Unable to cope with his pace or strength, a Bologna defender hacked down a Juventus powerhouse by the name of John Charles to the ground. This was the 1950s and Charles was the best centre-forward in Italy. He was often subjected to this kind of treatment. When he rose back to his feet, his six-foot, two-inch and 14-stone frame dwarfed the defender. Exacting revenge later in the game would have been easy, especially with the leniency of refereeing in that era. Instead, Charles put his arm around his violent marker and lectured him calmly. The Bologna player nodded along and apologised.
Another tale, told by Charles’ former Juve teammate Omar Sivori, demonstrated the power of the man. Sivori recalls how Charles once smashed into a goalpost in an attempt to reach the ball. The thud was deafening and the entire frame of the goal wobbled, but, unscathed, Charles got up, dusted himself down and ran off.
It’s stories like these that resulted in Charles being dubbed as ‘Il Gigante Buono’ (The Gentle Giant) during his five seasons with Juventus. He was a colossus of a man whose size was only outweighed by his skill with a football. Remarkably, for such an astonishing player, his grace and manners are the most prevailing memories of him. In a distinguished 23-year career, Charles was never booked or sent off.
Monday marked the seventh anniversary of the Welshman’s passing. He died at the age of 72, but nobody who ever saw him play football will forget the legacy he left behind.
“He was an extraordinary person, I would say from another world because of his human qualities,” commented Giampiero Boniperti, his teammate and later Juve’s President, at the time of his passing.
“He was a great friend and an extraordinary teammate. John was one of the most loyal and honest people I have ever met. A very special person, not only because of his football skills. He managed to keep the whole team united, and any quarrels or arguments quietened down as soon as he appeared on the pitch or in the dressing room.”
Charles, from Swansea in Wales, became the most expensive British footballer when Juve paid Leeds United £65,000 for him in 1957. They were, essentially, buying two players for the price of one due to his uncanny ability to switch seamlessly between centre-back and centre-forward.
In his first season in Italy, Charles was Serie A’s top scorer with 28 goals, and was voted player of the season as Juventus won the Scudetto. He played in Turin for five years, leading the club to three Scudetti and two Coppa Italias. Charles’s true worth to the team can only be truly appreciated when watching footage of him scoring a couple of goals before dropping back to defence to single-handedly protect the lead he had given his team.
There are some who claim Charles was on par with Brazilian superstar Pele, widely recognised since as the greatest ever player. In the 1958 World Cup, Brazil eliminated Wales, for whom Charles was absent through injury – and it hadn’t gone unnoticed.
“Who knows what would have happened had Charles been fit,” Pele mused years later.
By 2004, Charles was not a healthy man. He made a return to Turin, where 40,000 people turned out to meet him, and grown men sank to their knees in the street when coming face-to-face with their hero. Sadly, however, it turned out to be his last visit to his second home.
When Charles suffered a heart attack, the club arranged for their private jet to fly him home to Leeds. He died just days later. Seven years have now passed since that day, and 49 years have gone since he left Juventus to return to England. But the accolades bestowed upon him will etch his name into Juve’s history – and indeed Italian football’s history – forever.
Charles has been officially voted the greatest foreign player to have ever played in Italy. Better than Maradona, Platini or Van Basten. Better than Kaka, Ronaldo or Zidane. The changing eras of football mean that the Welsh legend can never be replicated. Not that anybody would be capable of replicating him.