A day or so after someone's death seems like a pretty bad time to start assessing their legacy, but the need for column inches beyond the statement of death makes it inevitable that already people have started compiling the subtle equations necessary to decide whether George Best was the greatest footballer of all time.
In the past I've tended to dismiss calls for Best's supremacy as being inspired by an Anglo-centric view of football that has blighted our development of talented players and hampered our performance in countless tournaments. The view that Best was an accident, an unrepeatable prodigy, has contributed both to his elevation as the greatest there has been, but also to the view held by all the home nations that skill is a luxury you can't count on (either in terms of the performances of your mercurial star, or in the likely makeup of any national squad). The perception of Best as an inexplicable talent, an unquantifiable variable, has gone on to haunt players such as Waddle and Le Tissier who while perhaps not as talented, still suffered under the maverick label.
By all accounts though, Best was a solid team player, and not a lazy liability. It is tempting to see the description of him as the founding hell-raiser of several generations of brilliant but difficult players as the conflation of his off-pitch excesses with his on-pitch style. However, I prefer to see it in terms of an essential British suspicion of flair. Now I happily confess that this is purely my own prejudice, built upon years of football commentary, journalism and match watching, so there are going to be people out there who interpret this completely differently, but while other nations seem to have reveled in the inexplicable origins of the skills of their most sublime players, we treat them as if there is an inverse relationship between talent and moral value. The protestant work ethic has no time for free roles.
Best's celebrity is now regarded with a certain prurient fascination, as if no one quite believes that an athlete can have debauched to that extent while still performing on the pitch. We now expect more commitment from our footballers (as do the shareholders contributing to their enormous wages) and yet the glamour of Best with his huge sideburns and even bigger appetite for ditzy models is undiminished. What has changed is the association of those vices with his style of play. Every virtuoso talent that has emerged since has been tainted with the image of pink-shirted George cascading champagne down a tower of glasses. It is now impossible to impress on the pitch with your unpredictability without someone asking the question off it whether that unpredictability is really just unreliability in disguise.
Therefore, it is easy to understand why Best occupies an uncontested seat at the top of the pantheon of players in the English league. He established the pattern that generations of players have followed or been forced into (even minor talents such as Jermaine Pennant seem unable to avoid the temptation of being the flashy winger). It's probably time to own up though. Of the three players most often mentioned as the greatest of all time, Maradona is the only one I've seen play several times. Best and Pele live only in often repeated clips of their finest moments, always attempting an audacious shot from half way that still fails to go in; body-swerving the keeper and still managing to keep balance after all this time. What always seems obvious to me though is that none of it looks very special anymore.
It's in the nature of sport to be nostalgic. Today's achievements are always measured against yesterday's failures or successes, and this is the same in assessing the performances of teams as well as players. This decade's Liverpool team is compared with last decade's, as both a collective entity, and position by position. Most of the time either for reasons of diminishing returns or romantic attachments, the comparison is unfavorable. This habit is played out on a national scale too. Who are the heroes of today, and how do they compare to the fallen and departed? But misty eyes often cause poor focus. Football worldwide has improved beyond measure, with each generation producing players more outrageously gifted than the last. Can anyone honestly tell me that they believe the Ronaldinho of today anything other than the utter superior of anyone who has gone before him?
The moist-eyed reverence English football has for the heroes of its past says a lot to me about the sport's idea of itself. We are more comfortable with the idea that legions of hard working players emerge from a conveyor belt on which occasionally there gleams an unexpected gem, than we are that those gems could be one day produced in the right environment. The failure of Simon Clifford, a man with a genuine philosophy for developing skill in young players, to establish a place at the table at a lowly club like Southampton (run by old-school dinosaurs like Redknapp and Bassett) speaks loudly and clearly about the attitude English football has to producing flair rather than resolve.
George Best may well have been the greatest player to play in the English league; there's no doubting his grace, vision and finishing. He may even warrant inclusion with the likes of Pele and Maradona in the nostalgic pantheon; but the failure of English football to produce a talent that we are comfortable comparing with his should be a warning to anyone who would like to see football played with skill and daring return to this country. Putting George to rest will not be easy.