lisbdnet.com — Almost every soccer fan is familiar with the standard account of the career of George Best used by almost everyone who chooses to write about him. The version that plays him as wasting ridiculous talent, choosing to ruin his career when he could’ve been among the world’s elite players. Among soccer’s standard accounts, it’s right up there with painting the NASL as full of “mercenary” foreign players using the league for a paid vacation, stories repeated so often that they have to be true. But at least for Best, neither are entirely accurate.
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What the standard account of Best’s career downplays, if not leaving it out entirely, is that he’d already won everything at club level. It also manages to overlook that the Northern Ireland teams Best played with during the prime of his career weren’t very good. Like Pele’s Brazil without everyone else.
By the time Best reached the United States in 1975, Manchester United was top of the table in the old Second Division, and the problems went a lot deeper than Best. So we’re going to avoid the tragic character and go with a player who admittedly had outside problems, but had simply done enough.
Why the North American Soccer League? It’s no secret that after years of trying to persuade Pele to join the league, the emphasis had switched to getting Best on a team in a major media market. The first choice was the Cosmos in 1974, but then Pele decided to join the league and Best was better used elsewhere. The same thing would happen to Johan Cryuff when Beckenbauer was with the Cosmos a few years later, and like Cryuff, Best ended up in Los Angeles.
The North American Soccer League had a difficult time establishing their brand of soccer in LA. The first club to play there was actually Wolverhampton Wanderers playing as the LA Wolves in the short-lived United Soccer Association. That league got its model from Bill Cox’s International Soccer League, a summer promotion that brought foreign teams to the US and attached them to a particular city. It was successful in most markets, but there wasn’t enough carryover to help establish pro soccer in the city.
With the merger that formed the North American Soccer League in 1968, LA got another season of the Wolves minus Wolverhampton’s playing squad. After one season, pro soccer went away for five years. Needing to re-establish the league on the West Coast, the Aztecs began in 1974 as part of an expansion that put four teams in the Pacific Time Zone. The Aztecs started at the top, winning the NASL title their first year out. When Best joined two years later they were playing at El Camino College.
In classic NASL fashion, Best convinced the Aztecs to also sign his friend, a former Manchester City youth player and career lower division midfielder named Bobby McAlinden. Both players had a good start in LA, with the quality of play high enough to keep Best interested, especially for the big games. But playing in front of small crowds in the year Pele was the only big draw left stretches of the season where the games just weren’t meaningful. Not that this stopped Best from scoring fifteen times in twenty-six games and being named a first team All-Star in 1976 and 77, with honorable mention honors in ’78.
A move to the LA Coliseum the next year along with an attempt to recruit Mexican players to increase the gate didn’t help. As Best recounts in his recent autobiography “Blessed,” the club was training at Hollywood Racetrack giving him ample opportunity to indulge and things weren’t going well personally. Though an admitted alcoholic, Best was also a professional who expected the same from the organization he represented. Fed up with the ineffective changes to the Aztecs, midway through the ’78 season Best got to play for larger crowds when he was traded to Fort Lauderdale.
He was proven right, with the Aztecs retooling again for the 1979 season, bringing in former Dutch national team coach and the inventor of total football Rinus Michels along with Dutch legend Johan Cruyff. Basically taking the Aztecs from English, to Mexican, to Dutch in three years.
By this point Best had given up on the British game, serving double duty with Fulham during the 1976/77 English season and spending part of 1978 with Scotland’s Hiberian. When he traded coasts, Best was firmly committed to the NASL, paying far more attention than might be expected. Like the time he had to tell his new coach that substituting the Strikers’ best players to prepare them for the shootout wasn’t the smartest move. Under NASL rules, once substituted a player wasn’t eligible to take part in the tiebreaker.
Playing in Lockhart Stadium for the rest of the decade, Best established himself as a good professional still capable of turning a game. It wasn’t enough to help carry his new club to a championship, but it also wasn’t the stereotypical foreign star preparing for retirement by spending the summer walking through the NASL schedule. Best played, even as the British press dismissed him and his career as some sort of extended spring break that just happened to run during the summer and include some professional soccer on the side.
And he cared. Best broke with the Strikers in July 1979 after the squad gave up a three-goal lead late to the Cosmos at Giants Stadium, questioning his coach and the will of the team to win. He was released from his contract a few days later.
Best was there for the boom, along with everyone else playing as the Cosmos’ opposition in the view of the mainstream media even though his club were actually defending champions. Though his real fan base on the other side of the Atlantic considered Best’s new league a joke, Best did not and genuinely cared about the results and getting his own game together.
With the interest in the NASL peaking in the late 1970’s and already on the wane by the end of the decade, Best re-signed for another season, this time with the San Jose Earthquakes. The league was already changing in 1980, and by ’81 it was obvious that something drastic was needed for long-term stability. Best had signed a two-year extension to his original one-year deal with the Quakes, even playing the indoor schedule in ‘80-’81, but the quality of play was beginning to noticeably slip. Best played his last game on August 19th, 1981, and was named a second-team All-Star.
In “Blessed,” Best described what he saw happen to the league first hand. “It became more like parks football and the whole thing began to disintegrate from what had been a half-decent league to a virtually amateur one.” Before the start of the 1982 season, the league would lose six more teams including the LA Aztecs, dropping from a high of twenty-four clubs from 1978 to 1980, to fourteen.