Saturday, December 03, 2005

OBT: Best Funeral

Huge crowds in farewell to Best

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Tens of thousands of people joined big names from the world of soccer in Northern Ireland to pay a final emotional tribute to footballing icon George Best.

Some of soccer's greatest names, including Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, flew in for a ceremony akin to a state funeral, which led sectarian factions in Belfast for once to temporarily put aside their differences.

Crowds applauded as the hearse carrying the body of the Manchester United star traveled along the three-mile route from his family home to Stormont Parliamentary Building, Northern Ireland's most impressive public space on a hill overlooking the city on Saturday.

Best, whose skills caused him to be mentioned in the same breath as Pele and Diego Maradona, died of multiple organ failure on November 25 aged 59 after years of heavy drinking.

Inside Stormont's parklands, where the British government limited the number of mourners to its capacity of 32,000, fans tossed roses, carnations and soccer scarves in the hearse's slow-moving path.

Flags flew at half mast in Parliament Buildings -- an honor only accorded before to members of the royal family.

Team-mates from his playing days at Manchester United and Northern Ireland were also at Stormont for the ceremony, including his close friend Denis Law -- who gave an address -- Bobby Charlton, Paddy Crerand and Harry Gregg.

Manchester United manager Ferguson, Northern Ireland manager Lawrie Sanchez and England manager, Sven-Goran Eriksson also made the journey along with Northern Ireland Secretary Peter Hain, representing the UK government.

A minute's silence was held after the coffin arrived at the foot of Parliament Buildings, whose last funeral was that of Unionist Prime Minister Lord Craigavon in 1940.

The coffin was carried into Parliament Buildings by former Northern Ireland and Manchester United team-mates to the sound of a piper's lament.

Children from Best's childhood team Cregagh Rangers, formerly Cregagh Boys Club, dressed in their white kits, formed a guard of honor as members of the Best family including his father Dickie, son Calum and Calum's mother, George's first wife Angie, followed behind.

The coffin was draped in a Northern Ireland flag as it entered the marbled Great Hall of Parliament Buildings carried by his son and agent, Phil Hughes.

His father and sisters followed the coffin into the hall as Les Miserables star, Peter Corry sang Bring Him Home from the hit musical.

Among the mourners in the front row was Professor Roger Williams, the doctor who treated the football star during his final illness in London's Cromwell Hospital. George Best's second wife, Alex, who went to live with him in the fishing village of Portavogie in Northern Ireland as he battled against alcoholism, joined mourners.

Northern Ireland television personality Eamonn Holmes welcomed the mourners to the funeral service.

"What mere mortal could do what he did on a pitch," Holmes asked the assembled guests.

"Today we celebrate his life," Holmes said. "In a country that often cannot rise above religion and politics, George Best did more than most to bring us together as people to make us recognize that may be there is more that unites us than divides us.

"George, we mourn your life cut short, but we are proud to welcome you home."

A tearful Calum Best, 24, broke down as he read a poem written in honor of his father.

After reading the verse he had already selected, Calum told mourners he had been handed another poem last night by Belfast woman, Julie McClelland, which struck a chord with him.

Choking back tears, he said it was called "Farewell our Friend" and read it to the congregation.

Among the wreaths placed at the foot of Parliament Buildings were tributes from Prime Minister Tony Blair and the UK government, Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern and his former clubs Manchester United and Edinburgh side, Hibernian.

White roses were sent by the Duke of York with this tribute: "An inspirational footballer from Northern Ireland whose skills captured the imagination of fans from around the world."

Hollywood actor Mickey Rourke sent a wreath and there was a floral tribute from one of east Belfast's other famous sons, the singer-songwriter Van Morrison.

Following a request from the Best family, 10 people were specially picked from the crowd at the Stormont estate to attend the ceremony.

Best combined mercurial talent with pop star looks, a combination that vaulted him to the pinnacle of celebrity in London's Swinging Sixties.

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

The turnout and the tributes that flooded in after the death of Best, a Protestant, show his immense popularity -- one that crossed Northern Ireland's sectarian divide.

Following the Stormont service, Best was being buried beside his mother Ann in the family plot in Roselawn cemetery. The family asked the public and media to stay away from the cemetery.