LONDON (Reuters) - George Best, whose flamboyant life took him from the heights of sporting success at Manchester United to the depths of alcoholism, died on Friday aged 59.
The Northern Irishman, widely regarded as the only British footballer in the same league as Pele, Diego Maradona and Johan Cruyff, died in the London hospital where he had spent the final two months of his life, drifting in and out of consciousness.
"My father has passed away," Best's tearful son Calum, 24, told reporters outside the hospital. "Not only have I lost my dad but we've all lost a wonderful man."
Best died of multiple organ failure after a lifetime of heavy drinking. He had suffered infection and internal bleeding in recent weeks and had problems with his liver and kidneys.
Tributes poured in for the man who emerged from the back streets of Belfast to become one of sport's biggest icons and -- as the first superstar footballer -- an integral part of London's Swinging Sixties scene.
Denis Law and Bobby Charlton, who formed a "Holy Trinity" with Best at United in the 1960s, were among those who spoke of their sadness and loss.
"Manchester United's glorious history has been created by people like George Best," said Charlton, who spent almost 10 years alongside him at the club's Old Trafford grounds.
"Anyone who witnessed what George could do on the pitch wished they could do the same."
Prime Minister Tony Blair, attending a summit in Malta, described Best as "probably the most naturally gifted footballer of his generation and one of the best footballers our country has produced".
Football authorities said a minute's silence would be observed at English league matches this weekend as a mark of respect. A book of condolence will be opened at Old Trafford on Saturday.
SHRINE OF SCARVES
In Manchester, fans gathered in the winter gloom outside United's ground where they have created a shrine of scarves, photographs and replica shirts in Best's honour.
Passing motorists stopped to add their contributions, candles were lit, tears shed and heads were bowed in memory.
"I cried when he left United and I cried again today," said supporter Lawrence Chapple-Gill. "I have supported United since I was four or five when my dad gave me a poster of George Best and told me all about him."
Best will be remembered as one of the greatest flawed geniuses in the world of sport.
Blessed with sublime skills, he won the European Cup with United in 1968, the year he was named European Footballer of the Year.
But he walked out on United in his mid-twenties and spent the rest of his career at modest sides in the lower reaches of English football and in the United States.
Years after hanging up his boots, he became Britain's most infamous alcoholic, appearing bloated and drunk in one notorious chat show interview in 1990. His marriage to a glamour model collapsed and although he underwent a liver transplant in 2002 he never managed to quit the drink.
"I spent a lot of my money on booze, birds and fast cars," Best said in his most memorable comment on his roller-coaster life.
"The rest I just squandered."
It is a measure of how far Best fell from grace that he played his last competitive match for a prison side while in jail for a drink-driving offence.
Best always maintained he had achieved all he wanted.
But, ultimately, he won just two English league titles as well as the European Cup -- a travesty for a footballer of his talent playing in one of the greatest club sides in the world.
And unlike Brazil's Pele, Argentina's Maradona and Holland's Cruyff, who came from major footballing nations, Best, from Northern Ireland, never got the chance to play in a World Cup.
He will be buried in Belfast, alongside the grave of his mother Ann, next Friday
Top liver specialist treated bankrupt hero free of charge
Denis Campbell and Henry McDonald
Sunday November 27, 2005
The sad truth behind George Best's final days became apparent yesterday after The Observer discovered that the football star was given free medical treatment at the prestigious Cromwell Hospital in London because he was bankrupt and unable to pay.
Medical experts estimate that Best's treatment at the Cromwell, one of Britain's leading private hospitals, would have amounted to well over £100,000.
The former Manchester United player died on Friday of multiple organ failure brought on by his alcoholism. He was 59, and had been treated at the Cromwell since being admitted on 1 October. A minute's silence was held at football grounds around the country yesterday to mark his death.
Sources believe the prestigious hospital waived its charges for his intensive care. The Cromwell did not seek any money from Best during his first spell at the hospital in 2001, before he underwent a liver transplant in 2002. Professor Roger Williams, the liver specialist who had supervised Best's treatment since 2000, confirmed he had not charged his patient during that time, but said he was unaware what the financial arrangements were for Best's most recent period at the hospital.
