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FIFTY years and a day after England's greatest all-round cricketer and a 1980s superstar was born, the greatest British footballer of the 20th century and the man who perhaps taught Beefy Botham a thing or two about off-field vulnerability passed into history.

George Best was the best European footballer of the 1960s — an issue he firmly settled in his favour in Manchester United's European Cup final of 1968 in Wembley against Benfica, which had Portuguese legend Eusebio in its ranks. In the third minute of extra time, Best staged one of those typical ballets on the pitch. Playing as a forward, he took the ball with his back to the post, dribbled past three defenders, rounded the goalkeeper and put the ball in the net. It was, perhaps, destined that he had to pass away the very same week that a goal of almost similar standards was scored — Ronaldinho's first one for Barcelona against archrivals Real Madrid in the La Liga classic.

The confidence of the Benfican defence, which had let in only two goals in the whole of the European campaign, was shattered in one glorious moment of magic. United scored two more times — with Best's strike partner Bobby Charlton netting one to take his tally in the match to two — and the club, managed by Matt Busby, had become the first English club to win Europe's elite competition. Just a decade after losing eight players in the Munich Air disaster with manager Busby and a young Charlton being lucky survivors from that ill-fated day.

If it was the magical Best moment that created the United legend — which has continued till now through Alex Ferguson, Eric Cantona, David Beckham, Roy Keane and Wayne Rooney — his own evolution as sport's first superstar was complete much before the golden moment. With long hair, awesome looks, seductive smile and a wicked wink, the enchanter from Belfast, Northern Ireland, had wooed the British public from the day that Busby spotted his raw talent and forced him to be a United player as a 17-year-old in 1963.

United won the English League in 1965, with Best excelling as winger and attacking midfielder. The simple working class boy found life's uncomplicated pleasures and temptations hard to resist. Off the field, he was often seen with a model or two in tow and a drink in hand and after the Beatles he was the most popular name in the country spending as much time in boutiques as in training. He was also flooded with offers of endorsements and private appearances, most of which got a reply in the affirmative from a larger-than-life figure who would put the combined might of Botham, Beckham and Gascoigne to shame in showmanship.

The very next season, Manchester United was up against Benfica in a two-legged quarterfinal of the European Cup. With United having etched out a narrow 3-2 win in the first leg at Old Trafford, it was always going to be curtains in the away fixture at the Stadium of Light in Lisbon taking into account Benfica's awesome record at home. `Bestie', though, had other ideas — his sublime self scoring two goals in his team's 5-1 win. A Portuguese newspaper came up with a headline the next day — El Beatle — that stuck to Best for the rest of his life with an English twist, namely the `Fifth Beatle'.

Best's golden moments on the field started drying up after Matt Busby retired as United manager at the end of the 1969 season. The three managers who succeeded Busby — Wilf McGuinness, Frank O'Farrell and Tommy Docherty — found it difficult to manage Best's wild lifestyle. Not that Busby — whose relationship with Best was the prototype for Mike Brearley's with Botham in the late 1970s and early 1980s — had absolute success. "Whenever I chastised him for turning up at training sessions with a hangover, he would be standing right in front of me, eyes firmly set on a distant object in the same room," recalled Busby. "The less you control George, the better results you get. You've got to treat him like a kid."

With Best, any perspective from his personal life is dangerously close to one from his professional life. His first wife Angie — with whom he has a son — divorced him saying she had two kids and to bring up the younger one she has to give up the elder one.

In 1974, after Best repeatedly missed training sessions, Docherty decided to end United's association with him. Considering that his international appearances were for Northern Ireland, he could never showcase his skills at a World Cup. After his United career, he moved in and out of many English clubs, and had a stint with American clubs appropriately based in California near Hollywood. However, the magic was never to return to football fields.

Pele called him his favourite player (for obvious reasons, he did not want to name Maradona). So did Maradona, who has always had a soft corner for players of flair and human imperfection (it did not matter that Best was British). Need we say more?