George Best: A hero for our times

Football follows the Lazarus principle. One-nil down and we Arsenal fans start to despair in the North Bank at Highbury. But it’s never over until it’s over and salvation can arrive seconds before the final whistle.
George Best, not for the first time, has tested resurrection theory to its limits.

Last Thursday, he was “as bad as it gets”. By the weekend, though still unconscious, he had rallied a little. By this morning, he may be slightly better, or much the same, or dead. Few thought that Britain’s greatest soccer legend could survive for long.

His eulogists, all male, have hymned him either to his grave or, in the event of another miraculous comeback, to the nearest pub. Best’s balletic footwork has been praised, his goals rescored and his status as the fifth Beatle exhumed, along with the atlas of Miss Worlds with whom he slept.

The misogyny, the broken relationships, the alleged violence against women and the time he was jailed after butting a policeman are all there, too, with more or less moral gilding depending on which newspaper you read. What is missing is any real explanation of Britain’s long love affair with a man who loathed himself.

Best’s story is not typical. The lives of fallen footballers, once nasty, short and brutish, are better starred in an age of big money and strict managers. Tony Adams, a recovering alcoholic, runs rehab schemes for fellow addicts; Paul Merson beat his addictions; even Paul Gascoigne resurfaced last week, looking spruce enough to sell Ford Focuses to the inhabitants of Kettering if he were not running the town’s football club. Only Best was dedicated, and lonely, enough to see his obsession through to the end.

If not an ordinary soccer drunk, he is an even stranger icon. It is easy, obviously, to see why he first became such a celebrity. No need to go on about the Adonis looks and genius goals. Most fans do not even remember them.

They do, though, see in Best a relic of innocence. He might have drunk himself to meltdown, but he did it on cheap vodka, not Cristal champagne. Manchester’s Slack Alice nightclub, which he co-owned, sounded cosier than Chinawhite, and his womanising, if not quite a Tennyson idyll, at least beat rape and roasting sessions.

Besides, no other football idol quite worked out. Beckham, once marketed as Barbara Bush in designer sunglasses, proved lacking in apple-pie family values. Wayne Rooney’s youth and flair are offset by Barney Rubble looks and an anger-management issue. But neither lack of competition nor nostalgia explains Best’s enduring magnetism.

The British do not usually spend long in thrall to sporting legends. There were no tears for Tim Henman, the former tennis idol beaten and supplanted by Andrew Murray. And what constitutes a hero, anyway? When Time magazine picked its top 20, it was searching for people articulating the longings of their age through courage, selflessness, exuberance, superhuman ability and grace.

Fine, except that some finalists, such as Princess Diana and Marilyn Monroe could also be classified as flawed egomaniacs with slick publicity machines. The French play, Heroes, translated by Tom Stoppard for a London run, has a better slant on glory.

Its three old soldiers, played by John Hurt, Richard Griffiths and Ken Stott, have no claim to greatness. One is agoraphobic, one lame and the third has blackouts, from which he emerges recalling what sounds like an artillery charge but which turns out to be sex with a prostitute. Their heroism lies not on the battlefield but in the way they cling to their impossible dream of cheating death by escaping from their retirement home and finding freedom.

George Best has similar fantasies. Not long ago, he was saying, quite seriously, that he wanted to run the London marathon at 60 and have two more children with his then-wife, Alex Pursey. But the marriage is over and Best’s training regime was to drink until he was yellow, shambling and gaunt. He has few friends left and his latest girlfriend is on holiday abroad.

But Best never saw himself as tragic. I interviewed him once, long ago, for an at-home feature. He was an undischarged bankrupt living with Mary Shatila, a long-standing partner, in a tiny flat. The boudoir of the great seducer was the size of a railway sleeper compartment and as bare as a cell, apart from a book of cryptic crosswords, a dying pot plant and a wooden plaque bearing the motto of Alcoholics Anonymous.

George kept it on his wall in lieu of going to meetings. They made him edgier, he said, than being in his local pub, whose wall bore a second, alcohol-related sign. “This seat is reserved for George Best,” it read. Even in 1991, the chair was rarely vacant. I liked Best. He was clever, well read and mostly truthful, but you could say that of half the population.

His credentials as modern icon do not lie in charm, but in some tightrope between the Sixties and now. He is not, as Dylan is, someone who morphs between changing cultures, embracing civil rights one day and God the next.

Instead, Best has plodded on, artlessly in step with the times. Once, society cheered on his hedonism. Now, it has a stake in his self-delusion. Of Britain’s 11-million binge drinkers, half recently told a survey that getting legless has no bad effects on their health.

Best is not simply the poster boy for a nation of bad drinkers. 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. People who cannot bear to confront their own mortality have spent a lot of time staring at Best swigging lethal doses of wine and brandy. Only career alcoholics might understand the compulsion of slow suicide, but stressed unit-counters could look at him and feel better about themselves.

Being more thoughtful than his peers only made things worse. Those less clever, less wise and less self-destructive gave up long ago, but Best was not stopping this side of death. It may be now or later, but old colleagues who went to visit him in hospital last week all talked of the gravity of his condition. According to some, he was resigned. Others thought he was fighting to survive. It seemed possible that Best, a veteran of the deathbed scene, could pull through one more time.

Meanwhile, the obituaries are written. Best will be lionised by some and viewed by others as an unlamented wreck who abused lovers, friendships and the second-hand liver that might have saved a better life than his. Neither version sounds right. All he has done, besides the football, is to amplify the fixations of the society in which he lives. What else are heroes for? — Â

Client Media Releases

#Budget2019: Helping SMEs with their travel budgets
Warehousing the future: all tech and no people?
Fiscal sustainability depends on boost in growth rate
#SS19HACK: Protecting connected citizens in the 4IR
SACDA appoints UKZN SAEF dean as vice-chair