Best, whose skills caused him to be mentioned in the same breath as Pele and Diego Maradona, died of multiple organ failure on 25 November after years of alcoholism.

   

With a three-mile procession from his family's Belfast home to the province's parliament buildings, Best's native town will give the former Manchester United winger a royal send-off.

   

Some of football greatest names, including Alex Ferguson, Manchester United's manager, will attend a ceremony that will be relayed to the multitudes gathered at Stormont, home to Northern Ireland's parliament.

   

By first light, thousands of people were queuing on the road to Stormont, hours before the ceremony was due to begin.

   

Only around 30,000 people were allowed into the 164-acre estate that overlooks Belfast, while tens of thousands more lined the funeral route.

   

Thousands of mourners lined the
funeral route

Stormont's entrance gates were festooned with football shirts in the green and white of the Northern Ireland national team or the red of Manchester United.

   

"It's raining, but we are wet with tears, George the Best," a fan had written on one shirt.

   

Along the road to Stormont, all advertising on bus stop shelters had been replaced by images of Best or his number 7 Manchester United shirt.

   

"He'll never be forgotten in Northern Ireland," said Jean Paul, 49, a retired Scotsman. "Over the years of the Troubles he gave a kind of joy to the community."

 

Universal appeal

 

His funeral cortege left from the family home in the narrow streets of Cregagh council estate, east of the city, at 1000 GMT on Saturday for the rolling grasslands around Stormont.

   

Best's appeal crossed Northern
Ireland's divide

The route between Cregagh and Stormont's white-pillared grandeur symbolised Best's own life story which took him from humble roots to global celebrity. He won the European Cup with United in 1968 and was voted European Footballer of the Year.

   

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 expected turnout and the tributes that have flooded in since the death of Best - a Protestant - show his immense popularity - one that crossed Northern Ireland's sectarian divide.

  

The Best family home has been turned into a makeshift shrine. Flowers, football shirts and scarves cover every inch of the garden and footpath outside.

 

After the Stormont service, Best will be buried beside his mother Ann in the family plot in Roselawn cemetery. The family has asked the public and media to stay away from the cemetery.