Tale of contrasting stars

Tale of contrasting stars

Football : While reigning icon Ronaldo has thrived on fame, English great George Best drank his way to death

Tale of contrasting stars

This month sees the release of two football documentaries that examine two superstars past and present whose uncanny similarities are eclipsed only by their profound differences: George Best and Cristiano Ronaldo.

The films are nothing alike. Ronaldo, a documentary made by the producers of Senna, is a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the Portuguese striker who stars for Real Madrid, while the newly rereleased Football As Never Before is a 1971 German arthouse documentary by Hellmuth Costard , in which eight film cameras were focused on Best in a 1970 game against Coventry in his Manchester United heyday.

But taken together the two men make for a fascinating comparative study, first as individuals and then as symbols of their respective eras, both within football and society at large. At certain times in their careers both were considered supreme players on the world stage - Ronaldo holds the coveted Ballon d'Or, awarded to the player deemed to be the world's best.

Both were outsiders - Best from Belfast, Ronaldo from the Portuguese island of Madeira - from humble backgrounds who overcame youthful homesickness to flourish a long way from home. Both possess a combustible and often misunderstood combination of shyness and arrogance. Both had an alcoholic parent who died prematurely from the addiction. Both have been style icons as well as elite sportsmen, and both wore the No 7 shirt for United.

But whereas Best quit the top rank of football in the prime of his career and drank himself into numerous arrests, imprisonment, a liver transplant and ultimately an early grave, Ronaldo, now 30, has been a model of sporting dedication and discipline.

Best played at his peak in the late 1960s, a period of social upheaval, a burgeoning but still nascent consumer culture, and during the almost innocent beginning of celebrity culture - it might be argued that he was one of its first and most saddening casualties.
Ronaldo flourishes at a time when football has become a global business phenomenon in which top players have become less sportsmen than international marketing brands. Best was arguably the first British footballer whose fame transcended the sport, and he arrived on the scene just as the game was beginning to pay players the kind of money that distanced them from their working-class roots.

What's more, Best, a beguilingly handsome young man with long hair and sparkling eyes, was lionised as a sex symbol and, perhaps as a consequence, was the first footballer to exploit his image rights for commercial gain. He promoted everything from sausages to shopping catalogues and had a £20,000 boot deal with Stylo. That kind of money made a big difference in the 1960s, but even allowing for inflation it's loose change set against the £52m Ronaldo is said to earn in salary and endorsements.

As Ronaldo makes clear, life as globally famous footballer is spent inside a hi-spec goldfish bowl. In many ways it's an empty film with endless scenes of Ronaldo alone, or with his young son Cristiano Ronaldo Jnr, at home in his huge and fabulously modernist house with shimmering swimming pool in Madrid. But it's also a revealing one.

He has very few friends, surrounding himself instead with a coterie of advisers, agents, managers and family members. He has sole custody of young Cristiano - he has never revealed the mother's identity. We see him lifting weights in his home gym and doing press-ups and sit-ups with his son. It's a very male set-up that seems to fit with the hard-bodied, ascetic, slightly homoerotic vision of himself that the footballer projects to the world.

By contrast, Best, an often absent father, surrounded himself with women and, at a time before the phrase "sports science" penetrated football, was not one to leave a bar early. Although he possessed great natural speed, the main resistance work his body appeared to encounter was from lifting pints of beer.

In Football As Never Before , United win the match 2-0 with Best scoring one and making the other for Bobby Charlton. Best looks impossibly thin when set against the near-android physical perfection of the gym-honed Ronaldo. His thighs lack muscular definition and he holds himself more like a scrawny singer in a rock band than an athlete. Yet he oozes visual charisma and a perfectly balanced gracefulness. He was only 23 at the time, but his best years were already slipping away.

Four years earlier, after a stunning performance in Lisbon, Best had been called the "Fifth Beatle" by the Portuguese press. He didn't crave attention in the way Ronaldo, living in a time of celebrity-saturation, seems to do, but he made sure to enjoy the fringe benefits of his newfound fame. By the time of Costard's film, Best was beginning to miss games as a result of his extracurricular activities; on one occasion he famously skipped a match so that he could spend a weekend with the actress Sinéad Cusack in Islington. There is a feature film in the pipeline based on that lost weekend.

The Cusack episode caused a scandal at the time, but if Ronaldo ever tore himself away from the mirror to perform the same trick, there is a sense it would amount to an international incident with news crews from across the globe sent to the cover the story.
Now the plaything of Russian oligarchs and Gulf royalty, every aspect of football - with the exception of its dubious economics - has come under intense scrutiny. A player's statistics are crunched so that we know how many metres he has run, exactly what he has contributed to a game. There is no hiding place on the pitch and it's hard to get away off it.

Ronaldo comes across as relentlessly self-obsessed in the documentary, not least in his fixation on winning the Ballon d'Or, a title he has lost several times to his rival and arch-nemesis, Barcelona's Lionel Messi. But perhaps, when the rest of the world is looking at you, taking such pleasure at looking at yourself is a necessary, or at least helpful, means of staying motivated.

Best seemed to wilt under media attention and public expectation. As Jimmy Greaves, Best's contemporary and himself an exceptionally gifted footballer and an alcoholic, once observed: "There are a lot of people that can't carry the burden of being a genius, and I think George Best was a genius. George was a born, natural footballer … and I don't think he could live with the situation within himself."

Best's mother was an alcoholic who died of a related disease at 55. Ronaldo's father was an alcoholic who died at 52 from a liver condition related to the addiction. His brother is a recovering alcoholic. But although we see him drinking a glass of celebratory champagne, it's clear that Ronaldo worships at the shrine of his own body. Again, narcissism may have a positive role in self-preservation at the top.

Best was not without vanity himself. Like Ronaldo, he could sometimes appear to play for himself rather than the team. He admitted once that he didn't mind losing if he had turned in a good performance and he obviously savoured the adoration of the crowd.

But the pressure of expectation, perhaps the lack of understanding back then of how corrosive fame could be, and generally more lax social attitudes towards alcohol, all conspired to undo him. And critically Best never saw money as an important sign of his status. To him it was just the means to a good time.

For all the crassness, hyperbole and absurd wealth of today's game, it also has some distinct advantages for elite players. They have become such vitally important commodities that it's in the interest of so many around them to protect them from their excesses.

The bejewelled, private-jet flying Ronaldo is, of course, a walking testament to excess. There is a telling scene in which he asks his son which of his many sports cars -- Ferraris, Porsches -- is missing from his car park that could serve a reasonable sized shopping centre. The answer is the Lamborghini.

But these are material excesses - obscene, perhaps, but not lethal. Maybe Best could have been directed by teams of concerned advisers towards the consumption of luxury goods rather than pub booze had he been playing today. But watching him in his pomp, it's hard not to conclude that what made him such a transfixing sight is that, for better or worse, he was always destined to go his own way.

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