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Save Kenya from this killer drunkenness

George Best was laid to rest last week. Arguably the most talented footballer ever produced by the British Isles, he was accorded a hero’s funeral in his native Northern Ireland. Tens of thousands braved the cold and the rain to pay their last respects. Soccer luminaries such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Sven-Goran Eriksson were amongst them.

For a week before and a week after his death, George Best received blanket media coverage. Every British TV station and every newspaper ran special after special on the life and times of the great man.

It is beyond question that Best was a true footballing great. His silky skills, his audacious moves and unreal self-confidence lit up Europe in the late 1960s. His name is known to every fan of the game, and the videos of his prowess will be watched by many future generations.

But he drank himself to death. Along with his youthful fame, Best acquired a taste for alcohol and for casual sex. He was a serial adulterer and self-confessed wife beater. He had a huge problem accepting authority, and was involved in several scrapes with the law and with his football club, Manchester United. Due to persistent breaches of discipline, the club was eventually forced to dump him. His career was effectively over by the time he had passed his mid-twenties.

His free-fall continued. He could not keep away from the drink, nor from gambling, and by 1982 he was bankrupt. In 1984 he was jailed for drink-driving and assault; by 2002 he had to undergo a liver transplant. It was not enough to stop him. He went back to drinking, and his death was due to alcohol-related complications.

I have no wish to cause those grieving Best’s death any further pain. But I remain perplexed by the fact that this man is being given a hero’s send-off. He was granted more God-given footballing talent than most players can even dream of, but he frittered it all away on drink, fast cars and easy women. He was given fame and fortune in his teens, but used it promote licentiousness and debauchery. He could not manage his affairs, and saw the inside of prison because of an inability to control his temper.

Yet this man is lauded as an iconic role model for thousands of youngsters. That is the state of our world: we value good looks, charm and headline-grabbing talent above everything else. People who lead a life of quiet virtue and decent behaviour, who put the welfare of others first, who work hard and make the most of their talents – why remember those dullards? They never caught the applause of millions, were never seen with the glamorous and the promiscuous, never caused anyone any harm – so why even think about them? They are the dreary and the lifeless. Did they ever really live, those unimaginative fools?

Paul Gascoigne is Best’s natural successor. Possessed of a similarly precocious talent, “Gazza” hit the stage in the late 1980s, and in World Cup 1990 was the player of the tournament for England. Sadly, that was the peak of his career. By the mid- 1990s, Gascoigne was a wash-out. He, too, had well-publicised problems with drink, and this, combined with a violent temper, landed him in plenty of regular trouble.

Last month Gascoigne, now 39, was inexplicably appointed manager of non-league Kettering Town. After 39 days in charge, he was sacked by his chairman, who accused him of being drunk “before, during and after” club games and training sessions. Gascoigne is himself reported to have admitted having a “double brandy” before a game, but says, apparently in his defence, that “it used to be four bottles of whisky”. He was arrested a few days ago after allegedly assaulting a photographer.

The danger of turning drunks into role models is not difficult to see. Two doctors who work in a busy Accident & Emergency department in Central London wrote to The Times recently and provided the following statistics: after 11pm, 98% of admissions on a certain day were related to alcohol. Of those, more than half abused the doctors who tried to help them.

It’s easy to moralise, and we have all had excesses in our lives at some point or other, particularly as hormone-crazed adolescents. When you are still doing this stuff in your middle age, however, something has gone horribly wrong. Best and Gascoigne both suffered from depression, but their adoring hordes of fans don’t see any of that. They crave the glamour and the fame, the notoriety and the controversy. A life well lived is these days a life of excess and intemperance, of hedonism and self-centredness. Want to die a hero? Let rip! Pull up a few trees, break a few hearts, crash a few cars, lose a few years. Otherwise no one will remember you.

This adulation of intoxication is a baffling phenomenon. If our lives are so miserable that we can only find respite in temporary oblivion, then we are in trouble indeed. Yet, guided gently by the marketers and brandmeisters, we begin to believe in the glamour and the sexiness of drinking, and devote large proportions of our purchasing power to our regular tipple. Who benefits? Not the drinker, certainly. A poisoned liver and damaged balance sheet is his (or increasingly, her) lot. And there’s certainly nothing sexy about regularly falling asleep in your own vomit.

Look at the way Kenyans are reacting to the recent introduction of the ‘Alcoblow’ gadgets that the police are using to crack down on drink driving. You would think the cops are standing in the way of our daily ascent to heaven. “Don’t the police have more important things to do?” is the popular lament. As though the regular killing of innocents by drunk drivers is not an important enough matter.

It’s really very simple. If you’re going to drink heavily, don’t drive. Pay for a taxi, pool cars, or drink at home. Nothing gives you the right to get into a car drunk and get out onto the roads, pickled in alcohol and ready to maim and kill. None of us can claim that privilege; the only surprising thing is how many of us want to.

More than half of our 3,000 annual road deaths may be related to alcohol, so this initiative was long overdue. If you lived in the UK or Canada (or any of the other countries Kenyans try to run away to) you would not get away with driving while sloshed; so why expect to in your homeland? Or do we just delight in watching cars mount roundabouts and go through walls every Friday night? Our standards are this low because we want them to be.

Whether it’s done by a legendary footballer or a business executive, a professor or a bricklayer, binge drinking followed by driving is just plain stupid. It blights the economy and blights lives. It diminishes our human capital and limits careers. For all those reasons, let’s hope the police are serious this time round.

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