BELFAST: Half a million mourners were expected to bid farewell to football legend George Best when Northern Ireland buries its favourite son here today.
Former Manchester United and Northern Ireland teammates, family, fans, admirers and ordinary Ulster folk alike were expected to flood the streets of the city when Best makes his final journey in a life that took him through the highs of international idolisation and the lows of alcoholism.
Such giant public funerals are usually the domain of royalty, such as those of Diana, Princess of Wales in 1997 and Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother in 2002.
Considered the first pop-star footballer, Best brought Northern Ireland a dash of glamour as the province descended into sectarian bloodshed and terrorist atrocities.
Belfast-born Best is ranked among football's greatest-ever players, alongside the likes of Brazil's Pele and Argentina's Diego Maradona.
His talent for beating opponents with tricks, swerves, plus a devastating turn of pace earned him the respect and admiration of fans across the globe.
But his playboy lifestyle, with an unquenchable thirst for alcohol and beautiful women, eventually took its toll.
Best died aged 59 on Nov 25 from multiple organ failure in a London hospital.
Belfast-born broadcaster and United fan Eamonn Holmes, the funeral's master of ceremonies, said Best, a Protestant, was able to unite the Protestant and Catholic communities.
At a time in the 1970s when the image of Northern Ireland was taking a hammering due to the Troubles, George Best gave us something to feel proud about with his footballing ability, he told The Belfast Telegraph.
George was the greatest Ulsterman ever.
The funeral is to be the first ever held at Stormont, Northern Ireland's parliament building in Belfast.
The palatial legislature and parkland grounds were chosen to accommodate the large numbers wanting to pay their respects.
Extra flights have been scheduled to Northern Ireland to cope with the people wanting to bid farewell to Best.
Mourners are set to pack the streets along the three-mile (five-kilometre) route from his father's house to Stormont, where the funeral will be broadcast to the crowds expected to gather outside.
Protestant Loyalist paramilitaries have pledged to clear away flags and graffiti along start of the cortege route.
Organisers are to limit the people on the Stormont estate to 30,000.
Best will be buried next to his mother Ann in the Roselawn cemetery in the Castlereagh hills overlooking east Belfast.
Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson and chief executive David Gill are both planning to attend the funeral, as is the England manager Sven Goran Eriksson.
A wealth of his old teammates were also to attend. Best's family, including his son Calum, 24, father Dickie, 87, and his siblings, were to lead the mourners.
Best's alcoholism brought on a succession of health problems which led to a liver transplant in 2002, during which he nearly died. He was back on the booze within a year, despite having been told another drink could kill him.
He was taken to hospital on Oct 1 with an infection thought to be linked to immuno-suppressant drugs used to help prevent his body rejecting the new organ.
Best made his professional debut for Manchester United in 1963, aged 17, going on to help the club become the first English side to lift the European Cup in 1968. In the same year he was voted European Player of the Year.
He won 37 international caps before heavy drinking took its toll and he unexpectedly quit United for good at the early age of 28.
Best was reknowned for his quickfire quips.
In a well-known summation of his lifestyle, Best said: I spent a lot of my money on booze, birds (women) and fast cars the rest I just squandered. AFP