The mighty might-have-been men

NIRMAL SHEKAR "You know, I could have been a contender. I could have had some class."

THE other day, reading a brief news item about a footballer living with his young wife in a tiny, remote Scottish island, far, far away from the bustle of a world in which he thrived as a celebrity not long ago, I could not but help recall Marlon Brando's unforgettable words in one of the greatest Hollywood movies ever made - On The Waterfront.

The most naturally gifted Hollywood actor of all time ruminates the what-might-have-beens of his life, particularly as a boxer, and delivers one of the most awesomely influential movie dialogues ever scripted.


On reading the news about George Best's efforts to keep off booze and get on with his life, Brando's words played over and over in my mind like a broken record.

Best, of course, was no starry-eyed dockyard boxer who'd failed to grab his chances in and outside the ring. But, no great sportsman's life and career seem to fit that Brando lament as much as the Irishman's.

The gifted megastar who was the "fifth Beatle" in Europe in the late 1960s, might have been the greatest of them all, might have left Paul McCartney a long way behind in career earnings, and the likes of Franz Beckenbauer and Johan Cryuff some way behind as a successful footballer.

But, in the end, most things about Best - as gifted a ballplayer as anyone who has ever kicked a ball, including Alfredo di Stefano, Pele and Maradona - were might-have-beens.

The world of sport, like the realms of art and music, has had its share of complex personalities but nobody's life has been quite as outrageously enigmatic as Best's. His enormous gifts as a footballer and a combination of other factors, not the least of which was his movie star good looks, put him irretrievably above the level of mortals on a pedestal that was no pedestal at all.

It was a precarious tightrope that Best walked - so long as he didn't realise it was a tightrope. Then it dawned on him. He suddenly looked at the earth below. And just as suddenly, the leg started to shake, and the mind began to spin.

"Suddenly I could go nowhere, do nothing without people staring, trying to pick fights, telling me to do my job. Guys would come up and try to pick a fight with me because a friend of a friend had told them I was looking at their wife in some club or the other. They will jostle me in bars and then accuse me of trying to cause trouble. They come and look at my house and say it looks like a public lavatory...they wait for me to make a mistake on the field and they start. My they start!"

That was the anguished cry of a man who the whole of England loved to hate, loved to love, loved to tease, loved to adore...but most of all, hated to leave alone, even for a second.

If it was alcohol and women in the case of George Best (above), then it was drugs and women for Diego Maradona (left). The only difference was, Maradona, because he was Argentinian rather than Irish, had the opportunity to showcase his extraordinary skills on the greatest stage in the game - the World Cup - and win the trophy that matters, in 1986. Best, on the other hand, never got to play in a World Cup.-ALLSPORT

And suddenly the magic was at an end. The glorious career was foreshortened by the very nature of the pressures it gave rise to.

"I just wanted to be out there among them; to be one of them. It could never be; not in Britain. The moment I walked through the hotel door it was like running the gauntlet. A pen and a piece of paper would be thrust into my hand; some stranger would want to talk; another to shake my hand; others to smile, stare, insult, wave..!" Best would recall years past his prime.

So, after all, it was no solid pedestal; a mere tightrope. Hounded by the press and television, crushed by the public adulation and misguided by a huge entourage, the tightrope walker suddenly found the life rope snapping. Best at that time was halfway to becoming perhaps the greatest ball player in the history of the greatest game on earth.

He missed practice for weeks on end and went on one drinking binge after another. As night life and alcohol diminished his skills, Best, before long, became a pathetic parody of the genius that he once was.

What, then, was the real cause for the breakdown of George Best? Was it just that he could not handle the pressure of being a celebrity?

Strange that I should have been pondering this question the other day when a television channel brought footage from a testimonial match in Mexico. All the cameras were trained on a fat man with a Sumo wrestler's paunch attempt to dribble.

Bloated beyond recognition after spending many months in a drug rehabilitation clinic in Havana, the man who played for a little over half an hour in his own testimonial match was none other than Diego Maradona.

"The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom," wrote William Blake. In the case of Best and Maradona, ironically enough, it has led to hospital beds.

Their backgrounds and personalities may be different, but there are indeed a lot of parallels between the two cases. for, both Best and Maradona had everything - skills, money, celebrity status - except the one thing that was required to manage these gifts, discipline. And this, in the ultimate analysis, meant they had nothing.

If it was alcohol and women in the case of Best, then it was drugs and women for Maradona. The only difference was, Maradona, because he was Argentinian rather than Irish, had the opportunity to showcase his extraordinary skills on the greatest stage in the game - the World Cup - and win the trophy that matters, in 1986. Best, on the other hand, never got to play in a World Cup.

No matter that, Best was as good as Maradona ever was, if not better. Two of the handsome Irishman's finest performances came in the European Cup against Benfica, the team that had taken over from Real Madrid in the second half of the 1960s as the best European side.

The first was a quarterfinal match in Lisbon's Estadio da Luz - stadium of lights - on March 9, 1966. Since it was an away game, Matt Busby, the legendary Manchester United manager, had deemed it necessary for his player to defend and play with abundant caution.

Sitting in the dressing room before the match and listening to Busby, Best had nodded his approval. But genius can never be held on a leash, least of all on an occasion as important as the European Cup quarterfinal. Before 12 minutes were gone, United was up 2-0.

In Germano, Cavem, Cruz and Pinto, the Portuguese side had some of the best defence talent in the world but Best simply tore through majestically for a header first and then on a breathtaking slalom. In the second half, the genius from Belfast would set up three more goals for his team-mates.

Two years later, the venue was Wembley and the match was the European Cup final between United and Benfica. Over, then, to Bobby Charlton, Sir Bob these days, a man who played alongside Best in that match and many others.

"George was off, giving a fair imitation of Wembley's electric hare, supremely confident, doing ultimately what he always expected of himself in such situations. When George got away like that, goalkeepers were inclined to feel that they had chosen the wrong career and I am sure Henrique was no exception. George's shoulders twitched, he flicked his hips and planted the ball into an empty net before wheeling away, a hand held high in triumph. Eusebio (the famous Benfica forward) had been shown how it was done."

Those then are matchless moments of sheer magic, something that great masters such as di Stefano, Puskas and Pele would have been proud to have authored. Indeed, Charlton himself says as much when he writes: "He (Best) should and could have been the greatest player of all times, even better than Pele and di Stefano."

Could have been. Should have been. Might have been....ah...if only...for the best part of his life in sport, George Best has heard these things again and again.

And, so indeed, has Maradona. The saving grace for the little man from Buenos Aires was the 1986 World Cup. The second goal against England was perhaps the greatest ever in Cup history. And he scored two more crucial ones against Belgium in the semifinals and finally made way for the match-winner in the final.

But that World Cup apart, for the rest of his career, Maradona's life was full of might-have-beens.

For both men, players who put on show some of the most electrifying football ever seen, the problem was that they did not have the talent to manage their own extraordinary talents, the maturity and the discipline to deal with their own celebrity status.

A pity, this. Not the least in the case of Best, whose life is one long what-might-have-been story. It is a story - like those beautiful limpid eyes of his - of everything and nothing. And, in life, and in sport, a very thin line divides what we often imagine to be extreme points - everything and nothing.

For, the ones who quite often end up with nothing are the very men who start with everything.