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BELFAST (Reuters Life!) - A musical about the colorful and ultimately tragic life of Northern Irish soccer hero George Best will open in Belfast on Friday, paying tribute to one of sport's biggest icons.
Best, whose mercurial talent and pop star looks vaulted him to the pinnacle of celebrity in Britain's Swinging Sixties, succumbed to years of heavy drinking in 2005 when he died of multiple organ failure at the age 59.
Five years later, thousands of fans of the late Manchester United attacker -- often referred to as the "Fifth Beatle" -- have booked tickets to see "Dancing Shoes" during its initial 2-1/2 week run at Belfast's Grand Opera House.
Aidan O'Neill, who will play Best in the stage show that chronicles his happy-go-lucky days as a youngster on the streets of Belfast right up to the harrowing end of his life in London, said Best was more than just an inspiration to footballers.
"I am a big fan of George Best and he inspired many thousands of people like me all over Ireland," added O'Neill, one of the nine-strong, all-Northern Irish cast.
The production has been given an extra sense of poignancy by the death at the weekend of Best's friend, the Belfast-born and similarly talented snooker player Alex Higgins who is also portrayed in the musical.
Higgins too was a heavy drinker with a fiery temper but also shared Best's sense of humor, one the footballer best used when he summed up his turbulent life in one memorable phrase:
"I spent a lot of my money on booze (alcohol), birds (women) and fast cars. The rest I just squandered."
The new musical is the result of a collaboration between musicians J.J. Gilmour from Scotland and Belfast's Pat Gribben, along with Irish playwrights Marie Jones and Martin Lynch.
Playwright Lynch, who was a huge fan of Best, says he has never known a build-up to any of his plays quite like this.
"Everyone is buzzing. Even taxi drivers are really excited. They are all asking me for tickets," he said.
Best's wife Angie and son Calum are due to attend the opening night gala where guests will also include British TV chat show host Michael Parkinson and former Northern Ireland soccer internationals Harry Gregg and Norman Whiteside.
Best's sister Barbara McNarry, who visited rehearsals, said she had been moved to tears.
"(It's) a great tribute to George," she said.
Best's immense popularity also crossed Northern Ireland's sectarian divide in a country often bitterly, and violently, divided by religious and political differences, and organizers say he will continue to do so on the stage.
"Normally football fans can't wear their colors in the city center or in pubs here because they can identify people's religion and lead to trouble," Marie Jones said.
"But we want our audiences to kit themselves out in their favorite colors and to wave their scarves during the performances."
Editing by Steve Addison