So I have something pretty un-American to confess: this year, for the first time since my days in Dublin, I’ve been following Premier League soccer like mad. Things have gotten to the point, in fact, that I’m seriously considering a late-afternoon work break in order to watch the Sunderland-Everton FA Cup quarterfinal. I can’t only blame Among the Thugs for this newfound obsession; slogging through the book has honed my interest in the limits of human performance, and there are few better laboratories for studying such a topic than the high-stakes realm of English soccer.
A big part of what I find fascinating about the sport is not necessarily the physical exertions involved, but the way that athletes are able to excel in spite of their many demons. Perhaps the classic example of a man who dealt with that inner tug-of-war is George Best, whose tragic career arc is well-chronicled in this humdinger of a photo gallery. Flipping through those hundreds of images spurred me to track down this brutally candid two-part interview with Best, in which one installment was done in 1984, the other in 1990. Best’s demeanor really shifts from one part to the next, obviously in reaction to some tough times in retirement. I was just floored by his account of the wretchedness of a former star’s post-career life in England:
JW: You’re a fighter yourself?
George Best: I have no choice. I walk around the streets of London and, wherever I go, someone wants to pick a fight with me. I’m talking about kids, eighteen-year-olds. There’s always some arsehole who wants to be the boss. They want to be Jack The Lads, tell their mates they gave a punch to George Best. I don’t mind because I can take care of myself, even at my age. I don’t lose many fights either. This is my local. I come here for a drink, a bit of peace and quiet. I’ll happily sit here for hours doing the crossword, minding my own business. Every day someone has a go at me.
JW: Don’t you ever walk away from these situations?
GB: I should walk away but I don’t. Because I can’t stand the idea that someone thinks they’re better than me. Not being able to walk away from aggravation, that’s my biggest problem. If anyone wants to give me hassle I’ll stand up and give as good I get, then some more. I might get the sh*t kicked out of me but, at the same time, I’ll never back down to anyone. I used to back down but not any more. If anyone gives me trouble I will beat the fucking shit out of them.
Just last week, these three guys followed me out of the pub and started in on me up the road. They were kicking lumps out of me. I sent two to hospital and they’ll remain there for a long, long time. The other one wouldn’t go down. But neither would I. In those situations I go nuts. They get to see the Belfast kiss. It’s not a pretty sight. I’m Irish. I like fighting. If they want to fuck me, I’ll fuck them. The other night fifteen of them came in here looking for trouble. England fans. They started smashing milk bottles and pint glasses over my head. They narrowly missed my eyes. Why should I put up with people smashing bottles over my head? Or trying to stick broken bottles in my eyes? Look at my face, Jon. Closer. I’ve got 268 stitches in there.
JW: It sounds like being George Best is a large burden to carry.
GB: That’s a good way of putting it, actually. It’s a fucking huge burden.
Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I can’t remember ever hearing such tales from a retired American athlete. Does Michael Jordan have to deal with folks challenging him to fights all day?
(Image via mcshanebest)