London | George Best died at 1255 GMT at a west London hospital on Friday. News outlets had more than enough time to ready their copy, and the obituaries became available within minutes of his last breath. Perhaps the most comprehensive supply of pathos exists in a special section of Best’s hometown Belfast Telegraph.
The Best iconography stirs a range of associations. For the Telegraph‘s Malcolm Brodie, Best, 59, was “[a] Pied Piper in one sense … the Elusive Pimpernel in the other,” alluding to his charismatic mastery on the wing for Manchester United in the 1960s and to an elusive, introverted persona that nevertheless claimed Beatles-like celebrity and, to his death, associations with profligacy and addiction. Brodie also invokes the name of Brazilian legend Garrincha as a comparative, one who excelled as a player but struggled with the more mundane—the latter, however, died in obscurity, in contrast to the public tributes now flowing for Georgie, or “El Beatle.” Brodie quotes the late Times (U.K.) football writer Geoffrey Green: “George Best is a Gemini. He is two people….”
Simon Barnes in the Times invokes Carl Jung to help come to grips with Best’s “neuroses,” linking Best with Vincent Van Gogh as individuals whose demons somehow fueled their genius. “At least Van Gogh left paintings,” Barnes writes. “Best leaves only memories and grainy film clips. His was a genius for the ephemeral, for the infinitely trivial. This is not to devalue it. It was beautiful and perfect and it has gone and left us unsatisfied.”
Henry Winter of the Daily Telegraph transports us to Best’s beginnings, to the household at 16 Burren Way in the Cregagh housing estate, east Belfast. His father, Dickie, was a shipyard worker who was at Best’s bedside when he died. Mother Ann worked in a cigarette factory and died of alcohol poisoning in 1978. Winter refers to a picture of Best at 14 months “controlling a ball outside his grandparents’ house in Belfast. Remarkably, all the famous traits are already in nascent evidence: the balance, the eye on the ball, the shifting of weight from one foot to another.” Yet Best worked hard on top of the natural ability. He concentrated on becoming a two-footed player—playing in Belfast, according to Barnes, “with a boot on his left foot and a plimsoll on the other”—so that his left foot would come to be regarded as superior to his natural right.
A creature of routine, Best was, “like most footballers, a natural conservative,” writes Gordon Burn in a magisterial assessment in the Guardian. Burn pairs Best with a previous Manchester United great, Duncan Edwards, one of eight United players to die as a result of the 6 Feb 1958 airplane crash in Munich. Best made his debut for the team in 1963, at age 17. Manager Matt Busby came to see Best as an heir to Edwards, both with their own tragic arcs. The “Busby Babes,” with Best often clashing with the senior Sir Bobby Charlton, a survivor of the Munich crash, would lift the European Cup in 1968 against Benfica; Best was named European Footballer of the Year. (Appropriately, the Champions League schedule calls for United to visit Benfica in a critical European tie in less than two weeks, on Dec 7.)
Best left United in 1974, having scored 180 times for the side. But his name was now linked with drinking establishments as well as goals: the Brown Bull in Manchester, Phene Arms in Chelsea in London. He owned Bestie’s Bar in Hermosa Beach, California, during a stint with the Los Angeles Aztecs of the North American Soccer League. He also played for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and San Jose Earthquakes. Dave Wasser, organizer of the recent NASL reunion, ranks a match between the Dallas Tornado and Best’s Aztecs in 1977 as his fifth-favorite in league history; Elton John, an acquaintance of Best, takes credit in a halftime chat for suggesting that Best give the American league a try.
Burn calls on celebrity profiler Gay Talese to exegete the “hyperexistence” of what the writers, clearly reading Best’s biography as a cautionary tale, see as Best’s years in decline, the isolated years of wandering London streets with “a faraway look in his eye.” And Burn has a quiver of additional allusions at the ready:
Whenever I would see him in the Phene—old man’s glasses low on his nose, Daily Mirror crossword propped up protectively in front of him—he’d remind me of the life-lagged narrator of Peter Handke‘s short novel, The Afternoon of a Writer. After a day spent not getting any words down on the page, the writer of the title habitually hauls his carcass to the local “gin mill” to lose himself: “He recalled certain particulars concerning each one of them. Not a few had told him the whole story of their lives, most of which he had forgotten by the next day…. For today he required no more, no sight or conversation, and above all nothing new. Just to rest, to close his eyes and ears; just to inhale and exhale would be effort enough.”
In what now seems a morbid coincidence, read beside the yellow pallor on Best’s face in death-bed photographs, British pubs the night before Best’s death officially ended the 90-year tradition of 11 p.m. closings. Initiated in 1915 to curb drinking among World War I–era munitions workers, the law has been partially blamed for the English culture of binge drinking. Yet groups of physicians and police fear expanded hours “will encourage the darker angels of a hard-drinking society.”