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Football As Never Before February 4, 2012

Posted by John Hodson in : Film & DVD Reviews , 4 comments

To Be The Best…

Saturday, September 12, 1970. A watery northern European sun lights a crisp autumn afternoon at Old Trafford, where a crowd of 48,939 fans of Association Football have gathered to watch Manchester United of the English First Division play Coventry City.

It was also the day where Hellmuth Costard, one of the most important experimental film makers in German cinema during the 1960s and ’70s, used eight 16mm cameras to follow every single move over the 90 minutes of the blindingly beautiful number 11 in the iconic red jersey. The most famous footballer on my planet; George Best.

George Best

Costard’s 1971 film - Fußball wie noch nie (Football As Never Before) - is a homage to the then 24-year-old Belfast born genius. And in an age where fans of The Beautiful Game can languidly choose to see a match in comparable fashion via satellite or cable, and will no doubt have seen the similarly structured Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, it’s possibly difficult to understand just how unique Costard’s film was. Indeed, four decades ago, the idea of such a film, such apparent cultish worship of an individual was undoubtedly a slightly bizarre concept.

Best, or rather the selling of the “mercurial Best”, was the progenitor of today’s hyper-inflated, hyperventilating, Premier League marketeering. Everybody wanted a piece of the man; he was a fashion icon, the gossip columnists dream, pop records were written about him, his every move was followed by long lenses. Women wanted him, men wanted to be him. And ultimately his decline and fall from grace was noted in the finest detail by a slavering press pack, charted in quite horrifying slow motion over the next agonising 35 years. “Where did it all go wrong Mr Best?” was the punchline of a popular contemporary joke. Which turned out not to be especially funny.

For while Costard was filming Best at his very zenith in terms of fame, success and tabloid notoriety, what he wasn’t to know was that Best, and particularly the team he was playing for, were already on the ebb.

Within three months - while Costard was in post-production - with mighty Manchester United struggling, Wilf McGuinness, Matt Busby’s anointed successor at Old Trafford, would be out and Busby back in the hot-seat. It would only delay, not assuage, their eventual downfall. Best, the most naturally talented footballer of not only his generation, but arguably ever, was already well down the path where addiction would eventually kill him.

George Best

And thus, Costard’s experimental film takes on a new significance; not only of a real time snap-shot of a unique individual but also as an invaluable record of a bygone era. Indeed, whenever clips of Best in action are required for broadcast today, invariably Costard’s footage is trawled. Of Fußball wie noch nie, the director himself was said to be excited by the freedom afforded by using multiple lightweight cameras. Costard said: “Artists using these small-scale tools increasingly appreciated the intimacy of the screening situations and the low-key and fragile qualities of the image and spontaneity that…filming allowed.”

Using his various camera angles, Costard keeps the lens tight on Best, sometimes on only parts of the man, those tanned legs, scarred by intimate encounters with the likes of Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris, his back, shorts, socks, crotch, or the (probably) Catholic medallion that hangs round his neck. We see Best warming up, pre-titles, Costard’s single microphone planted near to the away fans, hence the anachronistic chants of “City! City!”, and the cries that “We hate Stepney”, Alex of that name replaced in goal for the day by a nervous, but under-employed (as it turns out), Jimmy Rimmer. It was to prove that kind of season.

Boy: Who are you today, sir? Liverpool?
Mr Sugen: Don’t you know your club colours? Manchester United, this.
Boy: Are you playing Denis Law, striker?
Mr Sugden: No. Charlton today, lad. All over the field. Too cold for striker.
Boy: Charlton’s not as quick ont’ turn as Law, is he?
Mr Sugden: You tryin’ to tell me about football?
Boy: No. I…
Mr Sugden: You trying to tell me? Anyway, Denis Law’s in the wash this week.

Ken Loach’s Kes (1969)

The viewer only gets fleeting glimpses of the other United players as Best ambles, sometimes seemingly alone on a pitch that is variously jade green or turquoise (the wear and tear of ages on the film elements), from box to box. In a flash, the Irishman stiffens the sinews and transmogrifies into a supernatural blur of red and white, his change of pace absolutely spine-tingling, shirts of sky-blue in his imperious wake. Time and again, the predatory Best scouts for every opportunity, but there’s little meat on the bone of the first half.