The hospital's spokesman, Jeffrey Brandon, refused to discuss whether Best's family would be presented with any bill. 'I can't talk to you about the costs of people's treatment,' he said.
Best died virtually penniless. Illness meant he had little opportunity in his last few years to earn income from his two usual sources: after-dinner speaking and acting as a guest commentator for Sky Sports. 'George worked for us for about 10 years,' said a Sky source. 'We had a pay-per-play arrangement with him - he got a fee when he guested on our Soccer Saturday show. But he hadn't appeared on that for about two seasons.'
The Belfast-born player, whose combination of looks, talent and charm made him football's first global star in the Sixties, had been declared bankrupt.
He is thought to have owned no property when he died. Alex, his second ex-wife, owned the two homes they shared until they separated in 2002. After that he lived free until last August at the Forest Mere health farm in Hampshire, part of the Champneys group owned by his close friend Stephen Purdew.
Best's rapid physical decline means his wish that his organs benefit other patients after his death cannot be fulfilled, it emerged yesterday. The star had carried an organ donor card and wanted parts of his body to be used in transplants. But his death from multiple organ failure, and the risk of passing on an infection to someone receiving tissue from him, meant that doctors could not remove his organs.
At football grounds around the country, teams wore black armbands and fans observed a minute's silence. However, supporters at several grounds broke with tradition by applauding for all or part of the silence to show their affection.
At Celtic, fans staged a planned minute's clapping, but they were joined in spontaneous displays of appreciation by fans of clubs including Tottenham Hotspur, Liverpool and Manchester City, the latter two both arch-rivals of Best's former club. Nevertheless, a minority of Liverpool and Leeds supporters disrupted the tribute.
At Old Trafford, where Best played for United from 1963-73, fans queued to write messages in a book of condolences and lay tributes. Many now want the club to honour Best's memory at the stadium in some way. 'It would be nice if they named a stand after him, or built a statue,' said one fan, Tony Gormley.
In Belfast, Best's ability to unite a people torn apart by 30 years of conflict was on display among those queuing at the City Hall to add their own remarks in a book of condolences. The green and white colours of Celtic, which has a large Catholic following, hung beside the red, white and blue of Linfield, Belfast's traditionally Protestant club, in a shrine underneath the Christmas tree.
Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, said Best's life should serve as a warning to the current generation of players about the pitfalls of fame: 'Above all, he was a genius on the pitch. But we also have to recognise the problems George had, not just during his career but later in his life.
'It is important we learn the lessons because when he was exposed to all the attention, George had no one to help him, no one to protect him and no one to fall back on if things went wrong.'
Man Utd fans lead Best tributes
Manchester United fans led another day of tributes to George Best as they joined in a minute's applause with West Ham supporters at Upton Park.
West Ham legend Trevor Brooking and Manchester United director Sir Bobby Charlton spoke on the pitch in tribute to Best before the kick-off.
Everton and Newcastle fans - along with supporters at the game between Fulham and Bolton - also applauded.
There was a minute's silence before Middlesbrough's game with West Brom.
At Goodison Park, the song "Belfast Boy" played over the tannoy as loud applause rang out in honour of Best before Everton's 1-0 win against Newcastle.
Best died aged 59 on Friday, and there were poignant scenes at Craven Cottage and Easter Road, where Best had played for both Fulham and Hibernian.
At Easter Road, the planned minute's silence became a spontaneous applause and some Hibs fants chanted: "There's only one George Best."
The Premier League had asked referees to conduct a minute's silence before all games this weekend, but the idea of applauding the football legend has proved popular.
On Saturday, crowds fell silent at 1500 GMT to honour one of the country's greatest ever players.
But Celtic and Wolves, who Best supported as a boy, were two of the clubs who opted to have applause in tribute to the Northern Ireland legend.
A Celtic spokesperson said: "George Best was universally recognised as a player with a unique footballing talent and we feel it is appropriate to hold a minute's applause."
However, a minority of Liverpool and Leeds fans failed to observe the silence and the tribute had to be cut short.
At the City of Manchester Stadium in the game between Liverpool and Manchester City both sets of fans applauded as Best's name was read out.
But some fans of United's bitter rivals Liverpool disturbed the minute's silence, which did not last the full 60 seconds.
