Friday, November 25, 2005

Afford Best the Respect He Deserves

George Best died today at the age of 59.

Elsewhere today you will see tributes, old footage and anecdotes from former team-mates and opponents, all testament to the standing of one of the greatest footballers of all time.

None of these, however, will be unaccompanied by references to his lifestyle- his flamboyant extra-curricular activities and the alcoholism that killed him. While, as a major part of the story of his life, this side of George Best must be documented, TSA dearly hopes that in death the man can be spared the cynicism that seems to colour the thoughts of many with regard to him.

Mainly because of the fact that Best received a liver transplant yet continued to drink, many have claimed that he should be denied sympathy in his demise. It was even claimed, preposterously, that Best's wasting of a donated liver would discourage others from becoming donors.

This negative view of Best's life can be explained by many people's attitude to alcoholism and mental illness in general. Even in this day and age when therapy and counselling are universally accepted as key parts in the medical process, there remains a "pull yourself together" attitude to mental illness. Because the symptoms are not physically manifest, those who suffer are often deemed to be self-indulgent, displaying weakness or simply attention seeking. As much as we accept the reality of diseases of the mind, we still fail to award them the same pathological status as phyical illness.

Alcoholism is such a disease. It is a sad, crippling and lethal one, which affects our society heavily due to the drink culture which endures in these islands. For example, despite the public awareness of Best's condition, he claimed that people were still happy to buy him a drink. Best has been denied sympathy in some quarters with the reasoning that "he did it to himself". That is precisely the point. That the man killed himself knowingly with alcohol verifies the sickness of his state of mind.

Like many who dazzled in the public eye, Best seems not to be afforded the appropriate gratitude for the joy that he brought, or perhaps more pertinently, the understanding from the public of their role in his troubles. We hope that the public appreciation of the man which will now ensue is not coloured by cynicism about the tragedy his life became.

More fitting to close, then, with an anecdote which appeared in the Guardian this week from Bill Elliot, a football journalist with the Daily Express who worked in Manchester in the 1960s:

"In 1976, Northern Ireland were drawn against Holland in Rotterdam as one of their group qualifying matches for the World Cup. Back then the reporters stayed at the same hotel as the team and travelled with them on the coach to the game. As it happened I sat beside George on the way to the stadium that evening.

Holland - midway between successive World Cup final appearances - and Johan Cruyff were at their peak at the time. George wasn't. I asked him what he thought of the acknowledged world number one and he said he thought the Dutchman was outstanding. 'Better than you?' I asked. George looked at me and laughed. 'You're kidding aren't you? I tell you what I'll do tonight... I'll nutmeg Cruyff first chance I get.' And we both laughed at the thought.

A couple of hours later the Irish players were announced one by one on to the pitch. Pat Jennings, as goalkeeper, was first out of the tunnel to appreciative applause. Best, as No 11, was last. 'And now,' revved up the PA guy, 'Number 11, Georgie [long pause] Best.' And out trotted George. Above him, a beautiful blonde reached over with a single, long-stemmed red rose.
Given his nature, his training and his peripheral vision there was no way he was going to miss her or the rose, so he stopped, trotted back, reached up to take the flower, kissed her hand and ran out on to the pitch waving his rose at the punters as the applause grew even louder.

Five minutes into the game he received the ball wide on the left. Instead of heading towards goal he turned directly infield, weaved his way past at least three Dutchmen and found his way to Cruyff who was wide right. He took the ball to his opponent, dipped a shoulder twice and slipped it between Cruyff's feet. As he ran round to collect it and run on he raised his right fist into the air.
Only a few of us in the press box knew what this bravado act really meant. Johan Cruyff the best in the world? Are you kidding? Only an idiot would have thought that on this evening."


Blogger tom said...

Tom...great story about George Best...I'm from St. Louis, and we love our soccer, as we call it...I've even got the arthritic right ankle and knees to prove it.. My playing days have long been over, but I still love to watch the game, yell at the officials and generally wonder how in the heck I ever played such a demanding sport...ahhhh, youth. Check out my site....Ps my wife is of the Quinns, family from County Cork I believe, third generation American.

5:18 p.m.  

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