Born May 22, 1946, in Belfast, Northern Ireland; died of multiple organ failure, November 25, 2005, in London, England. Professional soccer player. George Best was England's top soccer star in the late 1960s and early '70s, famous for his talent on the pitch but equally legendary for a rather decadent lifestyle enthusiastically chronicled by the press. Enormously popular to the point where he was sometimes referred to as the fifth member of the Beatles—Britain's most famous young men of the era—Best is considered the sport's first genuine celebrity. British prime minister Tony Blair even weighed in upon hearing the news of Best's death, calling him "probably the most naturally gifted footballer of his generation and one of the best footballers our country has produced," reported CNN.
Born in 1946, Best grew up in the Cregagh public-housing project in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His father, who worked in a shipyard, had been an amateur soccer player in his younger days, and Best's mother was also a talented athlete in field hockey. So devoted to soccer from his earliest years was Best that every Christmas he received the exact same gift: a new soccer ball, pair of cleats, and "kit," or outfit. He slept with the ball as a child, and during the daylight hours practiced for hours kicking a tennis ball into a doorknob in order to perfect his aim.
Best was also a good student, and earned a place at an academically rigorous high school in Belfast. The city's sectarian violence between Roman Catholics and Protestants made his walk to school in the uniform of a Protestant high school a torturous one, however, and he eventually dropped out at the age of 15. He hoped to pursue a career in soccer, but was told that he would never make it into the professional leagues because of his relatively short stature at five feet, five inches tall. Just before he was about to embark on an apprenticeship to become a printer, Best was spotted by a scout for England's Manchester United soccer club, who sent word to the team manager that he had discovered a genius.
Best began playing for the junior team of Man U, as the legendary club was commonly known, in 1961, and made his professional debut two years later at the age of 17. A right wing player, Best was known for his speed and emerged as a national celebrity when he helped the team win a First Division title in 1965. It took a second one two years later, and in 1968 became the first English team ever to win the European Cup when it beat a top Portuguese club. Best's performance that year earned him the European Footballer of the Year award.
During his 12 years with Man U, Best became British soccer's most celebrated player. He compiled an impressive record, playing in 464 games for Manchester and scoring 178 goals. On the pitch, he was a flamboyant, crowd-rousing figure known for taunting opponents and inciting the occasional scuffle. Off the field, he enjoyed rock-star-worthy attention, and his good looks and fashionably shaggy hair made him one of the sport's first pin-up stars. He lived in lavish style, with a retinue of bodyguards and an office staff that included three people whose sole duty was to answer his fan mail. "In the staid and tradition-bound world of English soccer during the 1960s, Best quickly came to personify the rebelliousness of that decade," asserted New York Times writer Jack Bell. "Best was to soccer what the Beatles were to music and pop culture: a reminder that the world was about to change, for better or worse. He was an entertainer on the field long before sportsmen became celebrities. He was a working-class hero in the most working-class British sport."
Best's wild ride slowed in the mid-1970s, after he quit Manchester, gained some weight, and entered in a string of notable business-venture flops, such as fashion boutiques and a chain of hair salons. Over the next few years he returned several times to the sport, even playing with the North American Soccer League for five years, but his talent faded as the wild lifestyle continued, and he was occasionally fired, temporarily banned, or fined for his antics and absences. Finally admitting to a problem with alcohol, Best spent time in jail on a drunk driving charge before filing for bankruptcy and retiring from the sport in 1983. When asked once where his earnings as one of the sport's best-paid players had gone, Best famously replied, "I spent a lot of money on booze, [women], and fast cars. The rest I just squandered," according to BBC News.
In his later years, Best suffered from host of premature medical problems triggered by his penchant for alcohol. In 2002, he received a new liver in a somewhat controversial transplant surgery. Hospitalized in October of 2005 with a lung infection, he died of multiple organ failure on November 25, 2005, in London at the age of 59. Survivors include his 87-year-old father, Dickie, five siblings, his son, Calum; and two ex-wives. His death prompted a slew of tributes and newspaper retrospectives on his life and gifted early career, and the top-tier teams of the English league all observed a moment of silence before the start of each game the following weekend. Outlived even by the Manchester team manager who signed the 15-year-old to the club back in 1961, Best was remembered by that coach, Matt Busby, in his obituary notices. "We had our problems with the wee fellow," Busby commented, according to the Los Angeles Times, "but I prefer to remember his genius."
BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4380332.stm (May 22, 2005); CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2005/WORLD/europe/11/25/uk.best/ (May 22, 2005); Los Angeles Times, November 26, 2005, p. B17; New York Times, November 26, 2005, p. A12; Times (London), November 26, 2005, p. 80; Washington Post, November 26, 2005, p. B4.