Portuguese eventually grew into a genuine superstar. It was in 2008 that he truly embraced the legacy of Best that shadowed his number seven shirt.
His Ballon d'Or victory made him the first United player to win since Best; he shattered Best's 32 goal record for the most goals in a season by a United winger, firing 42.
Finally, 40 years after the boy from Belfast fired a brace in United's 4-1 defeat of Benfica, Ronaldo led United to Champions League glory against Chelsea. Best earmarks his own success in 1968 as the moment when his personal ambition began to differ from United's and the same can be said of Cristiano.
His £80 million move from United to Real in 2009 has garnered 203 goals in 203 games and counting. It is not just goals that make him Best-like, it is the whole package. He has attracted celebrity status with his success and personality.
He exudes an assured confidence that has seduced super models and taken him to the very top of the game. Just like Best's status as greatest of his time is undermined by lack of international achievement, with Northern Ireland and the presence of a more decorated rival, Pele, CR7 carries Portugal and lives with comparisons to Messi.
2) Lionel Messi
In terms of personality, Best and Messi share little. Quiet Lionel has none of the charismatic presence that defined "El Beatle." In terms of playing style and ability, they are a perfect match. Messi plays like a left footed Best.
Their game is based largely around two superhuman qualities. One is what the Argentines refer to as "gambeta," a rare control over their body that allows them to deceive and destroy defenders with a mere drop of the shoulder and shift of the hips.
Dribbling for them is a tango, a deadly dance in which their opponent struggles to match their rhythmic contortions of their body. Few players in history have possessed this instinctive gift. Maradona typifies gambetta. Cruyff exuded it. Cristiano, for example, does not.
The second trait is balance. Best earmarked this as "the key quality you will find in all the best players." Just as Best famously absorbed the impact of red card worthy assault before continuing and scoring, Messi's honest and frequent use of this skill has seen the creation an entire youtube series: Messi Never Dives.
George Best had at least as much talent as we see Messi displaying weekly for Barcelona, and as a result, a comparison of the best goals of each reveals more similarities than difference. Ultimately, Messi's place in footballing folklore will be in a higher echelon than Best. Messi's tangible achievements either his 318 goals for Barcelona or trophy haul, including four Ballon d’Ors and three Champions Leagues, already overwhelm Best's but not due to greater talent.
Messi has been submissive in his adherence to the vigorous regime that Barcelona designed to ensure his success. Best's rebellious nature and vices stopped him from fulfilling his incredible potential.
1) Ryan Giggs
Like many Manchester United youth players, Ryan Giggs was burdened with comparisons to George Best. Now, 945 appearances later, he is arguably as big, or an even bigger part of the tapestry of United's history.
The sight of the Welsh wizard speeding along the touchline and darting in between fallen opponents will perhaps always draw reminiscent thoughts of George from older United fans. Giggs' United career is almost the club's way of redeeming itself for the way Best's talent was allowed to wane from age 22 onward
From the moment Giggs graduated from Eric Harrison's legendary youth team, that walked the 1992 FA Youth Cup, Sir Alex ensured that he was the perfect professional. His charm and looks attracted to him many of Best's own demons, but aside from his scandalous affair with his brother's wife, he has largely been kept on the proverbial straight and narrow.
Ferguson's efforts, which allegedly include dragging a young Giggs out of a party, have been vindicated. Just months shy of his 40th birthday Giggs now has more appearances than anyone in United history, and thanks to his immensely disciplined routine of yoga, he continues to start for David Moyes.
His 13 Premier League titles and 2 Champions Leagues represent being an integral part of the sort of footballing dynasty that George Best dreamed of. Fans will remember him more for his solo goal against Arsenal in 1999, a picture of beauty created by the artist through whom George Best's spirit continues to live on.
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