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Last Updated: Friday, 25 November 2005, 13:55 GMT
Was Georgie the Best?
By John May

Pele, Diego Maradona and George Best
We three kings - Pele, Diego Maradona and George Best
Perhaps the best pointer to where George Best sits among the footballing gods comes from the man generally reckoned to be the best.

Pele himself once dubbed Best "the greatest footballer in the world".

Whether that was an honest, realistic assessment or a diplomatic platitude can be argued long into the night.

But does Best deserve to be up there with Pele and Diego Maradona?

Rating the greats is always something of an empty exercise, and if you are dealing in the currency of cold hard facts and statistics, then the Belfast Boy doesn't measure up.

Pele's avalanche of 1,280 goals in a career that stretched over 20 years dwarfs just about any other player.

And it could be argued that Maradona won the World Cup almost single-handedly for Argentina in 1986.

There will be those who argue that Best never proved himself on the biggest stage, but it is grossly unfair to pit Best's international career for Northern Ireland against World Cup winners Pele and Maradona.

Career goals: 1,280
92 caps, 77 goals for Brazil
Played in 3 World Cup winning squads
2 World Club Cups with Santos
Declared a National Treasure by Brazil govt.
Also played for New York Cosmos

Fifa's Player of the Century award was a masterclass in fence-sitting as Pele and Maradona carried off the spoils, with Best not in the frame.

But is greatness purely to be measured in terms of silverware and numbers? Best won his share of honours, but his greatness was something that could not be quantified.

People might have stared awe-struck at Pele's magnificence and rejoiced in Maradona's devilry and dash.

But they were transfixed, bewitched and delighted by the impish, cheeky skills of Best that invariably brought a smile to all except the defenders who had to face him.

Pele devotees will recall the 1970 World Cup as his finest hour - the sublime chest control that allowed him to lash in a goal against Czechoslovakia, the attempt from his own half against the same country, the outrageous dummy that left Uruguay keeper Ladislao Masurkiewicz looking haplessly for man or ball.

Fans of Maradona will point to perhaps the greatest World Cup goal ever, the mesmerising run from the half-way line against England.

91 caps, 34 goals for Argentina
1 WC winners medal, 1 runners-up
International debut at 16 v Hungary
South American player of the year 1979, 1980
Unlike Pele, played in Europe
Won league title with Napoli
Fifa Internet player of the century

But no-one will forget Best's goal against Benfica in the 1968 European Cup final where he broke clear, kept the coolest of heads and left the keeper groping with a body swerve that would have dislocated the hips of a mere mortal.

A common denominator shared by the three was the early start to their careers at an age when most kids are sitting school exams.

By 18, Pele had won a World Cup, which mapped out the rest of a career, that until he was tempted out of retirement by the American dollar, was spent in Brazil.

Having been declared a National Treasure by the Brazilian government, Pele was never given the chance to test himself in European club football.

Unfortunately, both Maradona and Best were possessed by a self-destructive spirit, which left everyone unfulfilled and wanting more.

Maradona had already scaled the footballing summit in winning the 1986 World Cup when he hit the slippery slope in 1994, testing positive for drugs.

Best walked out at the top of his game when he was 28, but the early start to his career still meant he had played 11 seasons for Manchester United in arguably the toughest league in the world.

However, when he left, he may have had his best years to come and for that reason, many will argue that Best gave up his right to be considered the best that ever was.

All three also refused to go quietly once in the twilight of their careers.

37 caps, 9 goals for NI
European Cup winner 1968
Won 2 League titles with Man Utd
Man Utd debut at 17yrs, 4mths
Effectively retired from top class football at 28
Still managed 11 seasons in the top flight
Other clubs: Dunstable, Stockport, Cork Celtic, Fulham, Hibernian, Bournemouth, Brisbane Lions
Played in NASL with LA Aztecs, Fort Lauderdale, and San Jose

Pele paraded his fading skills for New York Cosmos in the cause of boosting soccer in the States, while Maradona tried to coax his unwilling body to one last hurrah with the likes of Newell's Old Boys.

Best's farewell tour included Dunstable, Stockport, Cork Celtic, Fulham (alongside Bobby Moore), Hibernian, Bournemouth and Brisbane Lions, and also took in a Stateside leg.

But the ridicule they risked in playing past their sell-by date should be excused given their services to the game as a whole.

So with all factors taken into consideration, is there a definitive answer to the question 'who was the best'?

Probably not.

But what is sure is that George Best earned his right to be mentioned in the same breath as Pele, Maradona and other greats too.

And Pele certainly had his idea of who the Best man was.

Best man
25 Nov 05 |  Football
The best and worst of a legend
25 Nov 05 |  Football
The best of Best
25 Nov 05 |  Football
George Best's career in photos
25 Nov 05 |  Photo Galleries
Obituary: George Best
25 Nov 05 |  Background


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