/ 3 December 2005

Belfast bidding farewell to boozy soccer genius

George Best was to be buried on Saturday following a grandiose funeral expected to bring his native Belfast to a unified, bittersweet standstill.

Best’s body was kept overnight in Protestant east Belfast at his family home, where after a private religious service it will be transported to the Stormont Parliamentary Building, Northern Ireland’s most impressive public space on a hill overlooking the


The British government is limiting the number of mourners within Stormont’s parklands to its capacity of 32 000, who will watch the indoor service — featuring 300 of Best’s family, friends and dignitaries — via three huge television screens.

Police expect tens of thousands more to line the three-kilometre route from the Best home to Stormont, and even more to watch his coffin travel to Roselawn Cemetery on the Belfast outskirts, in what appears certain to be the biggest funeral to date in this British territory of 1,7-million.

Best (59) died on November 25 in a London hospital after losing a decades-old battle with alcoholism. He received a liver transplant in 2002 on condition he stop drinking, but couldn’t stay out of the pub — a self-destructive streak that underscored his reputation as a maddeningly flawed genius.

He joined Manchester United at age 17 and became a goal-scoring phenomenon demonstrating seemingly effortless pace, dribbling, and guile that left defenders in his wake. In 1968 he led his club to the pinnacle of European soccer, the Champions Cup, and was named European Player of the Year.

But blessed also with matinee-idol looks and a hearty appetite for women and booze, Best walked away from the game in 1972 to run nightclubs, fashion shops, and other ill-fated business ventures.

”I spent a lot of money on booze, birds and fast cars,” he once said. ”The rest I just squandered.”

He returned to soccer, largely to regain the money he’d partied away, pursuing assignments in the now defunct North American Soccer League, and with Hibernian in Scotland. He lost that job after missing two games because of hangovers.

After his death, even his closest friends from his Manchester United heyday were mourning what might have been had he kept his feet fully on the football pitch.

”From 1964 to 1969, he was the best player in the country,” said former Manchester United teammate Denis Law, who will read a tribute to Best at the Stormont ceremony.

”It’s sad as hell, but I don’t think we saw the best of him. I think he went on the blink at a time when he could have got even better.”

In Belfast, a city that prides itself on building the Titanic and on surviving its own self-destructive hatreds, Best is venerated as its brightest star.

”He’s the greatest footballer in the world,” said veteran Belfast sports writer Malcolm Brodie. ”No matter what happened, he was our Georgie.”

Police and city officials have spent five days planning to keep the crowds under control. Vehicles have been banned within a three-kilometre radius of Stormont, with mourners told to take special fleets of buses from four points. Roselawn Cemetery is being closed to the public all day. – Sapa-AP