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Pele Good, Maradona Great, George Best Complicated

George Best's fame did him a disservice as he sunk into a life of alcoholism and domestic abuse that the media of his time chose to gloss over.
November 25, 2014, 12:10pm
Photo via WIkimedia Commons

Nine years ago, legendary footballer George Best died on a bed in London's Cromwell Hospital. Checking in with flu-like symptoms, Best, a man who had spent the better part of four decades in the throes of alcoholism, developed a lung infection while in the hospital. The infection led to internal bleeding and eventually to the organ failure that caused his death. Only two years earlier, Best, whom Pele famously called the greatest footballer ever, had a controversial liver transplant in an attempt to cure his alcoholism and extend his life. It failed on both counts.

On the first page of his last autobiography, Scoring at Half-Time, Best was brimming with optimism. Only a year removed from the operation, he wrote, "I am truly blessed. I am. Once I had the world at my feet and then I almost had nothing...but as of July 2002, a new chapter has begun. For on that day I went into the Cromwell Hospital, London, and received a new liver. A new liver that I hope will allow me the opportunity to enjoy the rest of my life."

A little more than a year after the book's release, he was gone. His gratitude for the transplant was both honest and calculated. Many observers of English soccer and Best's career believed that the new liver was wasted on him. They were proven correct. Best began drinking shortly after the transplant, and continued to do so right up until he was admitted for what would be his last hospital visit. Much like his fleeting spark of footballing dominance, this new chapter came and went in a flash.

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"I think I've found you a genius." These words, sent by telegram from Manchester United scout Bob Bishop to manager Matt Busby, were the beginning of a whirlwind decade for George Best, who was discovered by Bishop at the age of 15 playing for his local boys' club in Belfast. Within five years he had become a talisman for a United team desperate for European success. For fans of soccer too young to have seen him play, Best's is the sort of legend that fathers and grandfathers talk about whenever they hear the names Ronaldo or Messi thrown around in conversation about all-time greats. "You never saw Bestie, there's never been one like him," they might have said, before chaining you to the couch to watch a documentary on him.

The thing about Best, though: while many tales of athletes of yore are somewhat mitigated when you actually watch highlights, Best's legend only grows. On the ball, if not the greatest, he was certainly the smoothest. Watch him dribbling through opponents, and one might easily be fooled into thinking he's not running, but somehow floating. His sheer audacity was something never before seen, at least in the English game. For everything he lacked in longevity and consistency, in Best's greatest moments, nobody has ever made the game look so impossibly easy.

His story is often told as something of a cautionary tale, and while that is not unfair, it is also worth noting that Best exploded onto the scene at just the right—or wrong—moment, a time when the shifting tides of culture would make him England's first great pop star athlete, or as Best was eventually called, The Fifth Beatle. In retrospect, Best and his handlers were clearly unprepared for what was to come.

The phenomenon of George Best Pop Star began with a single match. By 1966, Best, still only 19, had become one of Manchester United's key players. Eight years earlier, one of United's greatest teams, known as the Busby Babes, had its run tragically cut short when a plane carrying them crashed in Munich. Manager Matt Busby barely survived the crash himself, but emerged with a renewed sense of purpose—indeed, a conviction that the club would never overcome its profound grief until it owned a European Cup. Best led United into a quarter-final matchup with Benfica, which featured its own genius, Eusebio, considered Europe's finest player by many at that time. In the 1960s, away games were almost impossible to win. The travel was far more taxing, the refereeing far more biased, and thus Busby instructed his players to remain cautious and try to preserve the slim one goal advantage that carried over from the first leg in Manchester.

Best, however, would not be restrained. With the game televised across the continent and back home, it took him but 12 minutes to score twice, including one the greatest solo efforts in club history. His good friend and Manchester City player Mike Summerbee, said of the performance, "When you're a genius like George Best, it comes to the forefront one day. In that particular game, people sort of stood back and said, 'hang on.'" United won 5-1 and Best returned to England an overnight superstar. The Portuguese press gave him the nickname, El Beatle. When the team arrived at London's Heathrow Airport, Best walked out wearing a ridiculous sombrero, the footballing equivalent of John, Paul, George, and Ringo touching down at JFK Airport, but two years prior to that cultural touchstone.

While Best's play on the field continued to improve, his fame off of it rose exponentially. He represented an unprecedented opportunity for advertisers. A quiet, shy, and youthfully handsome figure, Best's talent, his love of partying, and the increasing power of celebrity in the media made him one of the most visible stars in the United Kingdom. Soon, Best was pulling in upwards of £100,000 a year through a staggering number of endorsements. The kid was everywhere, stumping for the Best clothes, the Best clubs, even the Best sausages. He started being followed around the clock, his house surrounded by media and adoring fans.

