Best and Edwards, by Gordon Burn

Heroes, zeroes and the death of football
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They may never abandon it, but many lifelong enthusiasts now feel that football has become contemptible - corrupted by money, cynical, ill-governed. The player widely considered the greatest of all - Diego Maradona - was a cheat. Italian clubs protest that if they didn't suborn referees then somebody else would. The 2006 World Cup was marred by gleeful malevolence.

How, when and why did this ruination come about? These questions underlie Gordon Burn's study of two great Manchester United players: Duncan Edwards, who died aged 21 of injuries following the 1958 Munich air disaster, and George Best, whose life, despite his efforts, lasted much longer. There are no straightforward answers, but some powerful suggestions. Best needs no introduction, but Edwards lived before television discovered football, in the days of the maximum wage, when a star like Jackie Milburn would travel to St James's Park on the bus with the fans. Football was an expression of working-class talent and imagination. It belonged, imperfectly but genuinely, to the people from whom the players emerged. A footballer's afterlife could be cruel, of course: the great Wilf Mannion ended up sweeping factory floors.

Edwards partly resembled Bryan Robson and Roy Keane - fiercely powerful box-to-box players, masters of any match - but was more skilful than either, temperamentally less violent than Keane, and still developing when he died. Burn describes him as a courteous young man from a housing estate in Dudley, a well-liked representative of his people and his town. There's a risk of sentimentalising the working-class life of half a century ago, but Burn rightly identifies a combination, still widespread among older people, of decency and self-possession ungoverned by material goods. Today's working-class - depicted as stupefied Little Britainites - present the author with a grim but too carefully contrived disappointment.

Predictably, Best (who made Maradona look like a carthorse) appears in a less favourable light. Best, on this reading, was cynical by disposition. Only barmen earned his solidarity. He was there to distress Bobby Charlton, Munich survivor, World Cup hero and probable inheritor of the description carved on the statue of Milburn in Newcastle: "footballer and gentleman", words to make Best smirk into his glass. For Charlton, Best must have been an offence to his gifts.

Charlton has never recovered from the loss of Edwards and other friends. Haunted melancholy shadows his every utterance. For Burn, he stands between the world symbolically ended by Munich and the wealthier one where Best led the charge. The structure is almost too neat - but many will remember the shock in the studio when Charlton remarked in a commentary, maybe 30 years ago, that a defender had had no choice but to commit what was becoming known as a professional foul.

That phrase gives off the stink of all that's gone amiss. It's not Charlton's fault, of course. No one supposes football was ever innocent, but until recently its rules seemed enforceable on and off the pitch. Without them, the game has no meaning.

For those whose football world began with Maradona and for whom Puskas and Eusebio are barely names, the age of Edwards and Milburn is remote. This eloquent, sorrowful and angry book adds much to our understanding of what the game has lost. Compare Zidane and the odious Materazzi with the mutual respect of Pele and Moore at Mexico 1970. Discuss, in sorrow and anger.

Sean O'Brien's new translation of Dante's 'Inferno' is published this month by Picador