Fifty-five years ago today, George Best announced himself on the world stage, earning the title ‘El Beatle’ as he slew Benfica in their own Stadium of Light.
It was a landmark performance for the prodigal son of Manchester United, for more reasons than one.
Let us set the scene. United were on their first journey back into the top competition in Europe since the Munich Air Disaster of 1958. Benfica were their opponents in the quarter final – they had never been beaten at home in Europe, and had a whole host of legendary stars in their team, led by the incredible Eusebio.
Matt Busby’s team were doing very well – although there was some concern their 3-2 first-leg lead was rather precarious, it was a lead nonetheless.
Busby was reported to have urged his team to keep it tight in the first half of the return leg – only for George Best to show that he had other ideas. On this night he could not be restrained by opponent or instruction; he was liberated by the free will that seemed to sum up his entire existence.
Benfica – who had won the European Cup in 1961 and 1962 – quickly realised that for all of their experience and quality, they were merely the supporting cast on an evening where one player took centre stage.
Best was thrilling as he scored two goals in the first fifteen minutes and terrorised the hosts with his skill and direct running. United built a three-goal lead and Benfica, shellshocked, eventually succumbed to a 5-1 defeat.
It remains one of the most important performances in Manchester United history.
I’ve covered it in great detail for my forthcoming book on George, True Genius, which is published on April 8th. (Available from the link on the quoted tweet, which includes a snippet of the interview I had with Antonio Simoes, the Benfica legend, about that game.)
55 years ago today.
Something more than a star was born. George Best. The Stadium of Light. #TrueGenius
One of the most important nights in #mufc history, to the soundtrack of António Simões’ beautiful recollection.
— Wayne Barton (@WayneSBarton) March 9, 2021
The reason for its importance is almost three-fold. The first is what it meant for George Best – he was only 19, and this display was effectively the certification that he was the real deal. He had been proclaimed as the best player in the country by his team-mates and many of his opponents. His dazzling virtuoso act in the Stadium of Light had many of the belief that he was now the greatest in the world – remember, still only a teenager with a couple of years of first team football behind him.
George was magical. It was a moment of self-realisation that he could inflict his brand of sorcery on any team in the world and they could be reduced to wrecks.
The second element of its importance was how it impacted the United team he played with. They realised they had an ace in the pack, a pack that already included such world greats as Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and Pat Crerand. George had the temperament and class to not only help carry the load but strike the fear of God into opponents who did not know what to expect. As a team, that extra stardust allowed them to dream that they could genuinely win the trophy.
The third element is the historical significance. Of the many things Munich stole from United and the Busby Babes was a single defining performance in this individual light. That moment where one player – a Taylor, an Edwards – stood tall in a display for the ages.
In the aftermath of the disaster, George’s emergence had been like the rarest blooming of a flower amidst the scorched earth – his fragile frame almost amplifying that feeling.
To see him illuminate and excite crowds was fitting for the introduction of technicolour, as he seemed to personify the change, the graduation from grief to hope. More than any other night, George’s magic evening in Portugal fuelled this feeling, and because of how recent the tragedy still was, it meant this hope was intrinsically and inevitably linked to a wave of nostalgia and a bittersweet sentiment.
It was the performance and result that Busby and Jimmy Murphy had been rebuilding for. Of course, success in Europe was the ultimate dream, but due to the way fate deals in sporting events, the United supremos would have been happy to know they had achieved what was within their own control – to create a team that could, on its day, compete with the best in Europe and have a belief that they were best.
“Something more than a star was born,” Paddy Barclay wrote in his seminal biography of Busby.
It is an apt summary of a phenomenon that was much bigger than a good performance in a football match. It was harnessed to Munich in a way that could not have been avoided but it also had a deeper resonance because of that – because it was in the European Cup, because it was in a foreign land, because of the spirit of the game and because George was a player reared by the club.
It was the birth of El Beatle. But it was also a moment where you could say a part of Manchester United were reborn, a moment where you could expect wizardry and prosperity built upon the noble foundations laid by the other players.
This does not discount the artistry of the other players – Denis Law had only recently been dethroned as European Player of the Year, and Bobby Charlton would win the award before the title was officially bestowed upon George in 1968 – but the impish confidence displayed by Best, as proven by his donning of a Sombrero, the scalp he wore stepping off the plane back in England, announced to the world that the cocksure self-confidence the Babes stood for lived on.
It was an important night for George Best alright – but just as important for everything Manchester United stood for.