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Free will, football genius and the victim culture

It has been a sad few days in British sport, which has lost arguably the most talented football player these islands have produced in George Best. He died, as many people will know, a few years after having a liver transplant necessitated by a long history of alcohol abuse. For those unfamiliar with his story, he was born in Belfast and played at Manchester United in one of its most successful periods in the mid- to late 60s but left top-class football aged only 27.

I am glad that in most of the coverage about him, the focus has been on the football rather than the messy personal life. And what a fantastic player he was! If even Brazilian maestro Pele called him the greatest player in the world, then who are we to demur? I was born in the year – 1966 – that Best gave what aficionados and team-mates reckon was Best’s finest display, demolishing Portugese side Benfica with two goals, the second involving a mazy run past several defenders before sticking the ball into the back of the net.

Best was an alcoholic, which some people regard as a disease that one is born with rather than a condition over which people, possessed of free will, have control. Interestingly, I get the impression, by reading some of Best’s own remarks, that he was a man in control of his own destiny and did not, as far as I am aware, choose to play the victim card. There is no doubt, though, that some people have found it hard to conquer the bottle, although others, such as Tottenham soccer ace Jimmy Greaves, managed to give up on booze and preserve their health and live into a ripe old age.

Anyway, I expect DVDs of Best’s football brilliance to be hot sellers this Christmas. May he rest in peace.

26 comments to Free will, football genius and the victim culture

  • John East

    I would like to add my tribute. As no great football fan, what little I thought about George over the last 30 years was pity over a wasted life. However, listening to all the anecdotes and character descriptions lately, his life was far from wasted. He lived it as he chose, and the fact that his friends and family were all there at the end attests to the fact that he was still supported and loved by those who knew him, warts and all.
    One quote that particularly sticks in my mind, although I forget who made it, was to the effect that when told he had at the most a few years left after returning to drink after his operation he was honest enough with himself and those around him to say that he would settle for a few more years and continue to lead his life the only way he knew how. Some may see this as weakness, I see it as courageous. He did his own thing in spite of all the criticism.

  • To me, all this coverage highlights a gap in the news channel market: there’s no 24 hour news channel that stays away from sport and entertainment. The news channels seemed to be competing with each other to make the most complete Bestathon, full of the very finest hyperbole and endless debates over whether his illness outweighed his brilliance. Personally, I don’t care. I want some real news on a news channel – leave the sport to the sports channels. Perhaps football may not in fact be quite the absolute national obsession the MSM likes to claim – it certainly isn’t with the social group I’m in.

  • Well said, Aegir. I too would greatly appreciate never hearing about football. Almost all other sports are equally tedious, although non-heavyweight boxing can be entertaining despite the fact that the modern rules are rather dull.

  • RAB

    Um loves, George Best was aptly named.
    He was the BEST!
    That is why the fuss.
    I am no great football fan either, but I am able to appreciate the brilliance of Best the player.
    He used to do things just for the hell of it. I saw him (on tv) do stuff like jink a couple of defenders then the goalie, when he could have scored with a straight shot minutes before, but he didn’t think it entertaining enough.
    He suffered from being the first footballer to become a pop star, not knowing quite where to put himself or his talent, always being dragged down by the glare of publicity, and not stong enough to resist those saying- “Comon Georgie have another one!”
    But like Peter Cook , the stuff that he did will live forever, however short a time we the selfish public had to savour it and craved for more.
    Let’s just say they both gave it their best shot , and the rest of us can give a bloody loud cheer that we were privileged to have seen their likes at all.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Milo and Aegir, just to state that this blog is more than about long learned articles on current affairs. Sport is part of life, which is why I occasionally write about it. Just you wait when the World Cup comes around!

  • mike

    “Best was an alcoholic, which some people regard as a disease that one is born with rather than a condition over which people, possessed of free will, have control. Interestingly, I get the impression, by reading some of Best’s own remarks, that he was a man in control of his own destiny and did not, as far as I am aware, choose to play the victim card.”

    There is also the possibility that he accepted his problems and just thought ‘sod it’, knowing that he had little physical control over his alcohol addiction anyway. So a bit of both free will and helpless addiction may have been his way.

  • John East

    Mike,
    What an increasingly rare sentiment these days, “he accepted his problems and just thought ‘sod it’.”

    I think we can take it as read that freedom of choice is supported by most contributors to this site, but the hardest part of this philosophy is to respect an individual’s decision to make the wrong choices.

    I’m surprised that this whole affair hasn’t yet sparked off a debate about alcohol control, but I suspect the health and safety fascists are currently occupied with other issues.

  • Here is an interesting thought on Mr. Best’s demise.

  • mike

    “Mike, what an increasingly rare sentiment these days, “he accepted his problems and just thought ‘sod it’.”

    Yep; Amor Fati to use an expression a little less blunt-edged.

  • Verity

    Melanie Phillips also has a good piece today. He was a violent, drunken woman beater. (Not that I sympathise with women who stay in those situations, but for an athlete of that strength to beat up fragile women is not heroic.) That he was a violent, uncontrolled, angry man doesn’t take one iota away from his sublime talent as a footballer. But he wasn’t a hero.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Verity, you are of course absolutely correct, even if one does not accept all that got printed about GB in the tabloid press. Violence, whatever its true extent, is a far greater sin in my view than in his boozing.

    I met the man once, in a pub (!) in Chelsea. He was utterly charming but you could see a kind of sadness in those blue eyes, as if he realised somewhere that he’d blown some of his good fortune.

