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'It's mindboggling': How George Best and Pele almost became team-mates at Manchester United

 

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Pele and George Best are two of the greatest footballers of all time and they could have played on the same team.

Pele and George Best are two of the greatest footballers of all time and they could have played on the same team.

George Best and Pele finally came face to face during their days playing in the North American Soccer League. Here, Best presents the Brazilian with a plaque, recognising Pele as the best player in the world during Pele Appreciation Day at Rose Bowl stadium in Pasedena, California, in 1978.

George Best and Pele finally came face to face during their days playing in the North American Soccer League. Here, Best presents the Brazilian with a plaque, recognising Pele as the best player in the world during Pele Appreciation Day at Rose Bowl stadium in Pasedena, California, in 1978.

Pele

Pele

George Best

George Best

Sammy McIlroy

Sammy McIlroy

Getty Images

Pele and George Best are two of the greatest footballers of all time and they could have played on the same team.

Pele has always said that George Best was the greatest footballer he ever saw and played the game more like a Brazilian than a European.

It is one of football's biggest disappointments that their paths never crossed when either of the legends were at their peak.

And yet in one of football's most legendary sliding doors moments, they came within a whisker of being team-mates - not once, but twice.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the crowning glory of Pele's career - the 1970 World Cup Finals in Mexico.

And the Brazilian maestro could easily have been a Manchester United player at the time.

It was a long-held rumour that United had made an offer to his Brazilian club Santos and Pele confirmed it when he visited Manchester for a humanitarian charity event a couple of years ago.

"Yes, I had an offer, I think in '68. The late Sixties," he revealed.

"The team I used to play for, Santos, said, 'We have a number of calls to play in Manchester for Manchester United'."

In the end, he chose to remain with his boyhood club, but the tantalising prospect of Pele and Best at the European Cup holders leaves football lovers drooling at the mouth.

"It's mindboggling," says Sammy McIlroy, who was Matt Busby's last signing when he crossed the Irish Sea as a 15-year-old in 1969.

"It's so sad it never happened - not just for Manchester United but English football. What a scoop that would have been.

"For a young lad like myself coming into training every day, it would have been a dream to see them together.

"The fans would be queuing up just to watch them turn up in their cars for training."

McIlroy believes that having Pele alongside him at United might have motivated Best to avoid going down a self-destructive path.

Knowing Bestie, he would have said, 'He's classed as the best player in the world. I will show him'.

The European Cup was not just the pinnacle of Best's career but his last major honour.

By the time United won their next major trophy - the 1977 FA Cup - the club had been relegated and their prized asset had long since quit Old Trafford.

McIlroy adds: "When we won the European Cup in 1968, George was still in his early 20s and hadn't reached his peak.

"He might have thought, 'If they are bringing in Pele, then this is a step in the right direction'.

"Bestie did get a bit disinterested when things began to go wrong and the European Cup-winning side did begin to break up. That upset him.

"To play alongside Pele when he was at his pomp at the time, that could have sorted him out.

"Knowing Bestie, he would have said, 'He's classed as the best player in the world. I will show him'.

"Without a doubt, it would have got up to five more years out of Bestie.

"I am 100% sure that if a player like this came to Man United, of course he would have hung around."

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George Best and Pele finally came face to face during their days playing in the North American Soccer League. Here, Best presents the Brazilian with a plaque, recognising Pele as the best player in the world during Pele Appreciation Day at Rose Bowl stadium in Pasedena, California, in 1978.

George Best and Pele finally came face to face during their days playing in the North American Soccer League. Here, Best presents the Brazilian with a plaque, recognising Pele as the best player in the world during Pele Appreciation Day at Rose Bowl stadium in Pasedena, California, in 1978.

George Best and Pele finally came face to face during their days playing in the North American Soccer League. Here, Best presents the Brazilian with a plaque, recognising Pele as the best player in the world during Pele Appreciation Day at Rose Bowl stadium in Pasedena, California, in 1978.

 

Best and Pele effectively ended their careers playing in the United States, where eventually they did face each other in the North American Soccer League.

But in another twist of fate, they again could have been team-mates.

After tentative negotiations with Best, New York Cosmos president Clive Toye flew to Manchester in 1975 with a contract, but the player went walkabout and never showed at their meeting.

Cosmos might have missed out on Best, but months later Pele joined the club.

Best did eventually head to the States and it was while he was playing for San Jose Earthquakes that he scored one of the most celebrated goals of all time.

He might have been 35 years old and carrying a lot of baggage, but in 1981 Best was enjoying an Indian summer in his career.

"We all saw that goal when he beat five defenders in the box," recalls McIlroy, who was in the only Northern Ireland side to play Brazil - at the 1986 World Cup Finals, ironically also in Mexico.

"Bestie was in unbelievable nick then.

"We qualified for the 1982 World Cup Finals in Spain and the players were clamouring to get him in the squad.

"With George in that condition, we thought it would give us a right lift.

"I remember I was asked my opinion, so was Pat Jennings and a few others. We all wanted him in, but (Northern Ireland boss) Billy Bingham said he couldn't really trust George to be away for five or six weeks.

"It is a crying shame for a country like Northern Ireland that the best player we ever had never played in a World Cup Finals."

Belfast Telegraph