Review of George Best – All by Himself, ESPN’s 30 For 30 soccer masterpiece

Like many soccer fans, I have been frustrated that despite the constant flow of excellent ESPN 30 for 30 films, so few have had any content related to our sport. As someone who spends very little time watching sports other than soccer, the 30 for 30 series has been enlightening and educational about topics I generally have little interest in. Therefore it goes without saying the excitement I and many other soccer fans had upon hearing the news about the latest 30 for 30 focusing on the life of the late great George Best.

But hasn’t the George Best story been told over and over? What more could we learn from a documentary on Best that we didn’t know already? Would this simply be a documentary for the masses who don’t know much about the Northern Ireland international or the lifestyle he lived? Or would it have a unique angle on Best’s story?

But what Daniel Gordon, who previously directed ESPN’s highly acclaimed 30 for 30 on Hillsborough, accomplishes with this documentary is to tell the Best story in a new way – not only concise in terms of a chronological narrative told in a unique way but also rich in detail and appropriate for the times he lived in.

Watching documentaries is something I do regularly. I watch at least one or two a week and more often than not, they have narrators whose voice is overpowering, often by a movie star or some other notable personality. But Gordon’s documentary style is different. In this film, the story is told by archival interviews and on-camera sit downs with Best’s relatives and friends, including Manchester City legend Mike Summerbee. Also on-camera are journalists that covered Best and Manchester United during the period.

The Manchester United that Best arrived at was a club transformed by the Munich tragedy. Belfast, Best’s hometown, wasn’t yet beset by sectarian fighting as the Troubles began years later. At the time, support of Best was a unifying factor in Belfast and the young man did not disappoint. As a teenager, Best emerged as a core player for a side that would become the first English club to lift the European Cup trophy. Two years before United’s ultimate triumph, Best became a continental superstar with his performance in the second leg of the European Cup quarter final in Lisbon against Benfica.

Best’s image fit the times. His Beatlesque haircut of 1963 and 1964 evolved as the Beatles look did in 1966 and 1967 when he became an icon of unrivaled proportions in British football. This period of time narrated in Best’s own words was the glamor period for the player. Best was the first-ever “pop star footballer,” the Beatles and Elvis rolled into one on a football pitch.

In the period of Best’s decline, Gordon has brilliantly woven in audio from Sir Matt Busby. The legendary Manchester United manager created a side built around Best’s talents and the veteran presence of those Busby Babes that survived Munich. But by the time Busby was moving on from management, Best’s lifestyle had taken a dramatic turn for the worse.

His move to the United States after his temporary retirement at 29 and subsequent return to the field (and bottle) is chronicled in great detail. A particularly rich moment of the film features beIN Sports’ Ray Hudson who captained the Fort Lauderdale Strikers narrating us through Best’s greatest goal ever – a solo effort for the San Jose Earthquakes in 1981 against Hudson’s Strikers, which were one of Best’s former teams. Best played for 19 teams in all. Once he was finally done playing, he suffered several high-profile public embarrassments.

Impressively, if it was important in Best’s playing career or life, Gordon and his team found clips to include in the film. The use of original footage and constant storytelling from those who knew and most importantly understood Best’s personality, brilliance and self-destructive nature makes this not only a must watch, but likely a must-have in DVD or digital form for any fan of the sport.

It’s important soccer fans embrace this film as ESPN has not aired a new 30 for 30 about soccer since the 2014 FIFA World Cup, the final edition of the tournament to be aired on the network. Every documentary ESPN has previously aired about soccer has been released around the time of a World Cup, whether it was Once in a Lifetime in 2006, The Two Escobars in 2010 and a number of films in 2014.

This film could prove a breakthrough for soccer in the award winning 30 for 30 series. I can’t think of a better film that could be aired to break the glass ceiling.

‘George Best – All by Himself’ will premiere on ESPN on Thursday, July 20 at 8:30pm ET.

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