/ 2 December 2005

Massive crowd expected for George Best funeral

To an accompanying lament of bagpipers, the body of soccer legend George Best returned home on Friday for a massive state-style funeral that is expected to bring Belfast to a standstill.

Best’s casket — draped in a red-and-white Manchester United flag — arrived at the British military side of Belfast International airport from London.

As two bagpipers played, Best’s 24-year-old son, Calum, kissed the coffin before embracing his Belfast relatives, including Best’s 87-year-old father, Dickie.

Best (59) died in a London hospital a week ago after a long battle with alcoholism.

The former Manchester United and Northern Ireland great will be buried on Saturday after a service at Stormont, the grand centre of the government. The ceremony is expected to attract more than 100 000 along the streets of his native Protestant east Belfast.

A half-dozen police motorcyclists escorted the hearse and two family limousines to the Best family home in east Belfast for an overnight wake. The casket was carried inside by relatives and police.

The British government has placed a limit of 32 000 mourners gaining admission on Saturday to Stormont’s grassy, elevated grounds, where services will be broadcast live on three giant plasma TV screens.

But tens of thousands more are expected to line major roads where Best’s casket will pass. The government said police will enforce a ban on vehicles travelling within 3km of Stormont and require mourners to travel on foot or by complimentary buses.

The British secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain, said Best’s death has united both sides of this long-divided community, British Protestant and Irish Catholic alike.

”His genius on the football field, his artistry and magic were just extraordinary,” Hain said. ”He has also, over the past week, unified Northern Ireland in a way that no politician has ever done or can ever do.

”Right across the community — across faiths, across politics, across football allegiances — people on all sides are realising that this was someone very special.” — Sapa-AP