26 November 2005

George Best, 59, Soccer's First Pop Icon, Dies - New York Times

New York Times

Published: November 25, 2005

George Best, an Irish soccer star who captivated the public with his flamboyant skill on the field and his playboy exploits off the field, died today in London's Cromwell Hospital of multiple organ failure, a hospital spokesman said. He was 59.

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Associated Press

George Best, one of the most dazzling players in soccer history who also reveled in a hard-drinking, playboy lifestyle, died at age 59.

Mr. Best had been in the intensive care unit for a month, when his condition deteriorated drastically on Wednesday. Dr. Roger Williams, in charge of his care at the hospital, said that the former soccer star had internal bleeding, most likely from his bowel.

Mr. Best was hospitalized in 2000 for a liver condition and had a liver transplant in 2002. He had waged a lifelong battle with alcohol and lost.

"My father has passed away." Mr. Best's tearful son, Calum, told reporters on the hospital steps, according to Reuters. "Not only have I lost my dad but we've all lost a wonderful man."

In the staid and tradition-bound world of English soccer during the 1960's, Mr. Best quickly came to personify the rebelliousness of that decade. As soccer's first pop icon, often compared to the American football star Joe Namath of the New York Jets, Mr. Best began his professional career with Manchester United, one of the most powerful clubs in England and the world.

Mr. Best was to soccer what the Beatles were music and pop culture: a reminder that the world was about to change, for better or worse. He made the game entertaining because he was an entertainer long before sportsmen became celebrities. He was a working-class hero in the most working-class British sport, continually sticking his finger in the eye of the establishment.

At the beginning of his career his antics off the field never seemed to affect his playing.

"If ever there was a greater player than George, I've never seen him, Jimmy Greaves, a member of England's 1966 World Cup-winning squad, said in an Oct. 27 interview, Bloomberg News reported. "He was wonderful."

Mr. Best joined Manchester United in 1961 as a 15-year-old apprentice from the public housing of Belfast, Northern Ireland. Bob Bishop, Manchester United's scout in Ireland, had discovered Mr. Best and sent a message to the club's director, Sir Matt Busby: "I think I found you a genius."

Mr. Best made his Manchester United debut at right wing on Sept. 14, 1963, against West Bromwich Albion and scored his first goal in only his second league appearance. The club won the English First Division (now Premier League) championship the next season, 1964-65, and again in 1966-67.

His brilliant yet tumultuous career in the north of England ended when he walked out on the club in 1974 at age 27 after having scored 137 goals in 361 league appearances for United and an additional 41 goals in 105 games in various domestic and international cup competitions.

Mr. Best played in his first international match for Northern Ireland at age 17 and made 37 international appearances, scoring nine goals. In November 1972, he was forced to withdraw from a game against Spain in Northern Ireland because of death threats against him from the Irish Republican Army. Mr. Best never played in the World Cup finals because Northern Ireland did not qualify until 1982.

Mr. Best dazzled the world with his prodigious dribbling skills , often taking a withdrawn position in the midfield, then dashing forward, the ball seemingly tethered to his foot. His touch of genius and individual flair on the field were matched only by his outrageous behavior off the field, which mesmerized and often incensed a sporting public that had come to expect its soccer stars to be seen on Saturdays and unheard the rest of the week.

Perhaps the apex of Mr. Best's career came at Wembley Stadium in London in 1968, when he scored the eventual game-winning goal in Manchester United's classic 4-1 victory over Benfica of Portugal in the European Cup final, the most prestigious club competition in Europe. Mr. Best was selected as the British Footballer of the Year in 1968 and the European Player of the Year in 1968.

That was only the beginning of Mr. Best's roller coaster soccer career, from the pinnacle with Manchester United to the game's backwater of forgettable lower-division clubs in Britain, Spain and Australia. He also played for three clubs in the North American Soccer League from 1976 to 1981, scoring 54 goals in 139 games.

Off the field, Mr. Best nurtured a playboy image that transcended the world of soccer. He built a mansion in Manchester and lived under police protection as he was besieged by hordes of girls.

With Mike Summerbee, a player for cross-town rival Manchester City, Mr. Best opened a number of fashion boutiques and hair salons. He also became the proprietor of a travel agency and several nightclubs. All the enterprises, however, were ultimately unsuccessful.

Still, Mr. Best's popularity was unprecedented - during the 1960's he received about 10,000 letters a week from fans around the world and employed three full-time staffers to answer them.

Frequent and unexplained upheavals with club management were seen at the time as the actions of an obstreperous, immature athlete. Later, it came to light that Mr. Best had a drinking problem. In 1982, while playing in San Jose, Calif., Mr. Best was suspended indefinitely by the club and entered an alcohol rehabilitation program. During a bankruptcy hearing in London in 1983 Mr. Best told the court, "I am an alcoholic."

"My drinking over the last 12 years has been the root of my trouble," he added.

In addition to his wife of nine years, Alex, from whom he separated in 2003, Mr. Best is survived by his son, Calum, from his first marriage.

Whatever off-the-field demons Best has dealt with, on the field he was famously infamous for some of his outrageous stunts in which he flaunted his skills while making the opposition feel impotent. With his speed, balance, vision and control of the ball, he would taunt opponents.

In one game he enraged the opposition when he tapped the ball off the shins of two defenders before setting off for the goal. He once needled a Chelsea defender by taking off his red Manchester United jersey and, foot on ball, waved the shirt in the defender's face like a bullfighter. His theatrics resulted in his being treated savagely by opposing players, and his quick temper often led to confrontations on the field.

Always impetuous and outspoken, Mr. Best was inducted into the International Football Hall of Champions in Brussels in 2000, and caused a stir when he criticized the skills of David Beckham, a star for Manchester United at the time. "He cannot kick with his left foot," Mr. Best said. "He cannot head a ball. He cannot tackle and he doesn't score many goals. Apart from that, he's all right."

Several years ago Mr. Best summed up his life when he said: "I spent all my money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered."

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