Leading article: The superstar who leaves a legend - and a harsh lesson - behind him

The death of George Best has been a sad and protracted business, for it was drawn out not merely over the past few days but over a dozen years or more. The obituaries will talk about him as one of the greatest footballers in the history of the game. They will recall that he was Maradona's all-time favourite and the best player that Pelé said he ever saw.

But the sorry truth is that this is not all that George Best was famous for. As a soccer player he flashed brilliantly through the firmament in a career that was over in just nine short years. As a drunk he was a fixture in our media for more than 30 years.

So there is inescapable irony in the fact that Best's final days coincided with the most radical liberalisation of our licensing laws in recent times. And for some people - not only those of a puritanical disposition - his early death sends a clear message about a policy they judge to be mistaken and the price, social and human, that will eventually be paid.

It was a message that Best's doctor, Professor Roger Williams, used his public platform to drive home. The consequences of making alcohol more widely available, he said, would be more people drinking more heavily and more people damaging themselves. He forecast more hospital admissions and more traffic accidents and - by implication - a great many more wasted lives.

As a liver specialist who sees the effects of alcohol abuse practically every day of his working life, Professor Williams has issued a warning that is as salutary as it is timely. Alcohol is responsible for far more deaths than drugs and imposes a colossal burden on our health service. But it is surely too simple to draw a direct line between the crowds of revellers cheerfully raising their glasses after midnight this week and that last picture of Best, yellow and shrivelled, on his deathbed.

In a free and mature society, individuals must take responsibility for their own behaviour. That a few may abuse what is on offer is no reason for hedging recreation about with layers of prescriptive regulation. It is an argument for more information, better education and better medical and psychological provision for those who find it impossible to cope.

Best was a superstar and a playboy. But he was also an addictive personality and, from early on, an alcoholic. He was a sick man, and no amount of licensing regulation was going to keep him from the substance on which he was dependent. Alcoholics develop sophisticated and devious ways of feeding their addiction. They need treatment, but, as with Best, that treatment does not always work.

Whether Best should have received a liver transplant, given his record of recidivism and the desperate shortage of donated livers, is a legitimate question; still more so, given the suspicion that his operation may have been fast-tracked because of his celebrity. His return to the bottle so soon afterwards gave relatives of those who have died waiting for a transplant just cause for indignation.

But the same applies to all those whose organ failure can be blamed on their own behaviour. The competing claims of those whose last hope is a transplant is a question that will be discussed by clinicians and ethicists for as long as there is a shortage of organs.

In the end, paradoxically, it was not Best's transplanted liver that failed. It was his kidneys, then his lungs, and then a devastating bout of internal bleeding. Like Icarus he had flown too close to the sun. But with his extravagance, his indulgence, his addictions, his gambling, his womanising and his booze, George Best was an Icarus for our times.

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