Belfast, Northern Ireland | At 1000 GMT on Saturday, Dec 3, a cortí¨ge will depart the George Best family home in Protestant east Belfast and wind to the Grand Hall of Stormont Parliamentary Building, a white, colonnaded edifice on a hill. The Police Service of Northern Ireland said it was planning for more than 100,000 mourners. Both British Protestant and Irish Catholic sides of the notoriously riven community support a new national sports stadium (see Nov 21) being named in Best’s honor. According to Sean O’Hagan, writing in The Observer, Best
transcended even the taut tribal loyalties of his birthplace. It mattered not that he was Protestant, or from a loyalist neighbourhood, only that he was Northern Irish. This is a freedom accorded only the very few, though, in truth, he bestowed it on himself by virtue of his singularity.
Reactions to Best’s death over a weekend laden with fixtures ranged from respectful silence to raucousness. At a Premiership match between Chelsea and Portsmouth—called Best’s “second home” in English football—Pompey supporters sang “One George Best, there’s only one George Best!” Portsmouth chairman Milan Mandaric recalled having signed Best for the San Jose Earthquakes of the North American Soccer League. They tangled over Best’s drinking but, according to Mandaric, ended as friends.
Tributes from football’s exalted poured forth: from Pelé, Diego Maradona, Johan Cruyff and George Weah. In the ongoing search for comparison, the eloquent observer of U.S. sporting cultures, Richard Crepeau, said he struggled
to think of a precise North American equivalent although there are obvious parallels between Best and Babe Ruth, or Best and “Broadway” Joe Namath. Like all heroes he showed a society what they wanted to see, what they wanted to emulate, and what they aspired to above all else.
Crepeau also recalls for us the observations of Mary Riddell, who likewise notes Best’s suitability as the projection of a society’s darker side: “Best is not simply the poster boy for a nation of bad drinkers,” Riddell writes, amplifying the commentary of mostly male pundits who fixated on the womanizing and inebriation.
He is also an emblem for a society that regards death as an unnatural event, engineered, even in the elderly, by substandard treatment or some failure of human courage…. All he has done, besides the football, is to amplify the fixations of the society in which he lives. What else are heroes for?
Media seemed to struggle over the weekend with these aspects of the Best persona. The Guardian‘s Martin Kelner, in a media critique, mentions the vapidity of some observations—Kay Burley of Sky Sports says, “I remember him coming into the make-up room here at Sky once and he was a true gent”—and also the troubling banality of, 4 minutes, 42 seconds after the death announcement, the broadcast of archival footage of Best anointing a tower of champagne glasses.
The Guardian itself tried to balance the risks of seeming to laud the Best lifestyle by publishing a broadside from Best’s doctor, Roger Williams, condemning recent liberalization of U.K. regulations governing alcohol licenses. “Scandinavia got its drinking under control by putting up the price,” says Williams. “A gin and tonic in a bar in Sweden costs about £20, so people there don’t drink so much. We should be going down that road in Britain.”
In spite of the policy questions, however, the Saturday funeral will have spiritual resonance for many. Artist Paul Wilson has produced a new portrait for a Belfast gallery. “I always thought he was like Jesus, with the long hair and beard,” Wilson said.