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George Best and Garrincha: A shared tale of dribbling, drinking and death

A look at the similarities of two of the greatest wingers that football has ever seen; Manchester United legend George Best and Brazilian legend Garrincha.

The wing can be a lonely place. Even though you share the pitch with 21 others and are surrounded by spectators (if you’re any good) you can’t help but feel a little isolated when you are so often bypassed, snubbed even, when the ball is booted up to the centre forward from practically anywhere. However when the ball does reach you, you are expected to do something magical. Imagination, invention and swiftness of thought are all attributes that you need to become a good winger. You do everything a little differently to anyone else on the pitch, and that’s because you are, well, different. You are the maverick footballer; the effervescence, the spark, the catalyst that that turn even the most boring game into something beautiful. You are flashy, yet enigmatic. You are arrogant, yet vulnerable.

When you think of the quintessential winger, any self-respecting British person will reply “Georgie Best” (unless they are younger than 20 years old, but even that is a precarious excuse). However if you ask someone from Brazil, the greatest footballing nation on earth, they will say without hesitation, “Garrincha”. These two men where the manifestation of a new, glamorised world of football that mirrored cultural change as a whole in the 1960s.

Garrincha and Best were born 13 years, and nearly 6,000 miles apart, but their lives are curiously similar. They were both the adored by their respective fans, feared by their respective opponents and respected by all. They both lived the dream, and then endured a nightmare.

The anti-climax of retirement is hard for the majority of footballers, and despite it’s inevitability, it is all to often a shock to the system that some cannot recover from. This problem is exacerbated when you were the poster boy that defined a generation. Garrincha was the star of the great Brazil world cup winning sides of 1958 and 1962 and Best was the star of the Great Manchester United side of the late sixties and early seventies. However, even the brightest stars eventually burn out.

Despite being near-perfect on the pitch, off it both men had difficulties. They both married twice and divorced twice. Neither was faithful, and both fathered illegitimate children. The most shocking (and least excusable) trait that Garrincha and Best shared was that they were both involved in domestic violence, an allegation that neither denied. There is a moral dilemma that countless football fans share: Is it right to idolize men that have so many unsavoury moments?

This question is not limited to fans of Best and Garrincha, far too many elite footballers such as Paul Gascoigne, Eric Cantona and more recently, John Terry. When it comes to Garrincha and Best, unbelievable pressure and addiction may be seen as salient circumstances, if not excuses. Besides, it’s simply human nature to admire a flawed genius.

When Garrincha moved from Pau Grande to Rio de Janeiro and Best from Belfast to Manchester, the ‘bright lights’ effect soon took hold of both men. Glamour, parties, women and alcohol were all irresistible. They were both involved in drink-driving incidents during their lives Best was banned twice for offences and Garrincha was involved in a car accident in 1969, which tragically killed his mother-in-law. It was something that he never really forgave himself for, and was the source of significant depression, and despairingly, an even heavier reliance on alcohol.

Garrincha died of cirrhosis of the liver aged 49. Best lived until 59 but had just as many health issues in the preceding years. Garrincha’s drinking almost humanised him among his fans, but Best was never treated with the same level of sympathy. (He was publically slated for being photographed drinking just months after a liver transplant courtesy of the NHS). It is impossible to say whether either man would have been an alcoholic if they went down a different career path, but it is safe to say that the level of expectation, spare cash and free time certainly didn’t help their causes.

Despite their various off-field vices and misdemeanours, both were remembered fondly after their deaths. Along with private funerals, each had public processions that attracted thousands of mourners. Both names have since been immortalised, In 2006 Belfast City Airport was renamed to Include Best’s name. Garrincha has a stadium named after in Brasilia as well as the home dressing room of the Maracana. Both men had films made about them, which further blurred their identities as they drifted from sportsmen to pop culture icons.

These two men had more in common with Michael Jackson than Michael Owen, but in my mind, to be a truly amazing winger you have to be a performer as well as an athlete. And just as Michael Jackson never performed a duet with Prince, Garrincha and Best never played in the same team. I’m sure it would have been an incredible spectacle, but the post match bender would have set up a pub landlord for life.

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