Why do we honour a violent thug?

Observations on George Best

George Best should not have died in hospital. He should have died in prison. The "football legend" first beat his wife Alex Best on her 25th birthday, when he punched her to the floor and kicked her six times in the chest and face. She ran to the police, but was persuaded by Best's friends not to press charges. Like many battered wives, she said: "I know he loves me. He has an illness. He's an alcoholic. He can't control it." This was just the kick-off for a long campaign of domestic violence - the equivalent of Man United playing Grimsby Town.

The beatings continued, with Alex periodically running away and being lulled back. He gave her a broken lip and swollen face on Christmas Day 2003. "So what if she's in hospital? It's the best place for her," he snapped at the press the next day. When she fled to her family, he would spew abuse at her via reporters.

"She was just a waitress on a plane when I met her. She had nothing, she was nothing, before me," he told one. In a bizarre act of projection, he started to accuse her of having a secret drink problem. He even blamed her for his alcoholic impotence, saying he "couldn't perform his duties" with her after she "tormented him".

When Paul Gascoigne admitted to having assaulted his wife, Sheryl, "Bestie" leapt to his defence. Best's self-pitying bleating showed he had no understanding that a terrified woman would not respond to his sexual advances. "Alex didn't want me in bed, that was the worst thing," he told an interviewer. "Night after night, I would go to bed, she would always be three hours behind me . . . We had a cleaner, for goodness sake, but she'd be cleaning into the small hours. She couldn't bear me to touch her," he said, mystified.

So why does Britain honour the memory of a violent, vicious thug? Would we do the same for, say, a paedophile? Just a few days after it was revealed that 30 per cent of Brits believe rape victims are partly or wholly responsible for being attacked, it seems kicking your wife is still a second-rate crime, easily trumped by a talent for kicking a ball.

All through his life, other people normalised Best's beatings. His cleaner said Alex "humiliated him" and that Best "bought her a necklace but got nothing in return". One columnist said Alex had "not done badly" out of him, and claimed Best and Gazza's only flaw was that "they are suckers for romance".

Even as he is lowered into the ground, the fawning obituarists - who declare "his drinking never harmed anybody but himself" and praise his "greatness" - are making domestic violence seem a trifling flaw in an otherwise great man.

Johann Hari is a columnist for the Independent