His funeral at Stormont (Stormont!) will be a grand affair, with a few hundred invited guests listening as the platitudes echo in the gilded halls, and Brian Kennedy sings before a live television audience. Outside – weather dependent – a few hundred thousand will mourn the passing of Northern Ireland's best footballer. Or "Britain's" best footballer as Sky keeps telling us. Two glittering gala events in Northern Europe for one of our most inspiring and brilliant sons.
"Let he who is without sin cast the first stone" said one of Best's evangelical old friends on the beaten streets of Belfast this week to questions about his treatment of women, allegations of racism and the waste of a second liver. It's a fair enough point, if a little biblical for today's audiences. We live in an era of thrown stones, where Geoff Shreeves, Sky's point-man for the post-match interviews, tells Wayne Rooney off for cursing while celebrating scoring a goal. Rooney clearly mouthed "you fucking beauty" and took Shreeves seriously when told off. Two weeks later, Shreeves cautioned Sir Alex of Govan (not the first trade unionist to become a night of the Realm, but the richest and most famous) for using the word "bollocks" in a post-match interview. It's lucky we have Geoff on hand to keep us on the path to godliness, but when are we supposed to park our morality? What will the Caligula-lights of the Premiership think now that they see Best eulogised for his hard-drinking, self-destructive life? Can those moral arbiters now sit in judgement of Rio and Wayne and Ronaldo and Kieron Dyer and Lee Bowyer?
For most people under 30, this past week has been a strange and bewildering time. For us, George Best was a celebrity; a man who sold his fame for money, who would appear anywhere for cash. He was a drink driver who had issues with women in his life, to speak the language of euphemism so beloved of the obituary writers. Granted a reprieve from his alcoholism by dint of a new liver, he drank that away and became willing fodder for the tabloids. It is possible to divide a donor liver in two, maybe even for two kids.
In 1995, while he and Rodney Marsh were offering paying guests the chance of an evening with George and Rodney (to quote the bible again – a fool and his money are rich pickings) he was asked about the sale of Andy Cole. The Guardian reported his response: "£7 million is a lot to pay for a nigger". In a profile published in August 2002 just after he'd got his new liver, the Sunday Times claimed that at a footballers' dinner in Belfast he'd said Pele was "not bad for a nigger". Is it ok to forgive this because he was a great footballer?
The point is a very simple one. Outside Naples one time, a taxi driver told us tales of Diego Maradona's time at Napoli. Naples was where Maradona was at his peak as a club footballer – he won two league titles practically single-handedly. He was also at a high point of his drug use and tax evasion, and wasn't exactly renowned for being a gentleman. "Great footballer, shit human" was this guy's assessment. I was gravely offended as someone who believed that Maradona could do no wrong – he had lit up my childhood. When John Waters wrote this week about the power of imagination that George Best created, he was acknowledging a debt to Best's creativity and genius. You didn't have to like the man to access that. You didn't have to know him or want to be him to want moments like that. You didn't have to respect him as a man to adore him as a footballer. For those over 30 years of age, George Best seems to have been a unique blend of what Maradona and Keane mean for those under 30. Probably worth a replica gold ball and some hoo-ha in Stormont, but probably worth keeping that picture of his broken body in circulation too.