As a spokesperson for, well, just about everything, Best's time was increasingly taken up by activities outside of the game. Beset by social engagements and money-making opportunities, he began to drink more and more. For a while, the drinking did not impact his play. In May 1968, only a week after his twenty-second birthday, Best scored the goal that finally won United the European Cup, with another legendary individual effort, in extra-time. He was Europe's most famous footballer, and became the youngest ever Player of the Year.

This would be Best's peak. His interest in the game waned as his celebrity came to dominate his life. United's side aged and tumbled in the standings. Once, Best missed the train to a game in London. When he arrived, instead of going to the stadium, he shacked up at a girlfriend's apartment. When he was eventually found out, media, fans, and police surrounded the building. Best watched the scene unfold on the woman's television set, as hundreds of people yelled outside his door. The circus had begun, and Best continued his downward spiral. After another unsuccessful campaign, he fled to a party house in Spain. There, in the company of friends and beautiful women, he announced his retirement. He was not yet 26.

While it is easy to blame Best's growing alcoholism for his quick fall, there is no doubt that his wild fame exacerbated it. Today, a player of his stature would have an entire team of handlers. Publicists would manufacture his every word. If he chose to retire, it would be against a backdrop of corporate logos, not from a lawn chair in Marbella. An entire security apparatus would help control and subdue the mayhem. He would have access to nutritionists, therapists. Back then, players were largely left to their own devices in the off-season and Best took full advantage.

Unsurprisingly, the lure of fame and fortune helped bring Best back to the game. To be sure, he loved soccer, but the money played no small role. He was back at Old Trafford the following season. But as he aged, the glimpses of greatness came less frequently. Instead of flaming out, Best treated his fans to a slow, painful goodbye. He became something of a circus act, signing a myriad of bizarre pay-to-play contracts that often did not require him to practice with the team (which made sense because he wouldn't have bothered to show up). At some small clubs that hired him out, Best would even get a percentage of the gate, which tended to double or triple with the assurance of seeing a legend in the flesh. But even then, he retained a little magic. He found marginal success with the San Jose Earthquakes and even came close to making Northern Ireland's World Cup squad at the age of 37.

All the while the drinking and the turmoil barely, if ever, subsided. Arrests for theft, drunk driving, car accidents, and even jail time for head-butting a policemen became bigger stories than ones of the odd goal or two he scored. If the rapid rise to superstardom was Best's first act, the slow, booze-soaked fall was his second, and the last gasp liver transplant his third.

The fall of George Best revealed a darker side. He admitted to, or at least never denied, beating his second wife Alex, who divorced him shortly before his death. A pattern of abuse emerged. In a 1998 biography titled Bestie, author Joe Lovejoy claimed that Best punched Alex more than once. The book also included the story of an assault charge brought against Best by a waitress in 1972.

Best's womanizing was legendary among soccer fans, but his actual treatment of women deserved far more serious attention than the fawning typically granted to him. Even after Alex accused Best of abuse, the media's reaction was often not one of weight or scorn: opinion pieces ran that vilified Alex, painting her as a fame-seeking model who did not appreciate all that Best did for her, even though he had beaten her repeatedly. In one such screed, it was said that a major flaw of Best's regarding women was that love came too easily to him. The documentary The Truth About George Best showed him shortly before the end of his life, cutting an increasingly feeble but largely unrepentant figure. It shows clips of Best trying to explain away his abuse to Alex, and his aggressive attempts to persuade a married woman who he claimed to be madly in love with to leave her husband.

Best's rise to stardom came at a time when celebrity did not necessarily entail the intense scrutiny it does today. But perhaps that scrutiny would have served him well. Perhaps the overwhelming love of George Best stopped people from placing sufficient weight on the uglier side of his character—choosing instead to emphasize the idea of Best as footballer, partier, and heartthrob. His womanizing remained largely tabloid fare, but only in service of glorification: he dated two Miss World contestants. Legend has it that Best and one of the Miss Worlds once won thousands of pounds at the racetrack. Back in the hotel, they ordered champagne. The waiter arrived in the room to find Best, the Miss World, and stacks of cash. Remembering Best's early days, he asked the footballer, "Mr. Best, where did it all go wrong?"

While he never blamed anybody for the way his life unfolded, Best would also often claim that he never hurt anyone, even though his son wrestled with serious depression, two wives left him in acrimonious divorces, and, through it all, a whole series of people were compelled to do little other than worry about him. Indeed, Best remained somehow endearing to the public, a sympathetic figure unable to cope with levels of fame and fortune that were, at least for a time, impossible to relate to. He never lost his sense of humor, but even in joking, Best revealed a tragic lack of perspective, and acknowledged the power of the alcoholism that ruined his life.

"I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars," Best said. "The rest I just squandered."