In recent years all sorts of sporting philistines have attacked our culture for its obsession with sport, with many condescendingly decrying that the words sport and culture even appear in the same sentence.
According to this ill-informed lobby, somehow Australia is all alone in this obsessive passion where sport insinuates itself to the very core of our society, which in turn makes us appear to the rest of the world as a gross caricature of a nation besotted by sport and not much else. Yet I defy anyone to find a developed country with mass media that doesn’t elicit – each in their own way – a huge sporting passion among its people.
Since George Best died at just 59 in a London hospital last Friday, the UK has witnessed an enormous outpouring of emotion for a man whose ultimate tragedy was a life recklessly squandered after he had shown himself to be a giant of the world’s biggest sport. The endless eulogies and tributes only amplify what those who care about sport cherish most – the way in which great sporting contests and individuals impact on us and provide transcendent moments that enrich our lives and move us as profoundly as any great work of art.
How symbolic that Best’s funeral service will be held at Stormont in the Great Hall of the national parliament, after MPs from all parties signed a House of Commons motion praising his “unequalled football skills” and Secretary of State Peter Hain agreed the parliament building was an appropriate venue for the service following an approach by the Best family. Tens of thousands will line the route to pay their respects in what will surely be one of the biggest funerals in Northern Ireland’s bloody history.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
It’s also heartening to hear England captain David Beckham urging Manchester United to retire the famous number seven shirt worn by the fallen star and since passed on to other anointed Old Trafford legends including Bryan Robson, Eric Cantona, and Beckham himself.
In life George Best inspired multitudes and left a legacy that can still be seen today in those grainy black and white pictures of his playing genius that gave pleasure to many millions both in the UK and around the world. No amount of ill-will regarding his private failings can ultimately diminish his hallowed place in sport’s pantheon of legendary champions.
Now in the lead up to his funeral he unites his own people in a way no politician can ever hope to do; and against a backdrop of Irish political turmoil and decades of violence, anyone who thinks that’s not culturally and politically significant needs to get a life.