With fierce pride, Belfast buries its most famous son

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George Best was finally laid to rest in his home city yesterday, in a ceremony marked by sorrow, joy and a fierce, rekindled pride.

Tens of thousands lined the route of the cortege, drawn despite a wet and miserable day by the thought that a local figure should have so hugely enhanced the beauty of the beautiful game. They applauded as the hearse, bearing white flowers spelling out the word "legend," made its way through east Belfast.

George Best gave the city a lot of pain over the years. But yesterday his transgressions seemed to have been forgiven, as if washed away by the rain. The magic of Best took away the bad times, leaving only the glory.

The great and the good assembled for the funeral service in Stormont's marble halls. The Northern Ireland soccer heroes Harry Gregg and Derek Dougan helped to carry the coffin, and a moment's silence was observed "as we say goodbye to our most famous son".

Best's own son, Calum, was there, his voice trembling as he read poetry. The player's former wives Alex and Angie were there too, as well as the England team coach Sven Goran Eriksson.

George's father Dickie, aged 87, sat with impassive dignity as tributes were paid by the family, his doctors, a grateful old friend and by the soccer world. Manchester United team-mate Denis Law said of George: "I can't count the many times he let me down. Either he didn't turn up or he did turn up but wasn't on this planet." Law drew laughs when he quipped: "I wouldn't have been surprised if he hadn't turned up today."

Others spoke of Best's warm generosity and his charity work: what a winning personality he had, how good he was with people.

Professor Roger Will-iams, the liver specialist who gave Best his transplant, said his patient had been much improved by the operation. But, he added, regretfully: "He got too well and the temptation of life overtook him again, and it was the beginning of the end."

The Belfast singer Brian Kennedy adapted the words of "Vincent" so they became "I could have told you, Georgie, this world was never made for one as beautiful as you."

Thousands stood in the rain watching the ceremony onscreens.

The player's relationship with his home city was sometimes problematic. The young George Best made the dull, dour heart of Belfast soar, his flair lifting its provincial spirits. The city has never seen anyone to compare with the teenager who emerged from an east Belfast housing estate to take his place among the world's sporting greats.

East Belfast is a most unexceptional place, largely unaffected by the Troubles, a sprawling monument to almost anonymous inner suburbia. Dickie Best still lives in the original Best home in Burren Way, right next to the large open space in Cregagh where George used to kick a ball around. This ordinary place produced an extraordinary person, a free spirit emerging from its conformity.

Yesterday the people applauding in the Belfast rain came from all parts of society and from both Catholic and Protestant sections of the community.

As the brilliant footballing years passed and Best stopped playing the mood changed: sadness was followed by a tinge of shame at his behaviour, which in turn led on to frustration and pity. Finally came a resignation that he was beyond saving and doomed to an early death.

But his last spirited struggle released a flood of sympathy and pride in his talent. Belfast is not a forgiving city, but yesterday George's human frailties were put to one side.

As Best's coffin left Stormont for the cemetery applause broke out yet again. Then those who had braved the rain to honour George went home to dry their hands and their eyes, regretting the pity of George's life while revelling in its glories.