ESPN’s Latest ’30 for 30’ Film Spotlights Brilliant But Troubled Soccer Star George Best

“He was football’s first pop superstar player,” director Daniel Gordon tells TheWrap. “Men wanted to be like him … and women went to games just to watch him”

To say that George Best was one of the most brilliant soccer players of all time is no exaggeration. But the Northern Irish football icon was also one of the most troubled, haunted by demons that dominated his adult life and cut his career short.

Both sides of the Manchester United hero are captured in ESPN’s latest “30 for 30” film titled “George Best: All by Himself,” which premieres on ESPN Thursday night.

Director Daniel Gordon, who captured the horror and heartbreak of the soccer world’s biggest disaster in the 2014 documentary “Hillsborough,” heralds both Best’s historic performances on the pitch and the Shakespearean tragedy fueled by drink, depression and excess that engulfed his personal life.

Long before current sports icons such as Tom Brady, David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo or LeBron James made the crossover from top athlete to pop culture personality, the Belfast native graced the covers of magazines, appeared in commercials, guest starred in films and TV shows, and was hunted down by paparazzi.

For all his accolades and unbelievable goals, Best never played in the finals of a European Championship or World Cup, and his lack of physical fitness due to heavy partying hampered his professional career. During a stint playing for the Los Angeles Aztecs, he bought a bar in Hermosa Beach, which aided his spiral into alcoholism that included accusations of stealing money to fund boozing, and a three-month prison sentence for DUI. Despite having a successful liver transplant, he continued to drink and died in November 2005 from a lung infection and multiple organ failure.

Read TheWrap’s interview with British filmmaker Daniel Gordon below.

TheWrap: How would you describe George Best to someone unfamiliar with him?
Daniel Gordon: He’s probably best described as football’s first pop superstar player. I can’t think of another player like him in the world. He emerged out of a very dour and austere Manchester in post-war Britain, just as the Beatles were hitting in Liverpool (which is only just down the road). He was even often called the Fifth Beatle, and the Portuguese press dubbed him “El Beatle.” Best was sexy, good looking and attractive to men and women alike. The men just wanted to be like him, see him play, copy his hairstyle and clothes, while the women started to go to games just to watch George Best — there was a lot of hysterical screaming, just like with the Beatles.

How did he go from being idolized for his talent and looks to being dominated by his demons?
This was a young shy boy at the beginning, then it all became way too much and he was not able to deal with it. He broke into the team at the age of 17 … commanded it as one of the brightest stars at age 19 and then propelled it into international focus.

When did it all begin to go sour?
Best was only 22 in 1968 when he provided the magic moment that allowed Manchester United to win the European Cup. He then had an issue in the shower after the game when he wondered “is this as good as it gets? Because I will never be able to peak that.” We’re quite familiar now with the demons inside a person’s mind — but mental health issues were just not recognized or understood back then.

From here on, it is really a story about addiction. Up until this time, he was totally addicted to football, but once he gets that “too much, too soon” feeling he is never able to re-create that. He tries to get that high off the pitch first with women and then alcohol … and that really is the crux of the tragic story of George.

When he retired for the first time just before his 26th birthday [in 1972], he went off to Marbella [Spain] and said, “all I have done the past year is drink … I am a wreck, physically and mentally.” In hindsight, that is the easiest cry for help, but no one listened. They just repeated his words and put them in the papers, but didn’t really understand that he was on the verge of doing something very bad to himself. These days, if that had happened there would instantly be a team around him.

His infamous quote: “I spent all my money on fast cars and fast women and the rest I squandered” is a great one-liner, but really it was masking the bigger thing.

What was the most surprising thing you learned about Best while making the film?
I always thought his career lasted much longer than it did. He did play longer and he did create magic moments … but consistently, he was never the same player after 1968. It was a big shock to me — and to U.K. audiences of the film — as we were brought up being told how great George was.

What prompted his revival in the States with the Los Angeles Aztecs, Fort Lauderdale Strikers and later San Jose Earthquakes?
In the ’70s, there was a massive explosion of soccer in the U.S. You had to have five homegrown players (who weren’t usually very good) on a team, but could have six international mega-stars, so there would be huge World Cup winners and massive Premier League players coming to the U.S. for a summer season with all the razzmatazz you would only have in America. The stadiums were absolutely filled, it was an amazing time laid the ground for what is going on now.

How did it still all go wrong for Best?
He came out for a fresh start. But the American period is a microcosm of his life — he comes out to LA., he gets big and then hits self destruct. That’s what he did throughout his life.

What inspired you to make the film now?
Initially when we first looked at doing the film it was meant to be around the 10th anniversary of his death, now it is more like the 11 ½ year anniversary … but it feels that the people who knew him the best are now better able to have that separation from his death and go back and look at his life honestly. When he’s alive, people don’t want to bad mouth him, right after he dies, people don’t want to bad mouth him.

People were also able to trust me after “Hillsborough” a little bit more seeing how I used that testimony. A lot of the damning things said about him were also things he would say about himself … from the archives of George through his own eyes.

Where did the title come from?
We went through a whole range of titles but “all by himself” is mentioned four times in four completely different meanings in the film. It reflects him all by himself on the pitch, all by himself in a bar, or all by himself really in life.

Prior Best biopics have opened with his prowess on the pitch. Why did you choose to open with his ex-wife Angie recalling how she spotted him staggering home drunk one night?
We did have a lovely montage at the beginning but watching it we thought “that is so obvious.” That’s why we opened with Angie talking. You had to be immediately tuned in to know you’re not watching a run of the mill George Best film. That was the aim.

Aside from his style of play, how did Best influence soccer’s current biggest stars?
When he was famously interviewed by Sir Alex Ferguson, Best asked “would you have gone for a player like me?” and Ferguson was embarrassed to tell him: “We use you as an example to young players of what not to do.” Beckham, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Wayne Rooney, Ronaldo … all of those kids who came through Manchester United at some point all have to thank George Best because the mistakes he and United made were avoided for future generations.

“George Best: All by Himself” premieres Thursday at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.

Watch the trailer above.