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Friday, November 25, 2005
Hard-drinking soccer great Best dies at 59

LONDON -- George Best, one of the most dazzling players in soccer history who also reveled in a hard-drinking, playboy lifestyle, died Friday after decades of alcohol abuse, hospital officials said. He was 59.

Best, who starred in the 1960s and 1970s 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.

He appeared close to death last month when doctors discovered internal bleeding. He had been readmitted to intensive care a week ago with a lung infection and was put on life support. His condition deteriorated sharply Thursday.

"After a long and very valiant fight, Mr. George Best died this afternoon in the intensive care unit at Cromwell Hospital," the hospital said in a statement.

Prime Minister Tony Blair said Best was "probably the most naturally gifted footballer of his generation."

England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson added: "His ability was an inspiration to everyone who loves football."

The Premier League said there will be a minute's silence before each game this weekend. Manchester United players will wear black armbands.

Best was told never to drink again after his liver transplant, 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," Best wrote in a recent update to his second autobiography "Blessed." "Drink is the only opponent I've been unable to beat."

Denis Law, a former Manchester United teammate, was at Best's bedside all night.

"From 1964 to 1969, he was the best player in the country," Law said. "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."

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.

"Everyone has their own opinion about football and their favorite players," Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson said. "But in terms of British players, you would find it difficult to think of anyone better."

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, Best would run at defenders and leave them tackling thin air. Sometimes he would embarrass them further by going back to beat them again.

Best made 37 international appearances for Northern Ireland. But the team had few other stars capable of making an impact in the World Cup or European Championship, and Best played in neither competition.

In United's 5-1 win at Benfica's Stadium of Light in Portugal in 1966, he scored 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 after the club's Champions Cup triumph over the same Portuguese club at Wembley in 1968.

"Pele called me the greatest footballer in the world," Best once said. "That is the ultimate salute to my life."

Best retired at 27 in 1972 to concentrate on business ventures, which included nightclubs and clothing boutiques. He came out of retirement three years later, considerably overweight.

Best slimmed down and went to the United States, where he played for the Aztecs of the now-defunct NASL. After agreeing to join Fulham in 1976, he walked out on the second-division English club. FIFA imposed a worldwide ban on Best because he broke his contract. That ruled out a move to Fort Lauderdale, although he later played for the team.

After the ban was lifted, Best had a successful spell with San Jose. He then moved to the Scottish club Hibernian but was fired when he failed to show for two games because of drinking binges.

In 1984, he served two months in jail for drunken driving. In 2004, he was banned from driving for 20 months after another conviction. In 2000, Best collapsed from serious liver damage. He was hospitalized with pneumonia in 2001. Two months later, anti-alcohol pellets were implanted in his stomach.

Best had a reputation as someone who could not be relied on to keep appointments either as a player, TV soccer analyst or after-dinner speaker. His private life was splashed across the British tabloids, and he seemed to enjoy the attention.

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

At times, he had a comic's perfect delivery.

"I used to go missing a lot," he said. "Miss Canada, Miss United Kingdom, Miss World."

In 1983, his playing career over, Best was hit over the head with a beer glass in a London pub hours after he appeared in bankruptcy court for failing to pay back taxes. Just before Christmas the following year, Best was jailed for three months for drunken driving, assaulting a policeman and jumping bail.

In 1990, Best appeared wildly drunk on a live TV show, uttering expletives and embarrassing the host. But, with his second wife, Alex Pursey, standing by, he contained his drinking enough to regularly appear on an afternoon soccer program, giving his analysis.

The drinking caught up with him again when he was rushed to a London hospital. Doctors told him even one more glass of wine could kill him. In the hospital for a month, Best promised his wife he wouldn't drink again. It was one more promise he couldn't keep.

In 2004, Alex Best was granted a divorce after nine years of marriage, citing her husband's adultery. Best had a son, Calum, from a four-year marriage to his first wife, Angie.

Best will be buried next to his mother, Ann, in Belfast, Northern Ireland on Dec. 2, said his agent, Phil Hughes.




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