Next week will see the 40th anniversary of a legendary goal George Best scored at Spartan Stadium when playing for the original San Jose Earthquakes in the old North American Soccer League.
For decades now, journalists, biographers, commentators, coaches and fans around the world have discussed that goal, in which Best angrily went past half the Fort Lauderdale team all by himself on July 22, 1981. Millions have watched it on YouTube. I attended that game as a kid, and even I feel like I’ve watched it a million times.
Best’s life story is well known. In the ’60s, he just about invented the concept of the global rock star athlete, transcending all borders. Before Best, soccer was purely a working-class game. There was no such thing as a football star who was also an international pop celebrity. George changed everything.
On the pitch, Best was the world’s most sublime soccer genius. Off the field, he was a sex symbol and a pin-up star. Every man envied him and every woman adored him. Rising to stardom alongside the Beatles and with pretty much the same look and haircut, Best single handedly built the stage on which celebrity players like David Beckham later operated.
That particular goal, just one of 21 that Best scored while playing in San Jose long after he was washed up, still makes the rounds everywhere. People won’t stop talking about it.
All was not well, of course. When Best finally drank himself to death in 2005, I dashed back to the Metro office on the day after Thanksgiving to crank out a column in this very space. Even then, Best’s life story, including that goal, had given San Jose name recognition all over the world.
This is hard to explain to non-soccer people, but when Best passed away, the entire football universe outside the US treated it as the equivalent of John Lennon dying. He wasn’t bigger than the Fab Four per se, but in the ’60s, people universally called him The Fifth Beatle. To this day, fans all over the Spanish-speaking world still refer to him as El Beatle.
In Belfast, Northern Ireland, his home town, Best was given an official state funeral. By police estimates, one hundred thousand people stood in the rain to watch the motorcade. Google it. You’ll see. When Best’s coffin came off the airplane, it was draped in a Manchester United flag—his club back in his heyday. At the service, his son Calum read a poem that chokes me up every time. I can’t watch it anymore. Throughout that entire day, Best managed to unite the Catholics and Protestants of Northern Ireland—something no politician has ever been able to do.
If you’re a hockey person, all of this was similar to what Montreal did when Maurice “Rocket” Richard passed away, although Best’s demise was much bigger. And much more tragic.
Since his death, journalists have tracked down and accosted numerous players from Best’s days in San Jose, resulting in a few terrible books. An excellent one, though, is “Immortal,” by Duncan Hamilton, in which the author provides the most literate analysis of that goal over several pages. The goal had a “vehemence and monumentality about it,” Hamilton writes, adding that Best seemed to channel the effort from some unknown place. He was “in the zone” not unlike creative writers when the words just flow with no conscious effort.
But it was deeper than that. And darker. In and out of rehab, Best was falling apart so he wanted to prove he still had it. With that goal he somehow transformed the definitive alcoholic qualities of defiance and grandiosity into pure unstoppable genius. Don’t try this at home. It doesn’t work. Trust me.
These days, one can only wonder how Best would have handled the social media era. Calum, who was born at Good Sam and almost went down the same path as his dad, is now a celebrity entrepreneur in London and a major force on Instagram at inspiring others on their own self-improvement journeys.
As I still sit here 40 years after that goal, I can only hope to do the same. Go Quakes!