  • Verity

    Jonathan – It is always painful to see sublime talent pissed away. What he was gifted with was so unique. He was a wonder of the world and a hero to tens of millions of boys. And blessed with good looks as well. And you experienced some of his fabled charm yourself.

    No, that he was a lush doesn’t bother me. So what? But the bullying, violent person he became in his drunken rages isn’t mitigated by his heroic qualities. He was violent, bullying and brutish. I don’t know if he fought other men when he was drunk, or just beat up on women who loved him.

  • Matra

    Melanie Phillips may have some points about celebrity culture but her rant about best’s treatment of women and his liver transplant is sadly predictable in this moralising period of our history. Best wasn’t even dead before the high-minded moralists were out in full force yet Phillips appears to think the press has covered up Best’s bad side! How many times does the BBC have to show that clip from Wogan before Phillips will see that the press, including her Daily Mail, never stopped attacking him.

    We don’t know what went on between Best and his women and nor does Melanie Phillips. Hey, I heard that Christopher Reeve got that horse shot a couple of weeks after he fell off it. How come the press didn’t report that the very day he died? Maybe because it wasn’t verified and it hardly seemed appropriate but apparently Best is fair game – not that he would’ve given a damn. The press, not just the tabloids, never tired of telling stories about Best. Where has Phillips been the last few years that she thinks his personal life “has been heavily sanitised?

    As to that liver…excuse me but isn’t there a universal health system in Britain that the establishment and masses alike are always bragging about? You can bet George Best paid a hell of a lot more in taxes than most users of the NHS ever did. He qualified for the liver the same way everyone else does – by remaining sober for the requisite period of time. I could be wrong but aren’t most people who need liver transplants alcoholics? If so, then the next person in line for the liver Best got maybe had been equally irresponsible. I don’t know and nor does Melanie Phillips.

    If you insist on a universal health system (yes, I know people here don’t) you can’t arbitrarily make exceptions for alcoholics. Who’s next? What about smokers, red meat eaters, people who ride bicycles fast without wearing a helmut, or sexually promiscuous homosexuals? Who gets to decide? Jon Snow and Melanie Phillips? No thanks.

  • Verity

    Matra – For his mortal ailment, Best was treated free of charge at a private hospital (I think it is called the Cumberland, or something) and his treatment would have cost around £300,000 if he’d had to pay for it. Nothing to do with the NHS.

  • madne0

    “Iwas born in the year – 1966 – that Best gave what aficionados and team-mates reckon was Best’s finest display, demolishing Portugese side Benfica with two goals, the second involving a mazy run past several defenders before sticking the ball into the back of the net.”

    Two things annoy me in this sentence. One: Mentioning that terrible game (big Benfica fan here ;) ) and two: Spelling “Portuguese” as “Portugese”.

    /spelling police

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Matra, I have some sympathy with your viewpoint. Like Verity, I have zero tolerance for violent people. The only point I would make here is that some of the things said about the fella appeared in those models of truth and objectivity, the tabloid press (sarcasm alert). Some of things said are just accusations.

    Best was a rapscallion and hardly a model of civilised behaviour in certain ways but the sheer outpouring of affection from all kinds of people, including those who only knew him as a pal rather than as a soccer god, testifies to the fact that he had his good points.

    As for Mel Philips, she is a good writer but alas, also a bit of scratched record, with her variations on how Civilisation Is On the Brink of Collapse etc. It gets a bit wearying after a while.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    MadneO, sorry about the spelling. As for the result, it was 5-1, if I recall the stats aright. That must still hurt.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    MadneO, I have seen Portuguese also spelt quite a lot without the extra U, so what is the proper spelling?

  • zmollusc

    With luck, Best’s appearance in the media should follow the lead set by Diana.
    Alive: Continuous pointless and tedious ‘news’ stories.
    Dead: Fewer pointless and tedious ‘news’ stories.

    Speaking of ‘news’, I am fed up with the Something o’clock News consisting of ‘Rich man buys football club!’, ‘Football manager has affair’, ‘Footballer changes teams’, ‘Football club is less wealthy than anticipated’ etc.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    zmollusc, your wish may soon be granted. BTW, at least Bestie was not held up as a humanitarian in the slightly nauseous fashion of Di. The guy was a playboy and proud of it.

  • Verity

    Wot Jonathn said. And, zmollusc, Diana’s death did not result in a diminution of news coverage. We had a constant stream of “news” from her butler. We had a constant stream of articles, over at least two years, by her “best friends” and her clothes designers. Then they built that memorial to her in Northampton. Then that thing in the park – is it Kensington Gardens? – a fountain that doesn’t work, or something?

    And who can ever forget Tone’s emetic performance at her funeral? And Elton John rejigging the song he wrote for Marilyn Monroe.

    The post mortem George Best will probably gather the same ghoulish interest around him. Girls who slept with him for one night will write books. His wife will write a book, if she hasn’t already. Everyone who ever knew him will write books or go on TV to talk about him. There will be a movie proposed of his life and they will spin out finding the actor to play him into at least 50 stories. Who knows, Elton John may even write a song.

  • madne0

    Johnathan: I believe “Portuguese” is the correct pronunciation. At least according to dictionary.com…

  • Luniversal

    Medium: Tell them George is happy now, says Di.

    (Sun World Exclusive (C) 2005- Our lawyers are watching)

  • Verity

    Presumably Di sent this message through her medium? The one she consulted the night before her crash and who failed to give a Delphic instruction like, “Don’t go to Paris, and if you do, don’t leave the Ritz in a Mercedes driven by a drunk Frenchman?”

    It’s lovely that she found the time to pass on the information about fellow A-lister George Best. She must be terribly busy.

  • gravid

    “I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered”. George Best.