For many football fans, the phrase “he’s the new George Best” will be a familiar one. Over the last 35 years barely a season has passed without someone being hailed as the new George Best. I remember a lad from Hibernian called Peter Marinello was hailed in 1971 as the new Bestie when he signed for Arsenal. He wasn’t. He had long hair though, and that was just about enough to invite the comparison.
As soon as anyone displays a bit of pace, skill and trickery, it’s inevitable that this hoary old cliche is trotted out once again. And until now it has always proven to be way short of the mark. The player often possesses little of what made Bestie great and the comparison is a bit embarrassing to all concerned.
When Rooney emerged at Everton, it only took a season before the title was assigned to him by both fans and journalists. But Rooney, great player that he is, is no George Best. He isn’t as quick, as quicksilver, as mercurial or as outrageously skilful.
For the last 35 years I never thought anyone would ever fill Bestie’s boots; that no one was ever going to be the new George Best, primarily because the man was so extraordinary. If you ever saw him play live, he was an awesome sight in his pomp. He was able to run as fast with the ball as without it. He was always two steps ahead of a defender, knowing both what the defender would do and what he would do in response even before the thought had entered defenders head.
His close control of the ball was second to none. It appeared tied to his foot. He would beat a defender then go back and beat him again just for the hell of it. In the European cup in the mid 60s playing for Manchester United, he was an unstoppable force, gliding through what were back then often brutal defences whose intent was to kick the living crap out of you.
And all of this was played out on pitches that were like a ploughed field and at a time when the extent of physiotherapy was having Vaseline rubbed into you by an ex-army Sergeant Major and pre-match training was a steak and a pint of Guinness.
So I’d given up on seeing a new Bestie. Until Tuesday night. Cristiano Ronaldo is the new George Best. He is literally the inheritor of the legendary 7 shirt, but more than that he is the modern embodiment of everything Bestie was. His performance in that astonishing 7-1 victory was breathtaking. Audacious skill, vision and entertainment all performed at high speed. It blew me away. I never thought I would ever see a footballer play with that kind of panache and, just as crucially, effectiveness, again.
Because Ronaldo isn’t just a show pony – he was – but he isn’t anymore. He has learned to deploy his incredible array of skills to tear teams apart and to score goals. It’s not just self indulgence, its not just ‘look at what I can do’ for its own sake and that is what has taken him to his current exalted level.
He is a mesmerising player; a blur of feet attached to an astonishing body. He is freaky looking. 6ft 2″ and built like a brick shithouse, but with a low centre of gravity. He has the thick neck of a bull but the feet of a dancer. While Thierry Henry at Arsenal, in previous seasons has displayed awesome invention and pace, he pales in comparison to Ronaldo on his current form. Unlike Henry, Ronaldo is a total footballer who doesn’t bottle it on big occasions. He’s scored 21 goals so far from midfield, he can play left or right wing or up front or in behind a front two. He can tackle and he’s a consummate header of the ball. He’s like two players in one, the like of which I have never seen.
While he has been prone to throw a hissy fit, like Henry, this season his histrionics have been tempered and he’s been a far better player because of it.
While it’s impossible for any modern player to have the broader cultural impact that Georgie Best did and Ronaldo will never be as rock n roll or as downright good-looking either, but in terms of pure football, he is the real deal. On Tuesday night, it was a privilege to witness his genius and it was a performance that, like so many of Bestie’s, are the stuff of legend.
Bestie is dead, long live the new Bestie.