Best in Show
While most fans were focused on the 1974 World Cup, George Best was playing in South Africa
Banned from international competition and unable to watch the 1974 World Cup on television, South African club owners devised a cunning plan. In a bid to boost home attendances and indulge in some slightly amateurish marketing hype, they would induce fading British stars to Johannesburg with tales of year-round sunshine and a standard of living that was positively Californian. Pre-eminent amongst the signings, George Best was brought to the Highveld by Abe and Solly Krok, two of the directors of the Johannesburg club Jewish Guild, originally for a a spell of three matches, which was soon extended to four. Later that season, with the World Cup in West Germany in full swing, Highlands Park’s Rex Evans indulged in a bit of friendly competition with Guild by landing Spurs’ Alan Gilzean.
Gilzean was the smaller fish but the more astute purchase. Unlike Best, who swanned around like a glorified orchestra conductor, the Scottish striker was actually bought to play, being signed on a two-year deal which suggested that Evans had titles rather than photo opportunities in mind. Unlike the Guild directors, who were happy by association to bathe in the Best magic, Evans was a man familiar with the phrase “manifest destiny”. He and his new purchase weren’t going to be deterred by the fact that, despite the audacious nature of the buy, the local press insisted on referring to the Scottish striker as “the nearly bald Alan Gilzean” at every available opportunity.
Unlike the nearly bald one, Best had hair. An early publicity shoot at his hired apartment shows him lounging in a high-backed cane chair like a Las Vegas casino boss, his black mane touching the shoulders of his sports jacket, a throng of well-wishers and hangers-on eager to ease themselves as unobtrusively as possible into the frame. Another sequence of images shows Best being surrounded by the Guild directors and their wives. He looks pleasantly relaxed and slightly bored; somewhere we cannot see he must have been dimly aware that he was in the midst of using up his chances. He was 27, and although his period of playing in the States and for clubs like Fulham was ahead of him, his Manchester United and Northern Ireland glories were receding by the day.
Not that he was going to work too hard at impressing his new employers. Shortly after arriving in the country he watched his Guild teammates take on Rangers at the Rand Stadium in southern Johannesburg. His presence in the VIP box was more intimidating than uplifting because Guild were beaten 3-0, the press putting it down to the fact that Guild had suffered from an advanced case of “Bestisis”. Afterwards Best promptly ventured into the wicked Highveld sun for slightly too long, turned prawn-pink and was confined to bed with a case of sunstroke. Guild’s directors were not best pleased and neither were their coaching staff because Best missed his first training session. The following day he took gingerly to the Balfour Park turf (Highlands and Guild shared the ground); photographs show important people in tracksuits with their arms folded across their chests trying their best not to look too annoyed.
As well as a throng of little boys clutching their autograph books and some mildly curious mothers, Best’s first full training session was attended by a notorious local stripper. “A beetroot-burnt George Best had Ultra Violet focused on him when he resumed training at Balfour Park yesterday afternoon,” wrote the Rand Daily Mail’s Sy Lerman. “No publicity hound could have dreamed up this gimmick. It had to be coincidence. Yet here was Best, on the day after he was prevented from taking part in his first official practice because of sunburn, face-to-face with the slinky stripper who has burnt a few fellows in her time.”
Violet (real name Yvonne Wintle) was in and out of court on public indecency charges at the time and her lawyer was well known to the Guild directors. He might indeed have been the more interested party, although it would be wrong to assume that Best’s turn down south didn’t come with an increasingly heavy reputation as a boozer, gambler and womaniser. History doesn’t tell us if Best and Ultra Violet paired off for a training run, but it would have been easy enough to arrange. After all, Best had his rented pad – replete with chic decor – to return to when the glare of the sunshine and publicity became too much, and we know that Ultra Violet was more than prepared to show strange men her G-string. She offered to do as much a month later when in court. Newspapers of the day say that the prosecutor politely declined her kind offer.
Best’s first game for Guild was on a Friday night at home to Hellenic, the club of Cape Town’s Greek community. In expectation of a big crowd, Guild had rented the Rand Stadium for the occasion, realising that the homely Balfour Park would be too small. Guild would have been happy with the 30,000 crowd but less so with the result, a 1-1 draw which didn’t suggest an immediate return on the Best investment. It didn’t take long for things to turn around, though, because on the following Sunday afternoon in Durban, Guild beat the always-tricky Durban City 2-0 in the sub-tropical rain. Best was intermittently brilliant, particularly after half-time. “But it was a different story after the changeover, when, like some leprechaun from his native land, he [Best] cast a spell over the vulnerable City defence,” wrote ‘Own Correspondent’ in the following day’s Rand Daily Mail. “And his magic, even if it only came in short spells, was enough to bring a second goal – again scored by Bennie Booysen – and give the 10,000 crowd something to cheer.”
As a result of his contribution against City, Best’s trip was extended by a game. Guild flew south for an assignment with Cape Town City and then packed 8000 people into Balfour Park for his final match. As an act, the episode has left barely a trace in the annals of South African sports reporting. Best returned home, Ultra Violet was found guilty a week or two later on public indecency charges and the Krok brothers went on to make some of their many millions selling skin-whitening creams to black women wanting to change their complexions. Many years later they emigrated to Sydney. A fearsome header of a football, the near-bald Gilzean stayed on at Guild’s neighbours, Highlands Park, while Willie John McBride’s visiting British Lions rolled triumphantly (and a little disturbingly for locals) across the South African veld. Poland, meanwhile, made an unheralded dash for the 1974 World Cup, surprising many, but it was won by West Germany, beating the Netherlands in the final.
Reflecting on the Best experiment, Dave Beattie and Terry Lofthouse probably put it, well, best, in their weekly soccer column in The Star, when they noted that our George was able to draw a crowd from beyond football’s traditional constituency. He was an event rather than simply a visiting footballer on the skids. Under the headline, “Best’s visit a tonic,” they wrote, “Certainly there were some who were among the 30,000 at Rand Stadium, the 22,000 at Green Point Stadium, the 10,000 at New Kingsmead (on a wet day) and 8000 at Balfour Park, who went to see the man who had gained such a world-wide reputation for his athletic prowess in other directions.”