Last Thursday, doctors treating George Best, one of the greatest talents to ever grace a football pitch, gave him only hours to live. He died the next day after struggling with an infection and internal bleeding for over a month and with alcoholism for decades. He was 59.
The tributes began flowing in from far and wide as soon as he passed away. A minute’s silence was held in honour at every ground in England over the weekend. Shame on the Leeds and Liverpool fans who disrupted it.
I wasn’t around in the 60s and 70s, but I have seen grainy videos of a young, impish Best, just days past his 22rd birthday, skipping past the whole Benfica team on his way to goal and victory in the European Champion’s Cup. I also spent four months working on a project with a Mancunian called Bill, an Old Trafford season ticket holder who told me of how he witnessed, first hand, Georgie Best’s meteoric rise to fame and his sudden fall from grace.
Best was born in Belfast soon after the war. He grew up on a council estate and bunked off his lessons in order to play football. Bob Bishop, a United talent scout, saw Best play and telegraphed manager Matt Busby “I think I’ve found you a genius”. He was right.
Best arrived at United a timid and insecure young lad, so homesick he had to be dragged back to Manchester after fleeing for home. Within years he had become football’s first superstar, his dazzling skills and boyish good looks making him a hit with the fans and the ladies respectively. George Best had everything he wanted. Then he threw it all away.
His career fell apart as the late nights and boozing took their toll. He left United after being punished for his indiscipline in January 1974. By April the Reds were relegated. Best played for several smaller clubs, toured the after-dinner circuit and wrote a hatful of books, then in 1990, appeared on Wogan, soused and swearing. Best battled alcoholism without success, requiring a liver transplant and going in and out of hospitals. The man who Pele described as the greatest player in the world wrote in his autobiography “Drink is the only opponent I’ve been unable to beat.”
After his transplant doctors warned George Best that if he ever drank again, it could kill him. Never one to be bossed around, he did drink, and last week paid for it with his life. A week or so before, an emaciated Best allowed the tabloids to take publish a photo of him with the caption “Don’t die like me”.
Some say Best wasted his life and it is true that he could have lived longer and achieved so much more, rather than leave us wondering “what if”.” But he was perhaps the world’s greatest footballer by 22 and he lived life his way. He crumbled on the way back down, but Best aimed for the stars and reached them. Instead of mourning him or, worse, damning him, we should thank him for showing us a little glimpse of heaven on the football pitch. George Best made football beautiful. We will miss him.
back to the Limassol Dispatch homepage