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WORLD

Massive crowds in farewell to Best

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Floral tributes to Best are laid outside the parliament building

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George Best
Northern Ireland

BELFAST, Northern Ireland -- Tens of thousands of people have joined some of the biggest names from the world of football to pay a final emotional tribute to George Best.

Some of football's greatest names flew in for a ceremony akin to a state funeral.

The hearse carrying the body of the former Manchester United star traveled along the three-mile route from his family home to the Stormont Parliamentary Building.

Best, whose skills saw him 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 football scarves in the hearse's slow-moving path.

As the coffin was removed, a lone bagpiper's lament signaled the beginning and end of a minute's silence, broken only by the rumble of helicopters overhead.

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

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

Manchester United manager Sir Alex 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.

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 Calum and agent Phil Hughes.

Dickie and Best's 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 Best during his final illness in London's Cromwell Hospital.

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 star-studded 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.

"He belonged to us all and today, more than ever, we want to show the world how delighted we are that he came from a country of just one and a half million people and became the best footballer the world has ever seen.

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

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.

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.

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