Every few years, I go through a valiant attempt to get interested in and follow professional soccer. Various things will prompt it-- the World Cup, general boredom and curiosity, and many other things. I've been in the midst of one of those times of late (part of it having to do with, as I brace for the Raiders to move from Oakland to Las Vegas and the absence of pro football in my life, I'm looking for new places to put my energy). In perhaps a nice bit of serendipity, ESPN's most recent 30 for 30 would be about not just soccer but one of the most famous players on my British club/Premier League team of choice as the newest entry would be George Best: All By Himself directed by Daniel Gordon. Using both archival footage and interviews as well as ones done recently with those who knew the Manchester United great, the director gives us a sense of the very tumultuous life of George Best. Starting with his life in Northern Ireland and running up through his death from alcohol-abuse caused liver failure in 2005, it takes us through the highs and lows of Best's life-- amazing play and championships both international and domestic, quickly deteriorating relationships with teammates and managers, drinking and the beginnings and ends of marriages. It certainly gave me a greater sense of who Best was and why he mattered so much. I knew he was a very important player in Manchester United history and one of the best players to play in professional British football (what we now know as the Premier League) and that his talents were ultimately wasted. But while I had that sense of the big narrative, I did not know some of the specifics and this documentary helped to fill it in.
The thing that was perhaps most striking, and what Gordon was clearly trying to make clear, is the role that the media (and tabloids in particular) played in Best's struggles and downfall. After scoring two goals in the 1966 European cup against Portuguese powerhouse Benfica (whom Best and Manchester United would defeat in 1968 to win the European Cup and be a major victory for United following the Munich Air Disaster), Best would be photographed wearing a sombrero, a picture that would run in British newspapers with the headline "el Beatle" next to it. Between his dazzling play on the pitch and good looks and swinging, fun lifestyle off of it, Best became a celebrity in a way that no athlete had ever been in England. Much of the problems that plagued Best were because of the incessant attention of the sensationalizing press. This point is made in the documentary but much of the structures and strictures we have now (ones that emerged as a result of George Best and what happened in his life) would have prevented such a thing from happening back then. While Best clearly made the choices that precipitated his decline, you get the sense from this documentary that it could have been slowed to some degree had there been things in place to prevent the press and the public from influenced Best in this way. The sadness that comes through to the audience is that so much of what happened to Best was out of his control and could be prevented knowing what we know now.
What I found myself wanting out of this 30 for 30 is more on the higher points of Best's career, specifically his time with Manchester United. Director Gordon makes Best's celebrity and notoriety very clear but we don't get the sense of what led to that, namely that he was such a great and talented player. There was a lot of telling that went on in that regard and not enough showing. United won two league titles with Best, in addition to that European Cup win, and came in second numerous times. With these kinds of things left unsaid, you don't get the sense of why Best would be this kind of figure and it misses out on an opportunity to give a bit of history of Manchester United at that time and why, even today, they are still one of the most prolific and popular soccer clubs in England. Though I am a supporter of United, I don't know everything there is to know about the club and their history or in as great of detail as it might have liked, and thus using this opportunity to paint the portrait and fill in those gaps in our (in America) collective knowledge about the club and one of its most famous players would have been worthwhile.
But despite these qualms I have, All by Himself is definitely a worthy entry into the 30 for 30 series. It's one of the more emotionally affecting ones to be certain, as you watch this sublime talent destroy himself because of factors (alcoholism and the British tabloid press) beyond his control to some degree. It's a very powerful entry and one that did affect my emotions as I found myself getting choked up towards the end as it depicted the final years and decline of Best's life. While more history of the highlights, and in turn giving a proxy history of British professional soccer, would have been welcomed by me, it was still an outstanding bit of sports documentary filmmaking.