On the terraces the crowds look like they’ve been airlifted in from another planet - mostly older men, working men, higher up the stands, lots of spectacles, neat suit jackets and ties - ties! - flat caps, an almost universal factory pallor. At the front, tousle haired kids, banging on the advertising hoardings, scarves knotted round their wrists, gleefully joining the chant of “Fuck off City!” Easy to remember lyrics. Handily.

It’s recognisably Old Trafford; no prawn sandwiches, they were still to come, but a slightly subdued atmosphere from the home crowd, only really fired into life by the first goal. But not yet…

At the interval, we follow Best - in a sequence clearly shot at a different time - glancing over his shoulder to invite us wordlessly on backstage at the ‘Theatre of Dreams’. He’s bearded and alone, standing in an empty, unprepossessing and unlit room, a tight head shot, the whiff of old socks, stale sweat and Wintergreen. Best turns to face us and for fully three minutes, we stand toe to toe.

The great man, alone with his thoughts - we peer into his mind, and he into ours. Is the shot saying that he’s a different man at half-time, that he truly is alone? Like the film as a whole, it’s deeply fascinating, hypnotic, and certainly homoerotic. On and on he stares. And on and on we stare back. Best licks his lips, then looks down. Almost as if he’s come to a decision. Or made a deal with his Gods.

After a first half during which he appears to say not one word to neither friend, nor foe, Best emerges to the pitch for the second period and flashes that trademark smile just before kick-off. It’s a good sign, for inside six minutes his lazy amble becomes that blur once more; with effortless economy, Best takes the ball down off his right thigh and it’s glued to his boot. One on one, a jink to the left and the red/white blur leaves the Coventry ‘keeper grasping at shadows as Best slots the ball into the net. The crowd erupts in acclaim. 1-0.

George Best

Five minutes after that, Best has the opposition defence in a panic once more. On the edge of the box, he eschews showy individuality and instead casually stabs the ball to his right. It’s only when he moves to congratulate the scorer that we see that it was Bobby Charlton who has made it 2-0. Best - El Beatle as he was dubbed by the Portuguese press two years previously - with his mane of luxurious jet black hair and thick mutton chop sideburns, steps forward to rather formally shake the hand of a stone-faced Charlton, his comb-over overcome by the merest breeze.

Costard’s cameras capture two eras; the almost other worldly Best, all ‘Swinging ’70s’, for whom this football lark is ridiculously easy, and the consummate professional Charlton, for whom the ’60s apparently never existed, who treats both those imposters just the same and who refuses to crack a smile until the final whistle. Sometimes not even then.

For fans of the modern game, the whole experience may seem remarkably quaint. For a start there is no shrieking, hysterical commentary to distract, to inflate the ordinary into a carrier for a business generating billions. There’s the odd - and by ‘odd’ I also mean quite random - musical overdub, but the rest is natural sound. There’s also not a single name taken by a referee who looks like, any second, he may produce a pipe.

The tackles fly in, but Best just dusts himself off and gets on with it - no writhing about on the ground, begging for a name to go into the official’s book. No stoppages as such, no ‘added time’, and incredibly for Best and many others, despite the accepted physicality on show, the GBH that passes for defending, no shinpads. Moments before he scores (no coincidence; he seems fuelled by the offence), Best also takes a hefty smack in the mouth that he doesn’t complain about - except to admonish the offender - but leaves him checking that handsome face for blood for the rest of the game.

Fußball wie noch nieNo theatrics, no hysterics, no time wasting. Just the football. It’ll never catch on.

The Frankfurter Rundschau’s film critic commented at the time that the film’s concentration on one player actually shows “the true extent to which the sport is all about teamwork.”

While that may be so - and for the politically aware Costard that may well have been his intent - it also gives a quite unique insight into the game as played in that ‘other country’ that is our past.

And a glimpse, just the merest hint, as to why, 38 years after he quite sensationally walked out of Old Trafford aged just 27, the burden of carrying a failing team simply too much for a man fighting demons on other fronts, many still think that no-one quite played The Beautiful Game as beautifully as the late, and the very great, Georgie Best.

Sincere thanks to Anthony Nield for his help in preparing this piece.

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