By Ken Pendleton - EUGENE, OR (Dec. 1, 2005) USSoccerPlayers – Perhaps no match better personifies the career of George Best than Manchester United’s European Cup victory over Benfica on May 29th, 1968. It was their greatest triumph, but, more to the point, you could witness Best’s wondrous skill, the savage way opponent’s often treated him, and a need for individual expression that bordered on being vainglorious.
The stage for this one was actually set by two historical incidents. The first, of course, was the 1958 Munich air disaster that took the lives of 23 passengers, including eight Manchester United players and three club officials. Three of those survivors – manager Matt Busby, who was given his last rites twice, Bill Foulkes, and Bobby Charlton – played a pivotal role in the Benfica match.
The second was Best’s dazzling performance in United’s 5-1 win against Benfica in Lisbon in the quarterfinals of the European Cup. It was, by most accounts, including Best’s, his greatest performance: “On nights like that, good players become great players and great players become gods.” He scored two and otherwise ran poor Benfica, who had appeared in four of the previous five European Cup finals, ragged. The Portuguese dubbed him El Beatle for the way he combined pop-star good looks with flair on the ball. His desire for self expression sometimes laid waist to game’s pragmatic dictates. “As the game continued almost in silence I went on another long run. I got the ball on the left wing and knocked it past the first defender, then another and another, four or five in all. ‘George, over here, George!’ I remember Bobby (Charlton) screaming, wanting me to pass to him. I was in no mood to give the ball away.”
Busby had warned his staff not to “try to change this boy’s style. Let him develop naturally. The rest will come in time.” Indeed, Best, a very slight figure, had started as a right winger, but he was equally comfortable on the left and soon played across the entire forward line. He, by all accounts, had it all: He was totally two-footed, had close control to die for, was fast, daring to the point of being fearless, and, in the best sense of the term, utterly unpredictable. Danny Blanchflower, the great Spurs wing half during the 1950s and early 60s thought he compared favorably to both Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney. “Best made a greater appeal to the sense than the other two. His movements were quicker, lighter, more balletic. He offered the greater surprise to the mind and eye. . . He had ice in his veins, warmth in heart, and timing and balance in his feet.”
Both teams promised to be very attack minded, but the fact that Benfica spent the first half of the match using all available measures to subdue Best should not come as a surprise. Almost every time Best touched the ball, he got whacked, usually by the left back Cruz but also by Adolfo and Jacinto. For their part, Manchester United responded in kind. Nobby Stiles, whose reason for playing was to stop Eusébio, who many thought was Pele’s equal at this stage of his career, was also often cited for less than sporting conduct. Perhaps Stiles was right to complain that the referee, Signor Lo Bello, was too picky – a case that even Best was making a meal of things could even be made – but, be that as it may, the match did not fully get off the ground in the first half.
Both sides did have one great chance. Sometime around the tenth minute, Eusébio, out of nowhere and looking well marked by Foulkes, unleashed a viscous shot off the bar from 25 yards. United’s chance came when the left back Dunne put David Sadler clean through, but he shot just wide of the right post.
The match came fully to life in the second half. Manchester threw everything into attack. Best finally found some space on the right side, but he opted for tightly angled shots when conventional crosses would have been more sensible. The bigger danger for Benfica came from the left winger, John Aston. He used his pace to torment Adolfo and served up a series of unnerving crosses. It, however, was another cross, from the left side, but from David Sadler, that picked out Charlton for a glancing header from opened the scoring.
Now Benfica started to attack as well. Their creative field general, Mario Coluna, decided to base the attack on high balls to their six-foot-four center forward, Jose Torres. With ten minutes remaining, he nodded down a ball for Graca to slam home from close range.
United had had their chances. Most notably Best, now positioned in the inside left channel, split two defenders, rounded a third, and quickly shot before a fourth could close him down, but Henrique managed to save that as well as the subsequent rebound effort from Sadler. The match, however, should really have been won by Benfica in regulation time.
Three times Eusébio completely eluded Stiles, with the best chance coming when Antonio Simoes released him after bisecting the center of United’s defense.
Eusébio recalls: “I was in front of the goalkeeper [Alex Stepney] with two minutes to go and Simões, with a wonderful pass, gave me the chance to finish the final. I tried to dribble past the keeper but the ball came to my left foot and he didn’t move, so I had no option other than try a powerful shot. He defended the ball and that was a turning point because Portuguese teams at that time struggled to be fit to play extra time at the highest level. At home I have a picture of that move. You can see the Manchester United bench all standing with their hands over their heads because they were thinking, ‘Eusébio won’t miss this chance’. Well, unfortunately for us the keeper did very well. That’s football.”
Maybe Benfica lost because of lack of fitness, but the immediate cause was the goal that defined Best’s career. In conception, the chance was stereotypically English. Stepney launched a goal kick that Brian Kidd managed to head on to Best. Best waltzed through the last defender and was bearing down on Henrique, but decided to round him rather than shoot. As the conventional Charlton put it, “One on one against the goalkeeper, no, you don’t shoot. No, you dribble around the goalkeeper, that’s much more difficult.” It was, as his proud dad would claim, “pure genius.”
Manchester United, either because they were inspired or because Benfica were tired and unnerved, quickly scored two more, the first a header by 19-year-old birthday boy Brian Kidd and the second a eight-footed shot off a cross by Charlton.
After the match, the present and United’s past came together. George Best rushed to embrace Busby. “The one thing that will always stick in my mind was watching the boss run on the field. . . You could see his face, it was a dream.”
Their relationship would deteriorate over time, more or less in lock-step with Best’s tragic fall – Best later admitted that he would kill time by counting animals on the wallpaper when Busby would summon him for a disciplinary lecture – but in their embrace you could see the trust they once enjoyed.