Home » “If I’d been born ugly, you’d never have heard of Pele”- the United legend whose legacy lives on

“If I’d been born ugly, you’d never have heard of Pele”- the United legend whose legacy lives on

by Alex Browne

Today marks the 18th anniversary of the death of one of football’s greatest. To put it in other words, a baby born on that solemn day on the 25th of November 2005, would now be able to vote, legally drink and be a fully-fledged adult. Time flies by.

George Best was only 59 years old when he passed in a hospital in South Kensington, London. On Saturday 3rd of December 2005, 32,000 people descended upon the streets of Belfast to celebrate his life and pay respect to a genuine hero in those parts. Unless you come from the country, it is probably hard to imagine the impact the Ulsterman had.

Northern Ireland was a firework about to explode in the late 60s before the beginning of the political problems locally referred to as The Troubles in 1969. Witnessing such a player gave the nation something to be proud of in such dark times.

It is not hyperbolic to suggest he was by far the most significant factor behind the creation of a loyal army of Manchester United fans up and down the island of Ireland during the 1960s.

The man from Belfast was a complex character who was blessed with generational talent but cursed with all too frequent demons. This is the story of the most important Northern Irish, and one of the most vital Manchester United players to have played the game. Just in case you don’t take my word, the legendary Diego Maradona stated, “George inspired me when I was young. He was flamboyant and exciting and able to inspire his team-mates”.

“I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars. The rest I just squandered”. This type of statement was typical of the winger who bamboozled defenders throughout the 1960s and the 1970s. A man who knew his genius but was also aware of his own issues.

The player himself would go on to have a career that would be the envy of most but his legacy is often tinged with what could have been. The youngster joined United at the tender age of 15 years old after scout Bob Bishop told Matt Busby, “I think I have found you a genius”. He wasn’t wrong and also, thank goodness for Bob Bishop.

The extraordinary winger was fast, skilful, knew where the goal was and had a confidence few could match. Best terrorised defences across England and Europe in 1960s. The Portuguese were so impressed by him in 1966 that they labelled him “el Beatle”. The then 19 year old destroyed the great Benfica side as United won 5-1 in Lisbon.

“A hurricane passed through the Luz that night, and his name was George Best,” commented António Simões, the Portugal and Benfica great.

The fifth Beatle, as he was also known, would go on to help United win their first-ever European Cup in 1968, scoring in the final. The Ulster magician would also win the Ballon d’Or of the same year, one of only four United players to win the prestigious award.

The Northern Ireland great would go on to play 474 games for the Red Devils and find the net 181 times.

Although, there was another side to George Best. A darker, seedier facet to his complex nature.

The legacy of being the world’s first celebrity footballer was too much for a man who was riddled with addiction problems. Frequent access to drink, money, parties and women would eventually wear down the legendary player. Best left United at only 27 years of age and would never go on to do anything particularly meaningful in the game thereafter.

The footballing magician once said, “in 1969, I gave up women and alcohol – it was the worst 20 minutes of my life”. He would later jokingly comment, “if I’d been born ugly, you’d never have heard of Pele”.

However, there is a sombre note to this last statement. Despite his legendary influence on football, he really could have done so much more. The man from Cregagh estate once wistfully claimed, “drink is the only opponent I have been unable to beat”. Poignant.

If Best had been born in this generation, who knows what help he could have received. The Ballon d’Or winner was born in an era where addiction was ignored and there was massive stigma about the issue. Despite a lot of work still being needed on the topic, the modern world is eventually beginning to understand addiction is a disease.

Dele Alli and Darron Gibson have both been able to speak out about their addiction problems. If Best had had the same support, who knows how it could have helped him.

Resultingly, the winger never really silenced his demons and he died due to multiple organ failures, most definitely connected to his heavy drinking over the years.

To this day, the Ulsterman’s legacy can be seen outside of Old Trafford by fans as part of the “holy trinity” statue of Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton. Belfast, his home city, is adorned with memorials to the great man. One of the city’s two airports was renamed, George Best Belfast City Airport, in the wake of his death. Best also has his own statue outside Northern Ireland’s National Football stadium. Additionally, the image of “El Beatle” is painted across numerous murals of the nation’s capital.

So, many babies born on that sad say, will be celebrating their arrival to adulthood this weekend. Their parents and grandparents will surely instruct them to raise at least one glass to Ulster’s finest footballing son.

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