Referee Alan Wiley followed Premier League instruction in cutting the silence down to barely 20 seconds once it became obvious a minority of the visiting supporters were not going to respect it.
The conduct of some of their fans earned jeers from the City fans and their manager Rafael Benitez admitted it was disappointing.
"It is a pity," said Benitez. "It was only a few people and most of them did applaud but it is a pity, you can't say anything else."
City boss Stuart Pearce added: "I have no idea which group of supporters it was but the vast majority paid tribute to a legend of the game who gave a lot of pleasure to a lot of people and that is the important thing.
"You have to look at the positives rather than dwell of the actions of a handful of people in a crowd of 47,000."
It was a similar scene at Millwall's New Den where a section of the Leeds fans also led to the tribute being cut short.
Leeds boss Kevin Blackwell said: "They are magnificent fans, but a few people let us down and we are all disappointed.
"It was the minority and it's always the minority that ruins society in this country I'm afraid and it's about time that we stood up to that."
Since his death, fans have been gathering at United's Old Trafford stadium to pay their own respects, laying flowers, shirts and written tributes by the statue of Sir Matt Busby, the manager when Best helped the side to the European Cup in 1968.
People in Belfast continued to honour their home town hero with queues building up outside Belfast City Hall to sign books of condolence opened by the Lord Mayor.
Floral tributes also continued to pile up outside the Best family home in the Cregagh area of the city, where his father continues to live.
A service of farewell to the Best
BY DON FRAME
MANCHESTER will be saying its own poignant farewell to soccer legend George Best this week when family, friends and fans celebrate his life in a service of song, prayer and tribute.
The hour-long service on Thursday at Manchester Cathedral will be relayed to crowds outside on a huge screen - and millions more will be able to watch via a live BBC 1 TV broadcast.
The same evening more tributes will be paid to the former Manchester United and Northern Ireland star at a memorial dinner at Old Trafford.
George's father Dickie, brother Ian and four sisters, Barbara, Carol, Grace and Julie, along with their husbands, will be among those travelling to Manchester for the special service.
On Wednesday they will be among passengers on the inaugural flight of a new air service between Belfast and Manchester, which is being named after the player.
Members of his family will unveil the flybe aircraft, which carries on its side a portrait of George. Fans attending the memorial service, which starts at 11am on Thursday, have had to apply to Manchester United for tickets, which have been limited to two per person.
Tributes will come from friends and colleagues of George, including Eddie Gray, Wilf McGuinness, Malcolm Wagner and David Sadler. Members of the United team will also be there.
Jane Busby, grandaughter of Sir Matt, will give a Bible reading during the service, which has been devised by family and friends. It will open with thanks for the life of Best, who died aged 59 last November after years of battling drink problems.
The Dean of Manchester, the Very Rev Rogers Govender - himself a United fan - will lead the congregation in prayer, asking for special thoughts for those suffering illness, particularly diseases of the liver.
He said: "This is Manchester's chance to say goodbye, and to say it with thanks. George had God's gifts in abundance; the gift to play, to win, to entertain and to bring joy. We are richer for having known him, and he will always belong to us."
During a period of quiet reflection during the service, the dean will ask the congregation to hold a memory of George in their minds. A single candle will be lit, reflecting the Christian hope that death is not the end.
The Bishop of Manchester, the Rt Rev Nigel McCulloch, will bless the congregation as they leave the cathedral. An adopted son of the city, Best first arrived in Manchester as a shy Belfast teenager, but quickly became a football legend. His funeral at Stormont Castle last December was watched on TV by millions across the globe.
A song written by Salford band Cracked Flag in tribute to George will be performed live at the celebrity dinner at Old Trafford. The trio, who spent their own money recording and releasing the CD Goodbye to the Belfast Boy, have also been invited to attend the memorial service.
Lifelong pals Paul Johnston, Dave Mather and Pete Robinson grew up watching their hero in action, and are donating proceeds from the sale of the record to the Foundation for Liver Research - George Best Appeal.
The band have been invited to perform at a Belfast event on what would have been George's 60th birthday in May.
MAESTRO . . . George the legend
LASTING memory . . . floral tributes at Old Trafford after George, above, died