Friday, November 25, 2005

Where We Hope To Keep Safe From Pain

"But then, what have you in common with the child of five whose photograph your mother keeps on the mantelpiece? Nothing, except that you happen to be the same person." - George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn

To see the images of a young George Best across all the newspapers this morning was a moving experience. Moving because the only George Best I ever saw in my lifetime was the alcoholic Best; the congenial, warm man who couldn't escape from his genius on a football field. The man who appeared on TV most weeks looking world-weary and heavy, a far cry from the trendy, superlative athlete that I will, ultimately, remember him as.

Best's was not a life beyond reproach - drunkenness, wife-beating, time spent in jail. But what redeeming features he had! When you placed a football at his feet, he was nothing short of an artist. People may sneer at football, but at its best, sportsmen can do what Michaelangelo, Picasso, van Gogh never could - sheer artistry. Moments that for their grace and beauty will live in the mind for a long time; in a romanticised world, even forever. Yet they are only possible through improvisation and inspiration, for the opportunity to create them is only available in an instant.

For all the hard work that Best put in on the training ground, it was his natural gifts that made him so special. When you gave him a moving ball, an opponent out to cut him in half, and a fraction of a chance at goal, he could seize that chance, move through a space that wasn't there, and leave a collective audience of thousands gasping in awe at what it had created. Its fleeting nature can never obscure its brilliance.

"I even found it difficult to watch myself playing on TV because I couldn't identify with the person on the screen. I couldn't get to grips with it. It was as if it was all happening to someone else."

When you look at a juxtaposition of Georgie then and now, you can't help but feel that it was happening to someone else. Yet for all the tabloid circus that surrounded him the rest of his life, it will be what he did when his boots were laced that will be the abiding memory of Best. For that is the wider power of sport. When we rest from work and focus on something so seemingly inconsequential, we project on to our heroes what we want to see. Normally, when the gap between man and myth seems so large, there is almost a sense of betrayal. Why do we feel let down when Wayne Rooney shows his petulance? Because we feel guilty that a man of such talent shouldn't waste it so stupidly.

Best gets forgiven, for all the sense that we were watching a man who never achieved quite what he could have done. Of course, his flaws were half the fun. Would we really want him to have been soccer's Steve Davis? More to the point, if he had been Steve Davis, he would never have been so great. I am firmly of the belief that if you find a man doing what he enjoys and is good at, you get a true insight into his personality. A boring Best would have taken away his flair.

Of course, it is the fact that the team, the sport gives a wider sense of identity that gives sport so much power. That is why we write our dreams on to our heroes; why the minutiae of a win, loss or draw has such a powerful emotional impact. The team becomes a surrogate for the community; the star players become our friends and family. That is why Best's death has been so heavily covered by the news - although we never met him, we all felt like we knew the man. No matter that we couldn't. How could we not know a man who we could see at all times and in all places? When George Best had a ball at his feet, he made us all happy. Through the wonder of TV, he can continue to make us happy for a long time to come. It is a testament to his skill and his charm that it is the myth, not the man, who will be remembered.

George, I hope that you rest in peace.