By Heenal Rajani
We should remember George Best for his football alone and not his decline. All the rest, everything else that has contributed to the legend of George Best, is supplementary, incidental. Remember his achievements, remember how Best and a few other men helped to heal a city devastated by the Munich air crash (of February 1958 in which 23 Manchester United players, staff and supporters died).
Some unkind commentators have remarked that Best’s death has only been covered with such volume because most sports journalists are middle-aged Manchester United fans. Unfair. He deserves the coverage. George Best (whose foot balling career was over by the time I was born) was in my opinion a far bigger and important phenomenon than any footballer today. He all but invented modern football.
He didn’t even look like any of his contemporaries. At a time when footballers were big hard men made of muscle and you could hack someone down without punishment, he was a wispy waif dancing through defences, bamboozling opponents like a magician doing tricks. He never got injured because the other team couldn’t get near him. He had it all. He could dribble, tackle, score goals with either foot, and he was imperious in the air. He was a man without peer, a genius, a stadium-filler, he was, in his time, genuinely new and exciting.
Best invented the concept of the footballer as a rock star without really trying, and certainly without big time sports agent negotiating big buck deals for him.
Pele was asked after the 1970 World Cup, “How does it feel to be the greatest player who ever lived?” He replied, “I don’t know, you’ll have to ask George Best that.” Praise doesn’t come much higher.
Some unkind people say he deserved what he got — ignoble last years and painful death. They point out that he was a wife-beater and a pisshead who wasted his talent. All these things may be true. But it was because he was an alcoholic that he was also a victim. Alcoholism is a disease which affects millions. Because it is a widely and legally-available drug, alcohol abuse is not given the attention it deserves. Many think that people choose alcoholism, but it is not a choice, it not something anyone would ever choose. Like any addiction, it consumes you and everything — everything — becomes secondary to the drug.
George Best was the first 17 year old to be eaten alive by the media. There was no protection for him, still really a child, when he became an idol overnight. His is a tragic example and it is not clear the lessons have yet been learnt. The latest episode in Paul Gascoigne’s life - sacked as manager of Kettering Town football club afer repeated drunken incidents — is and indication of the continuing “madness” of the football industry.
It is clear that Best’s illness at times subsumed his real self — a charming, generous and intelligent man. That too is part of his tragedy.
But we are fortunate ever to have witnessed a footballer with the grace, elegance and artistry of George Best. Why did 100,000 people turned up to his funeral on a rainy Saturday in Belfast if it was not because, to ordinary working class people – of all ages — he had brought immeasurable pleasure, and because he had never really left his roots?