George Best was, at an incredibly young age, a great footballer, a style icon, a sex symbol and a pop star, all rolled into one. There were times when he seemed nothing less than a young god, and for a country that has seen it’s share of ‘rich and famous’ footballers in the last two decades, George remains the first to transcend football and become a national (adopted) hero, the first British footballers to genuinely contend to be the world’s best, a model for future players to aspire to in both football and fashion, and quite simply the Best English football has ever seen.
The words ‘best’ and ‘superstar’ have become over-used – modern football and financial demands of sponsors mean that everything, at all times, has to elevated to ‘the best’ to stand out. The shock and awe approach of modern football (with the Premier League leading from the front) has brought a lot of good with it – football is more popular than ever before – but it has also served to diminish real value.
And still, you would be hard-pressed to find any sportsman today who commands universal respect outside of his field the way George did, let alone someone who can be as irresistible an icon as George when it came to clothing for men. Federer, Woods, Phelps, Bolt, Messi are / have been the head and shoulders ahead of their rivals but none of them have attained the pop culture status outside of football. Jokingly dubbed the fifth Beatle by the Portuguese press after United beat Benfica in the European Cup quarter-finals, George attained an off-field status and commercial value that perhaps only David Beckham could come close to. George was the first though, and ridiculously young – 19 at the time of the 5-1 win against Benfica – and a natural star on and off the pitch.
To understand his popularity, we turn to Sean O’Hagan, writing in the Guardian:
It was George’s great good luck to come of age in the late Sixties, when the Beatles blew away the last vestiges of Victorian values. The Northern Ireland he left behind, though, was parochial and conservative, and what was most liberating about him was the manner in which he embraced his destiny, shrugged off these dull constraints. He revelled in his fame, luxuriated in the freedom it allowed him. He modelled clothes, opened a chain of boutiques, dated Miss Worlds, drank champagne in exotically named nightclubs – Tramp, Slack Alice – and inhabited a world that was as glamorous and unattainable to us as the worlds inhabited by Mick Jagger or James Bond.
George was a footballing icon before footballers became boring, he was a style icon before people knew about fashion. In the 60s, he was a symbol of dynamic, talented and adventurous youth, a walking success symbol. He was a role model for young football fans dreaming of success and the object of pride for older fans revelling in his success and fame beyond Britain.