The death from alcoholism at 59 of a famous soccer player has proved that the mass hysteria that followed Princess Diana’s demise was by no means an aberration in British life but rather a permanent feature of it.
Born into a working-class Northern Irish Protestant family, George Best was possibly one of the most talented soccer players ever. Slight in build, he was extremely handsome and once had considerable charm. He played for Manchester United and sometimes was called the fifth Beatle.
Unfortunately, his abilities began to decline as he started to live the high life. He was at his peak for perhaps four years. He soon became an alcoholic. Later, rather disarmingly, he said that he had spent a lot of money on drink, women, and gambling—the rest he just frittered away.
His long decline was in fact extremely sordid. He was violent to women, none of whom could tolerate him for long. He frequently appeared dead drunk in public and once went briefly to prison for drunk driving. He never gave up drinking, despite having had a liver transplant at 56.
The outpouring of ersatz grief that followed his death was extraordinary. His death filled the press and the airwaves of Britain and Ireland for days. No reference to him was complete without the word “genius.” No one dared say that soccer, however well played, remains relatively low on the scale of human accomplishments, just as no one dared say, in the days after Diana’s death, that her life had not been a model of selflessness.
Journalistic intellectuals fell over themselves to see deep positive significance in Best and his soccer game, placing him at the forefront of 1960s liberation. One journalist said that he made a whole generation feel that anything was possible, and another said that he was the first rock’n’roll soccer star (on the same day, this journalist’s newspaper reported that a fifth of British girls self-mutilate, no doubt as a result of their liberation).
He received the biggest public funeral since Princess Diana’s: hundreds of thousands turned out for it; mountains of flowers and teddy bears piled up at several locations.
In the immediate aftermath of a man’s death, we should doubtless overlook his faults for a time or at least treat them with charity. But it is surely disturbing that a man who possessed for only a few years a major talent at a minor accomplishment, and whose subsequent life became a prolonged descent into squalor, both physical and moral, should have provoked such a public outpouring of emotion over his death. It is a sign of deep shallowness and emotional emptiness. More surprising, perhaps, was the absence of feminist protest at the secular canonization of a man who mistreated women on an almost industrial scale.
Why is it that popular icons of the sixties’ counter-culture seem exempt from all criticism?