Farewell, King George VII
By H Natarajan
Britain could witness the biggest outpouring of public grief since Lady Diana’s death when George Best is laid to rest at Belfast on Saturday. Both were victims of premature ends – for Best, it was his football career and for Diana, her life itself – as they tried to escape from the unrelenting hounding of paparazzi enamoured by their very high profiles lifestyles.
There is a commonality to their tragic lives. Diana was barely out of her teens when she married Prince Charles to emerge as the future queen of England. Best was just 17 when he joined the famed Manchester United and soon raised visions as the future king of English soccer. But the goodness of the two Geminis was overshadowed by their troubled personal lives; Diana battled bulimia, a scandal-scarred marriage, divorce and depression while Best was savaged by his addiction to alcohol, broken marriages and womanizing. Both Diana and Best were suicidal. The paparazzi only heightened their misery. Diana was just 36 when she was killed in a car accident, trying to escape the paparazzi. Best was just 25 when he left Manchester United and on the path of self and career destruction, unable to handle pressures on the field and distractions off it. An inebriated chauffeur contributed to Diana’s death and it was the excessive love for Bacchus that cost Best his life.
It would be a pity if Best is remembered for his dalliance with alcohol and women than for his genius as a footballer. Where would Best rank among the pantheon of football greats? Pele hailed him as “the best player in the world” and Alex Ferguson called him as "unquestionably the greatest”.
Best elevated the game to an art form with his sublime skills in an era when football was more brutal because of permissive officiating. He tore through the field with speed and body swerve and capped his runs with dexterous shooting off either foot. He gave the kind of joy that one got watching the genius of John McEnroe or the artistry of Gundappa Vishwanath. Danny Blanchflower summed it up eloquently: “Best had ice in his veins, warmth in his heart and timing and balance in his feet.”
Best’s foot skills were mesmeric. West Bromwich Albion full-back Graham Williams, a victim of Best’s wizardry, asked him to stand still for a moment on meeting him years later. A puzzled Best wanted to know the reason. “Because all I've ever seen of you is your arse disappearing down the touchline!” was Williams’ reply.
A decade after the Munich air crash in which eight of the "Busby Babes" perished, the troika of Best, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law led the Renaissance of the Red Devils of which saw them win the League Championship in ’65 and ’67 and the European Cup – the first by an English club - in 1968. Best’s sustained brilliance achieved a crowning glory when he was named “British & European Footballer of the Year” in 1968. He auctioned the latter trophy for £167,250 in 2003 to an anonymous British football fan. However, Best's family have been given a replacement of the trophy which his former United team-mates Law and Sir Bobby collected in Paris on Monday. In 1970, he slotted in six goals in Man U's 8-2 FA Cup victory over Northampton Town. It was then a FA Cup record and it came in his first game after coming out of a four-week suspension for knocking the ball out of a referee's hands.
In naming five of Best’s most memorable goals, BBC Sport picked one that was disallowed. It came on May 15, 1971 in the Northern Ireland vs England game at Belfast. BBC had this to say of that indelible moment: “Gordon Banks had enhanced his reputation as the best ’keeper in the world the previous summer with what is widely regarded as the greatest ever save - his save from Pele's header in the 1970 World Cup. But Best almost made him look a stooge with a piece of lightning thinking. Best was idling like a street-corner urchin as Banks prepared to punt the ball upfield. The England keeper tossed the ball into the air and in the instant he draw his leg back, Best toe-poked the ball upwards. As a bemused Banks looked around for the ball, Best nodded it into the empty net, only for the referee to disallow the goal for dangerous play.” This was an amalgam of opportunism and magic at its bewitching best.
But the goal which many consider as his greatest came for San Jose Earthquakes against Fort Lauderdale Strikers. It was reminiscent of Diego Maradona’s mind-boggling solo effort against England in the 1986 World Cup when he dribbled 75 yards to hoodwink the entire English defense and goalkeeper Peter Shilton. Best had described his magical effort: “I set off. I beat one player, then another. By the end I had beaten five of them in the space of 10 yards. I didn't know how I did it and still don't ... When I see it on television, it still dazzles me.”
Tragically, Frank O'Farrell and Tommy Docherty, the men who succeeded Sir Matt Busby at Old Trafford, were not as sagacious as their predecessor in handling the flawed genius of Best. As Sir Bobby Charlton said regretfully recently: “Instead of being hostile to George, which I was, if we had leaned a bit his way and tried to help him, who knows?”
Best’s missed training sessions, disappearance acts – he once refused to travel with the team for a match against Chelsea and instead spent time with an actress at her home with a battery of photographers outside the house - and an heightened affliction for the brew all contributed to his maladies and distancing from his team-mates.
Parting of ways was inevitable. Though he played for many clubs, Man U held pride of place in his heart. I saw the reverence for Best while talking to members and fans at Manchester United during a recent visit to the celebrated club. It was apparent he has remained special despite his tumultuous past.
The incredibly gifted Northern Ireland international, voted the Greatest British Sportsman of all time by a panel of thousand scribes and sports personalities in 1977, sadly never got the chance to display his skills on a World Cup stage. At the pomp of his career, Best is reported to have appointed three secretaries to reply to the thousands of fan mails he received every week. He never forgot his fans. His ex-wife Alex said that Best used to get annoyed when celebrities refused to talk to people on the street or the pub. He said that it was the people who made celebrities and it was their duty to give something back.
But Best remained an unrepentant rebel. He said what he felt without getting into the niceties of diplomacy. He made no bones about deriding marquee names in contemporary football if they did not fit with his idea of greatness. He pilloried David Beckham in his inimitable style: “He cannot kick with his left foot, he cannot head a ball, he cannot tackle and he doesn't score many goals. Apart from that he's alright." On another occasion, he said: “I once said Gazza's IQ was less than his shirt number and he asked me, ‘What's an IQ?’ ”
Best was an icon of the Swinging Sixties. He earned the sobriquet of the “Fifth Beatle” as his flowing mane, chiseled features and bohemian lifestyle earned him rock star-like attention, especially from delirious young females.
He, however, paid a very high price for living a hedonistic life. He endured two broken marriages, bankruptcy, imprisonment for drunk-driving – “I suppose that's fu**ed up the knighthood,” he was to say - and assaulting a police officer and a 10-hour liver transplant following years of alcohol abuse and finally succumbed to it.
One endearing quality about the bohemian was his candidness. He also had a wry sense of humour, especially while talking about the bevy of beautiful women in his life. He once said that, “They say I slept with seven Miss Worlds. I didn't - it was only four. I didn't turn up for the other three!" On another occasion, he said: "I used to go missing a lot... Miss Canada, Miss United Kingdom, Miss World!" He said he spent 90% of his money on women, drink and fast cars. “The rest,” he added dramatically, “I wasted!"
Best, looking more like Sean Connery towards the end of his life, got more out his 59 years in one lifetime than most people can hope to in three births. He was rarely apologetic about the life he chose to lead. Life was one long celebration for him. Words like regret and remorse were not in his lexicon. Mourning the loss of such a joyous person seems out of sync. Let’s raise a toast in his memory. I am sure that he will do the same from his celestial abode.
Beckham has said that Manchester United should retire jersey No 7 as a tribute to Best while on a nostalgic and poignant Monday night, Old Trafford, The Guardian wrote, felt like a cathedral with something to worship. The electronic board showed "George Best (1963-1974), 470 appearances, 179 goals, 1 genius." But the most unforgettable moment was a poster that had the legend: "Shevchenko, £50m. Ronaldinho, £50m. George Best, priceless. RIP."