George Best, 1946-2005: Why he was loved

[George Best died 10 years ago today. I wrote this the day after his funeral.]

They buried George Best in Belfast yesterday. Half-a-million people lined the streets to see him pass by. He was 59.

George Best was a footballer (for Americans, a ‘soccer’ player) who played for Manchester United at their peak.

His hey-day ran from the mid-60s to the mid-70s. There followed an alcohol-fueled descent, through a handful of lesser clubs, and then a career as a celebrity drunk.

His drinking destroyed his own liver. He died as a result of complications brought on by drugs intended to help his body to accept a transplanted liver.

He hadn’t played football for more than 25 years. Britain’s public morality draped itself over his alcoholism, killing him with pity. Why, then, did Britons mourn his death in such huge numbers, and why did Ireland bury him as if he was a returning prince?

In short, why was George Best loved by so many people, most of whom had never met him?

Football is known as the working man’s ballet.

It is a game of angles, of rival geometries; athleticism and skill. At the higher levels, it combines cerebral intrigue and animal passion.

Certainly, there’s a similarity between football and ballet. There’s more than a passing resemblance between George Best and Rudolph Nureyev.

But it is more accurate to say that ballet is the bourgeoisie’s football. Passion choreographed and tamed.

Most things of human beauty are crafted out of some kind of pain. But Best came fully-formed, a football genius. With him, the pain—his and ours—came afterwards, when the beauty disintegrated.

Best was a young god and he moved like one.

This was a game of skillful and hard men, playing flat-out for 90 minutes, with no substitutions.

He was fearless, fast and perfectly balanced, almost impossible to upend. His ankles seemed double-jointed, the ball always close to his feet.

The length and geometry of his limbs, the balance, grace and courage in their movement‚ everything was just right. To witness him play was an aesthetic experience.

He was one of the few men you could call beautiful, without feeling foolish.

Best is often compared to other great footballers, such as Pele, Pushkas, di Stefano, Maradonna and Cruyff. But, really, the more instructive comparison is with an animal: Best in motion resembled a wild mustang, or a sublime race horse at play.


Emotion, we should remind ourselves, is rooted in Latin words referring to action and movement. The noun emotion once had a social and physical referent: ‘a moving, stirring, agitation, perturbation (in physical sense), a political or social agitation; a tumult, popular disturbance’ (OED). Emotions are primarily social and political things with visceral manifestations. No one who saw Best play would question that statement.

He played before capacity crowds, wherever he went, up to 50-60,000 strong. They stood out in the open, in all weathers, on concrete terraces; tens of thousands of them, living and breathing as one, singing in perfect unison. Packed like sardines, when the crowd moved, you moved. It would pick you up one place and put you down in another. Kids would dangle, their feet off the ground.

Best could move them like no other player. He made their hearts skip in unison, their breath catch as one. With the slightest movement, he could bend time and space and overcome what seemed to us like insurmountable odds.

We postmodern monads know little of this experience.

True, there are plenty of sports that attract large crowds, the NHL playoffs come to mind, but they are collections of individuals, seated in rows and columns, carefully segregated from each other.

We construe emotions as personal, psychological things, as if they exist in our head. That they can be social and political things is a memory.

In George Best’s case, this memory is passed down by word-of-mouth, from the millions who saw him play in the flesh. (Little of his play is on tape.) As memories should be.

Even at the end, as he lay on his death bed, we half-expected a feint, a body swerve and a burst of speed to get him out of trouble.

But it was not to be. He has gone. And we are on our own.

One thing’s for sure: George Best will live on, for centuries to come, in the emotional memories of the millions of descendants of those who were moved by his play.

George Best is one man, who, in death, exchanged life for immortality.