- The Washington Times - Friday, November 25, 2005

One Saturday when I was a kid living in Birmingham, England, in the 1960s, I took the bus with two of my friends to the rough Black Country, so-called because of its pollution-coated landscape and coal fields. It was a rare visit to Hawthorns Stadium to watch West Bromwich Albion play visiting Manchester United.

None of us was a fan of Albion — we rooted for ever-struggling Coventry City. But on that day, our intention was to witness the exploits of one of the greatest soccer players of all time, Manchester United’s ace striker George Best. Two other greats, Bobby Charlton and Denis Law, were on United’s team, but it was the tantalizing Best, the diamond of that famous trio, whom we really wanted to see.

Best died in a London hospital yesterday of organ failure three years after a liver transplant. He was 59. His son, Calum, 24, and dad, Dickie, 87, were at his side.

I’ve seen a lot of games in my time, but that sunny day at the Albion, when Best ran circles around the home team with his sublime and delicate dribbling skill, remains vivid. I remember it well because it was the only soccer game I have attended at which the women and the girls in the stands screamed as if they were at a Beatles concert. Every time Best touched the ball, the female fans, whom Best had the unique ability of drawing to games, went into hysterics, crying out “Georgie, Georgie, we love you.”

Until then, there had been nothing like Best on the soccer scene. The lad from Belfast, Northern Ireland, became the first soccer player with the status of a pop star. He was an icon of the “Swinging Sixties” in Britain. After a game in Spain, he was dubbed the “Fifth Beatle,” and the label stuck.

Best not only was making headlines in the sports section but more often than not on the front pages, appearing at nightclubs arm-in-arm with beautiful women and getting into pub brawls.

“I spent 90 percent of my money on women, drink and fast cars. The rest I wasted,” Best often said as a joke.

Best was the James Dean of soccer and a real rebel, but he did it all with a mischievous smile. He wore his shirt outside his shorts and grew his hair long, and in our youth we all followed him. He also was one of the first soccer players to market his own laceless soccer cleats, which, in retrospect, were way ahead of their time.

The ball just seemed to stick to Best’s feet as he dribbled his way through opponents defenses. There’s a story that in one game he actually took off his red United jersey and mocked a hapless defender by pretending to be a bullfighter.

The greatest compliment he ever received came from Pele, the Brazilian star, who called him “the greatest footballer in the world.”

Best, who played 37 times for Northern Ireland, never got to star on the biggest stage — the World Cup — so it’s hard to gauge how many places he stands behind Pele, Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff in the lineup of the best. But he’s certainly among the top 20 players of all time.

Best played 465 games for United, scoring 180 goals. His greatest triumph came when he notched a brilliant goal as United became the first English club to win the European Cup final, beating Portuguese giants Benfica 4-1 at Wembley Stadium on May 29, 1968. He was named European footballer of the year that same year.

Another great moment came when Best scored six goals in United’s 8-2 win over Northampton in 1970 in an F.A. Cup game.

“The closest I got to him was when we shook hands at the end of the game,” said Northampton defender Roy Fairfax, who had the impossible job of trying to mark Best in the match.

Best also had an impact on American soccer. He played 139 games in the North American Soccer League for the Los Angeles Aztecs (1976-78), the Fort Lauderdale Strikers (1978-79) and the San Jose Earthquakes (1980-81), scoring 54 goals and earning 54 assists.

Sadly, Best’s self-destructive lifestyle led him to alcoholism, and by the age of 28, after 11 seasons at United, his best years were behind him. In 1984 he was jailed for 12 weeks for drunken diving. He ended up doing the comedy club circuit with old pal Rodney Marsh telling soccer stories.

“I’ve stopped drinking, but only while I’m asleep,” he once said.

It wasn’t really funny. He had a liver transplant in 2002, yet still kept on drinking after promising to give up the bottle.

All soccer games in England will hold a minute’s silence in honor of Best today — an honor he truly deserves.

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