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Rediff.com  » Sports » Belfast bids farewell to George Best

Belfast bids farewell to George Best

December 04, 2005 09:20 IST

Belfast gave football great George Best a hero's send-off on Saturday when tens of thousands turned out to pay their final respects to their local legend, who died last week after losing a highly public battle with alcoholism.

Best, a former Northern Ireland and Manchester United winger mentioned in the same breath as Pele and Diego Maradona, died of multiple organ failure on November 25 after years of heavy drinking. He was 59.

Thousands lined the funeral route from the Best family's modest home to the white-pillared grandeur of Belfast's Stormont parliament building despite bitter cold and pouring rain.

Another 30,000 gathered in the Stormont grounds.

They applauded and cheered the slow-moving funeral cortege as the hearse carrying the man his sister, Barbara McNarry, called "the beautiful boy of the beautiful game" passed by.

Some threw single flowers, football scarves or even wreathes.

"I don't think anyone playing today compares to what Best was like in his prime," said onlooker George McCutcheon.

Some of football's greatest names, including Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, attended the funeral service inside Stormont which was relayed on giant screens to those outside

"Goodbye Georgie, the Elvis of soccer," read one banner held aloft in the crowd.

"EVERYBODY LOVED HIM"

Best came from the back streets of Belfast to become one of sport's biggest icons.

His mercurial talent and pop star looks vaulted him to the pinnacle of celebrity in London's Swinging Sixties and he was often referred to as the "Fifth Beatle".

His immense popularity also crossed Northern Ireland's sectarian divide in a country often bitterly, and violently, divided by religious and political differences.

"George brought people together all over the world, and especially he brought people together in Northern Ireland," his sister Barbara told the 300 friends, family and dignitaries inside the service.

Professor Roger Williams, the doctor who oversaw Best's liver transplant in 2002 and treated him until his death, said: "Everybody loved him who came into contact with him".

"I think we made him too well with the transplant", he told the service. "The temptations of life overtook him again, and then it was the beginning of the end."

Other sporting guests attending the service included England football manager Sven Goran Eriksson, Northern Ireland boxer Barry McGuigan, and former Northern Ireland goalkeeper Pat Jennings.

UNIVERSAL APPEAL

The journey from the narrow streets of Cregagh council estate, east of the city, to Stormont's classical-style buildings symbolised Best's own life story which took him from humble roots to global celebrity.

He won the European Cup with United in 1968 and was voted European Footballer of the Year.

But his love of champagne and playboy lifestyle led to alcoholism. Best was unable to shake the disease and in the end it killed him.

Following the Stormont service, Best was buried in a private ceremony beside his mother Ann in the family plot in Roselawn cemetery.

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