U.K. Soccer Star George Best, 59, Dies

From News Services
Saturday, November 26, 2005

George Best, 59, one of the most dazzling players in soccer history who also reveled in a hard-drinking playboy lifestyle, died Nov. 25 of multiple organ failure at a London hospital after decades of alcohol abuse.

The 1960s and 1970s star for Manchester United and Northern Ireland had a liver transplant three years ago and had been hospitalized since Oct. 1 because of a reaction to medication to control his alcoholism.

"We all know that George Best was probably the most naturally gifted footballer of his generation, one of the greatest footballers the U.K. has ever produced," Prime Minister Tony Blair said.

After the liver transplant, Mr. Best was told never to drink again, but he went back to his old ways and was regularly seen at pubs.

"Unfortunately there is no solution to alcohol, you can't make it go away," Mr. Best wrote in a recent update to his second autobiography, "Blessed." "Drink is the only opponent I've been unable to beat."

Twenty-five years after his career ended, a panel of British journalists named Mr. Best the greatest British athlete of all time. With his mop-top haircut and his frankly hedonistic life, he embodied the mod, swinging style of 1960s London.

He once said, "I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars -- the rest I just squandered."

Denis Law, a former Manchester United teammate, commented: "From 1964 to 1969, he was the best player in the country. It's sad as hell, but I don't think we saw the best of him. I think he went on the blink at a time when he could have got even better."

Mr. Best humiliated defenders and frustrated coaches during his wayward career. He scored 180 goals in 465 appearances for Manchester United, helping the team win the 1968 European Cup. He also played in the North American Soccer League, scoring 54 goals in 139 games for the Los Angeles Aztecs, Fort Lauderdale Strikers and San Jose Earthquakes.

Mr. Best was only 17 when he began baffling defenders with his extraordinary dribbling, thrilling fans with spectacular goals for Manchester United. Slightly built but with amazing balance and devastating speed, he would run at defenders and leave them tackling thin air.

Mr. Best made 37 international appearances for Northern Ireland, but the team had few other players capable of making an impact in the World Cup or European Championship. FIFA, the international soccer governing body, called Mr. Best "arguably the greatest player never to play at a FIFA World Cup finals."

In 1966, he starred in United's 5-1 European Cup win in Portugal, scoring twice in the first 12 minutes, and the shaggy-haired star with screaming fans became known as the "fifth Beatle." He was voted European Player of the Year in 1968.

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