Mike Gibbons is an aspiring young journalist
from the UK who has followed the World Cup with passion from an early age. He will share his views about the past, present and future of
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The Greatest Player Never To Play In The World Cup
If the World Cup has one Achilles heel, it is this Ė you can become one of the best players in the game, one of the few in the world that excels in your position, yet never have the chance to prove yourself on the biggest stage in sport. Sometimes you can be derailed by injury, that can happen to anyone, or you can simply talk yourself out of World Cup football like Bernd Schuster. How frustrating it must be though if, because of the geographical circumstances of birth, you will never have the team-mates to help you qualify, no matter how good you are yourself. Former European Footballer of the Year George Weah, who even funded the efforts of Liberia out of his own pocket, will pay testimony to that.
When the old argument of who is the best player never to play in the World Cup rears itís head, two names above all others are invariably mentioned. One is Alfredo Di Stefano, who as a naturalised Spaniard missed out on qualifying in 1958 (despite being in a team alongside those other well-known Spaniards Kubala and Puskas) then was selected in the squad for Chile 1962 but did not play through injury and/or disagreements with the coach, whichever you believe. The other passed away after a long and inevitably doomed battle with alcoholism just last Friday Ė George Best.
Anyone who knows football will know the name and the myths surrounding this magician of a player. I wonít launch into an extended eulogy on how good he was Ė these are numerous from team-mates and opponents alike, especially this week Ė I will just say that coming from the British Isles we have never produced a more gifted footballer and that, if we can transcend borders for a second, he is one of the greatest players of any nationality ever to pull on a pair of boots. That he pulled these boots on for Northern Ireland however meant that getting to a World Cup Finals, which during his career only accommodated sixteen teams, was a monumental task.
George made his debut for Northern Ireland against Wales in 1964, the same day as another debutant, the outstanding goalkeeper Pat Jennings. Unfortunately, these were the only two players in that team of international class. For Best there was no outfield player to act as a foil, no-one remotely like a Didi, Garrincha or Tostao afforded to Pele, not even a Valdano, Burruchaga or Cannigia that aided Maradona. Compared to the other home nations, Northern Ireland were very much the poor, distant cousins, memories and heroes of that epic run in 1958 now slipping away, but how quickly that can change with a genius in your team. In the qualifying cycle for the 1966 World Cup in England the Northern Irish played above themselves, the teenage Best inspiring them to a position whereby they only needed a win in Albania to qualify for a play-off with Switzerland for a place at the finals.
And they blew it. An awful 1-1 draw in Tirana ended their hopes and sent the Swiss through to the finals by a point, an utter disaster of a result with the World Cup waiting just over the Irish Sea, in stadiums the players knew so well and that Best was starting to illuminate. As if to prove what a loss he would be to the tournament, in the spring of 1966 Best turned in perhaps his greatest ever performance, scoring twice for Manchester United in a 5-1 European Cup victory over Benfica in the Stadium of Light, the Benfica of Eusebio, European Cup finalists in four of the previous five seasons. Best was christened ĎEl Beatleí and the legend grew and grew until it inevitably spiralled out of control.
The qualifying cycle for the 1970 tournament in Mexico put the Irish in a tough group with Turkey and the USSR. When the qualifying started in 1968 Best was at the very apex of his powers Ė Footballer of the Year in England, winner of the Ballon DíOr for the best player in Europe and in the May of that year scored perhaps his most famous and goal which effectively decided the match as Manchester United finally won the European Cup 4-1 against Benfica. He was so far removed in terms of ability from his international team-mates at this stage he may as well have worn a different kit.
Certainly other teams had marked him out, Estudiantes showing the roadmap to dealing with Best by kicking the living daylights out of him in the Intercontinental Cup final. With both the Irish and USSR brushing Turkey aside they essentially contested a two-legged play-off to reach Mexico. The teams fought (literally) to a stale-mate in Belfast in September 1969 and one month later met for the showdown in Moscow. Crucially Best was out injured, with him went the hopes of Northern Ireland and inevitably the Soviets won 2-0 to qualify.
And so the dream was over. He made sporadic appearances in the 1974 and 1978 qualifying tournaments but these were as infrequent as his appearances were becoming in club football. Having first quit football in 1972 Bestís career and life went into a steady decline and he would never be the player he was again. Like Garrincha and Maradona, his fall from grace was at times sad, tragic, and horrifying, but when you fall from that height it is a long, long way down. Northern Ireland finally made it back to the World Cup in 1982 whilst 37 year-old Best was going through the motions with AFC Bournemouth. One of the stars for them in Spain that summer was a 17 year old prodigy called Norman Whiteside, a Manchester United youth player discovered by Bob Bishop, who a generation earlier had sent a telegram from Belfast to Matt Busby with the legend ĎI think Iíve found a geniusí upon his sighting of one George Best.
So is he the greatest player never to play in the World Cup? Probably. Maybe. Oh what the hell, definitely. Sorry Mr Di Stefano, but Iím planting my flag firmly in the Best camp. Of course itís personal bias, but my choice is made on what I have seen of both players from the archives, and other than Diego Maradona I have never seen a player with so many weapons in his armoury, so many options of how to beat his opponent or quite simply the capacity for me to jump out of my seat in amazement.
He reminds me why I love football so much. People will continue to dwell on his self-destructive nature that curtailed his career and eventually his life so early, but to paraphrase the man himself, they should remember the football. And what football it was. That he never played in a World Cup is not his loss, itís ours.
RIP George Best 1946-2005.
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