George Best, who died today in a London hospital at the age of 59 due to organ failure, transcended the narrow confines of his birthplace. 'Bestie' became a hero to millions across the globe but also became an icon, recognisable even to many who knew little or nothing of the sport itself.
Irish Football Association president Jim Boyce said: "He was a true gentleman and a pleasure to deal with. Despite all his problems off the pitch, he will always be regarded as a football legend. Wherever I have been in the world in recent years people have always asked me about George."
The term genius is over-used but it undoubtedly applied to Best, albeit with the qualification that he was flawed. At his peak, Best was one of the outstanding footballing talents, contributing hugely to Manchester United FC's first European Champion Clubs' Cup triumph in 1967/68. At just 22, he was named Footballer of the Year in England and European Footballer of the Year.
Best had burst on to the scene with the brilliance of a shooting star several years before that, helping the Old Trafford club to league titles in 1964/65 and 1966/67. In the intervening season, 1965/66, he came to worldwide attention with an almost single-handed destruction of a fine SL Benfica team in a European Cup quarter-final. The Portuguese press dubbed him 'El Beatle' as his combination of outrageous ability and good looks made him arguably the game's first superstar.
At one point, Best received up to 10,000 fan-mail letters per week but despite the off-field demands and distractions Best still shone for United. Indeed, he was their top scorer for six consecutive seasons, an achievement all the more remarkable considering Best was a winger and he played alongside poacher supreme Denis Law. In all, he scored 180 goals in 474 games for United.
Best's talent was based on superb skill, incredible balance, pace, an ability to shoot accurately with either foot and sheer bravery in an era when skilful players had to withstand hatchet-man defenders. All this on old-fashioned glue-pot pitches too.
The greatest pity was that he never played in a FIFA World Cup finals as Northern Ireland failed to qualify between 1958 and 1982. Manager Billy Bingham came close to calling him up for that latter tournament in Spain but Best was 36 and did not get to add to his 37 appearances and nine goals for his country.
Best left Old Trafford in 1974, aged only 27, and was never to play top-level football again. Long before his playing days ended, alcoholism had afflicted his career, and while he could be a genial, intelligent, warm-hearted man, drink could occasionally summon Best's nasty side.
Still, for all the claims that Best wasted his talent, fans appreciated how far a boy from the back streets of Belfast travelled to become one of the finest and most famous footballers ever. Pelé called him the best ever and current United manager Sir Alex Ferguson labelled him "unquestionably the greatest".
The one consolation of his passing is that millions may get the opportunity to be reminded of his ability and see why Best's surname was so appropriate.
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