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Alcohol washed away Best's talent
November 25, 2005 20:29 IST
George Best, one of the most talented footballers to grace the 'beautiful game', dazzled all too briefly before a painful descent into alcoholism.
Best, who died on Friday aged 59, possessed good looks, wonderful skill and an engaging personality. In his prime during the 1960s he was adored by millions.
"Georgie" was an integral part of the great Manchester United side which won the European Cup in 1968 and the Belfast-born forward, with his long hair and cheeky smile, epitomised Britain's Swinging Sixties.
On the field his talent lifted him to the level of Pele, Johan Cruyff and Diego Maradona. A wonderful ball player, Best could set games alight with a flash of flair and many fans consider him the most skilful player produced in Britain.
Off it, his life became a blur of beautiful women, fast cars and parties. Dubbed the "Fifth Beatle", Best was the first superstar footballer.
His failure to combine these two lifestyles successfully was a major factor in Best's early retirement from the game. By the age of 27 his love of football had all but dissolved.
"I was born with a great gift and sometimes with that comes a destructive streak," Best said.
"Just as I wanted to outdo everyone when I played, I had to outdo everyone when we were out on the town."
He became increasingly disillusioned and distracted, walking out on United in 1972 and again, finally, in 1974.
A saga of retirements and comebacks at clubs in England and the United States followed for the Northern Ireland international, but he never came close to rediscovering the talent that made him European Footballer of the Year in 1968.
An alcoholic, Best was imprisoned for drink-driving in 1984 and in 2002 he needed a liver transplant.
He came close to being a laughing stock in his later years, when he was a television analyst, although he retained the ability to laugh at himself and his problems.
"I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered," Best once said.
Born on May 22, 1946, he was spotted playing in a Belfast youth side and when he was 15, Best crossed the Irish Sea to join Manchester United.
He returned, homesick, after only one night away and although he was persuaded back, many at the club doubted that the slight youngster, 1.60 metres tall and weighing only 49 kilos, would ever be strong enough for professional football.
Best filled out and became a first-team regular, appearing in England's top division when he was 17 and within a year playing his first international for Northern Ireland.
Best's artistry was undeniable. His ball control and balance was bewitching and his frail appearance belied an ability to produce a strong tackle and a powerful shot.
While primarily a creator of chances, his goal tally of 136 in 361 league games for United demonstrated a deadly touch. He once scored six goals in an FA Cup tie against Northampton Town and was United's top scorer five seasons in succession.
Best, England's Bobby Charlton and Scotland's Denis Law -- perhaps the most talented combination in the history of English soccer -- took United to the top of the European game.
Best's greatest moments came in European Cup campaigns.
Two years later he scored a brilliant solo goal in United's 4-1 victory over Benfica in the final at Wembley which brought Europe's top club prize to England for the first time.
At that moment Best ruled the soccer world -- he was receiving 10,000 fan letters a week and employed three fulltime staff to answer them. But things quickly began to unravel.
He was sent off for fighting in a showcase match against South American champions Estudiantes of Argentina and the retirement of United manager Matt Busby unsettled him.
Four years later, after a series of rows over missed training and his inappropriate lifestyle, he walked out on the club, announcing his retirement from the game. The club gave him a second chance but in 1974 he went again -- this time for good.
After several half-hearted attempts to return to British soccer Best played for the Los Angeles Aztecs in the North American Soccer League. He returned to England and a relatively successful spell with second division Fulham.
He was recalled to the Northern Ireland side but the dream once more began to sour. He played briefly in the U.S., Scotland and ending his playing days with Bournemouth in 1983.
He played 37 games for Northern Ireland, the last in 1977, but never appeared at a World Cup finals.
By the time Best retired, his marriage to model Angela Macdonald-James had collapsed. He was declared bankrupt and admitted that he was an alcoholic.
He twice had pellets implanted in his stomach as aversion therapy but, still a lover of the good life, he struggled to shake off his dependence on alcohol.
In 1984 he was imprisoned for eight weeks for drink-driving and assaulting a police officer. In February 2004 he was found guilty of drink-driving and banned from driving for 20 months.
In 2000 he spent five weeks in a London hospital with liver trouble, saying at the time after another soon-to-be-broken non-drinking pledge: "I should be dead."
In July 2002 he nearly was as, at the age of 56, he underwent a 10-hour liver transplant.A year later he was arrested after a pub brawl near his home. He was released without charge but his new wife Alex said: "He seems to be on a mission to self-destruct and it's getting worse." The couple split up shortly afterwards.