At 22, Belfast-born soccer player George Best truly lived up to his name—in 1968, after sparking Manchester United to several titles, including the coveted European Cup, he was named both England’s and Europe’s Player of the Year. But if victory champagne became a habit, so did a quart of vodka a night, often shared with groupies. Though Best denied that liquor sapped his skills, he spent a prime part of his athletic career pursuing not Pelt’s mantle but jobs, as he became a mercenary on exhibition clubs.
Still, last year the San Jose Earthquakes of the North American Soccer League signed on Best as a player-coach for a two-year package that could hit $500,000. The club gambled that some magic remained—and that marriage (to a former Cher aide) and impending fatherhood would sober him up. Not so. Shortly before son Calum was born last February, George was arrested for drunk driving. Several weeks later, recalls Angela Best, 28, “I took the car for the baby’s first checkup. When I came home, there was this big superstar walking down the middle of the street, in pouring rain, going to a bar because I had the car.”
“I had always found a reason for drinking,” says Best, now 35. “The coaches didn’t like me or we didn’t have a home—I could think of 20 different reasons. Here in San Jose the situation was perfect, but still I couldn’t control it. They say the first step for an alcoholic is to admit that it controls you.” On March 2 George checked into Hayward Vesper Hospital near San Jose, Calif., where, he recalls, fellow patients included “a 15-year-old boy who sniffed glue, a cop, a young girl hooked on PCP and a Hell’s Angel. I didn’t know if it was a good or bad thing doing this 6,000 miles from home, but it was the last outpost—I was just another alcoholic.”
At Vesper, George had to go it alone (only in week two was he permitted to call Angela), and, he says, “I was frightened to death, to be honest.” But “After nine or 10 days,” he continues, “they put you on the ‘love seat,’ where your peers get a chance to roast you. Suddenly I was sitting there and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, I can’t fool these people.’ I cried and cried. I was completely emotionally drained. I talked with that roomful of strangers about things I had never talked to anyone about.” On his next call home, remembers Angela, “I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. He mentioned things like how he was afraid he had contributed to his mother’s death three years ago—he thought she had died from worrying about him.”
Mrs. Anne Best had reason for concern about the son she, a former nationally ranked field hockey player, and her shipyard machinist husband, Richard, raised in Belfast. George was hooked on soccer early—”They had a picture of me kicking the ball when I was 13 months old,” he says—and by 15 he had grown so proficient that he was approached by Manchester United. “It was like being asked to play for the Pittsburgh Steelers in this country,” explains George, who quit school and apprenticed with the team until he could legally sign a contract at age 17.
Until he was 25, says Best, “I was the same as the other players—we’d have a few beers after the game. But then I didn’t know whether I wanted to play [for Manchester] or not, so I started on the vodka and champagne.” His pub-crawling escapades, with women like former Miss World Marjorie Wallace, made him the British Joe Na-math. In 1971, while inebriated, he met English model Angela MacDonald-Janes “and tried to drag her off to take a plane. She wasn’t having any of it.” They met again six years later after George joined the NASL team in L.A.; at the time Angela was acting as Cher’s factotum.
The romance was tumultuous. “He was so destructive,” says Angela. “Some women would have died or gotten drunk with him, but I thought it was a challenge. And Cher told me how to handle this drunken slob, because she had been through it all herself.” Agrees Best, “Of all the people I met in Los Angeles, Cher was the most level-headed.” A half-dozen separations notwithstanding, he and Angela wed in 1978 in Las Vegas; the minister wore lime green.
After his three-week stay at Vesper, Best has returned to soccer, bothered only by a right knee that may require postseason surgery (he’d like to continue playing through 1983). Off the field, reports Angela, “He’s taking charge of things, getting things done. For the first time I feel I can rely on him. We have a lot more going for us than most couples because of what we’ve been through.” Indeed, after 17 years of international soccer, George Best seems finally able to answer the question posed by his autobiography, which is due out in England this fall. That book’s title: Where Do I Go From Here?