LONDON (AP) – George Best, one of the most dazzling and entertaining players in soccer history whose playboy living and drinking escapades became a staple of tabloid gossip, died Friday after decades of alcohol abuse. He was 59.

Best, who starred in the 1960s and 1970s for Manchester United and Northern Ireland, had a liver transplant three years ago and had been hospitalized since Oct. 1 because of a reaction to medication to control his alcoholism.

He appeared close to death last month when doctors discovered internal bleeding. He was readmitted to intensive care a week ago with a lung infection and was put on life support. His condition deteriorated sharply Thursday.

“After a long and very valiant fight, Mr. George Best died this afternoon in the intensive care unit at Cromwell Hospital,” the hospital said in a statement.

Prime Minister Tony Blair said Best was “probably the most naturally gifted footballer of his generation.”

England coach Sven-Goran Eriksson added: “His ability was an inspiration to everyone who loves football.”

The Premier League said there will be a minute’s silence before each game this weekend. Manchester United players will wear black armbands.

Best was told never to drink again after his liver transplant, but he went back to his old ways and was regularly seen at pubs.

“Unfortunately there is no solution to alcohol, you can’t make it go away,” Best wrote in a recent update to his second autobiography “Blessed.” “Drink is the only opponent I’ve been unable to beat.”

Denis Law, a former Manchester United teammate, was at Best’s bedside all night.

“From 1964 to 1969, he was the best player in the country,” Law said. “It’s sad as hell, but I don’t think we saw the best of him. I think he went on the blink at a time when he could have got even better.”

In his prime, Best was a version of Diego Maradona and David Beckham rolled into one. Like Maradona, he could dribble his way to magnificent goals. Like Beckham, his showbiz elan often overshadowed his ability.

Best humiliated defenders and frustrated coaches. He scored 180 goals in 465 appearances for United, helping the team win the 1968 European Cup.

He also played in the North American Soccer League, scoring 54 goals in 139 games for the Los Angeles Aztecs, Fort Lauderdale Strikers and San Jose Earthquakes.

“Everyone has their own opinion about football and their favorite players,” Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson said. “But in terms of British players, you would find it difficult to think of anyone better.”

Best was only 17 when he began thrilling fans at United. Slightly built but with amazing balance and devastating speed, Best would leave defenders tackling thin air.

Antonio Simoes, Best’s coach at San Jose, recalled that during training Best would dribble past a handful of teammates and burst out laughing.

“It was all easy for him,” the coach said. “But that irreverence was the essence of his talent. He played with joy. Soccer wasn’t a job, it was entertainment.”

Best made 37 international appearances for Northern Ireland. But the team had few other stars, and Best played in neither the World Cup nor the European Championship.

In a game in Portugal in 1966, Best scored twice in the first 12 minutes, and the shaggy-haired star with screaming fans became known as the fifth Beatle. He was voted European Player of the Year after his club’s Champions Cup triumph in 1968.

“Pele called me the greatest footballer in the world,” Best once said. “That is the ultimate salute to my life.”

Best retired at 27 in 1972 to concentrate on business ventures, which included nightclubs and clothing boutiques. He came out of retirement three years later, considerably overweight.

Best slimmed down and went to the United States, where he played for the Aztecs of the now-defunct NASL. He later walked out on Fulham, a second-division English club, prompting a worldwide ban. That ruled out a move to Fort Lauderdale, although he later played for the team. After the ban was lifted, Best had a successful spell with San Jose. He then moved to the Scottish club Hibernian but was fired when he failed to show for two games because of drinking binges. In 1984, he served two months in jail for drunken driving. In 2004, he was banned from driving for 20 months after another conviction. In 2000, Best collapsed from serious liver damage. He was hospitalized with pneumonia in 2001. Two months later, anti-alcohol pellets were implanted in his stomach. Best could not be relied on to keep appointments either as a player, TV soccer analyst or after-dinner speaker. His private life was splashed across the British tabloids.

“I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars,” he once said. “The rest I just squandered.”

At times, he had a comic’s perfect delivery.

“I used to go missing a lot,” he said. “Miss Canada, Miss United Kingdom, Miss World.”

In 1983, Best was hit over the head with a beer glass in a London pub hours after he appeared in bankruptcy court for failing to pay back taxes. Just before Christmas the following year, Best was jailed for three months for drunken driving, assaulting a policeman and jumping bail.

In 1990, Best appeared wildly drunk on a live TV show, uttering expletives and embarrassing the host. But, with his second wife, Alex Pursey, standing by, he contained his drinking enough to regularly appear on an afternoon soccer program as an analyst.

The drinking caught up with him again, and doctors told him even one more glass of wine could kill him. In the hospital for a month, Best promised his wife he wouldn’t drink again. It was one more promise he couldn’t keep.

In 2004, Alex Best was granted a divorce after nine years of marriage, citing her husband’s adultery. Best had a son, Calum, from a four-year marriage to his first wife, Angie.

Best will be buried next to his mother, Ann, in Belfast, Northern Ireland, on Dec. 2, said his agent, Phil Hughes.

AP-ES-11-25-05 1539EST

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