More than 100,000 expected at Best funeral

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The Independent Online

Soccer great George Best will be buried on Saturday in his native Belfast in a ceremony expected to attract more than 100,000 mourners.

The former Manchester United and Northern Ireland star died on Friday in a London hospital after decades of alcohol abuse. He was 59.

The British government granted permission for the funeral service to take place in the Grand Hall of Stormont Parliamentary Building, while crowds outside will be able to follow the ceremony relayed by loudspeakers.

Best's agent, Phil Hughes, said he had hoped to accompany Best's body on a flight to Belfast on Wednesday - but the body might have to stay longer in London because of police fears of crowd-control problems.

"Police are very concerned we will close Belfast down if we arrive on Wednesday," Hughes said.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland said it was making plans for more than 100,000 mourners to converge on east Belfast.

The hearse is scheduled to leave Best's family home in Protestant east Belfast at about 10am for Stormont, for services starting at 11am, Hughes said.

Best will be buried alongside his mother, Annie, at Roselawn Cemetery in east Belfast.

Manchester United announced that manager Alex Ferguson and chief executive David Gill both would attend the funeral, even though the club will be playing an English Premier League match at home starting at 5:15pm.

Politicians from both the British Protestant and Irish Catholic sides of the community called for a new sports stadium in Northern Ireland to be named in Best's honor. The proposed 42,500-seat stadium west of Belfast is supposed to be built within the next seven years.

The province's political minister, David Hanson, was noncommittal on the idea, even as he praised Best's legacy.

"The people of Northern Ireland and people throughout the United Kingdom want to celebrate George's life in a positive way," Hanson said. "He has been one of the greatest footballers that ever lived."

East Belfast's member of British Parliament, Peter Robinson, said the funeral was likely to be one of the biggest ever in Northern Ireland.

"Nobody is clear on the numbers that will attend, but it is very clear from the reactions of supporters at (soccer) grounds across the UK (United Kingdom) in the last 48 hours that there is going to be a massive show of sympathy to the family," Robinson said.

"There will be many thousands, tens of thousands - no one is quite sure how many - who will want to personally express their tributes to George," he said.

In downtown Belfast, a makeshift shrine of floral bouquets and messages praising Best has grown steadily near the Christmas tree outside Belfast City Hall.

And a Belfast art gallery displayed in its front window a brand-new portrait of Best produced by local artist Paul Wilson.

"I always thought he was like Jesus, with the long hair and beard," Wilson said of Best.

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