Soccer Star Embodied Gentlemanly Greatness

Bobby Charlton survived plane crash to become beloved United, World Cup leader
By Bob Cronin,  Newser Staff
Posted Oct 21, 2023 12:50 PM CDT
Soccer Star Embodied Gentlemanly Greatness
The image of Bobby Charlton is shown Saturday on a large shown following the news of his death during an English Football League Championship soccer match between Middlesbrough and Birmingham City in Middlesbrough, England.   (Will Matthews/PA via AP)

Bobby Charlton, a UK soccer icon who held Manchester United's scoring record for decades—after surviving a plane crash that killed eight teammates—and starred in England's 1966 World Cup championship, died Saturday. He was 86. Charlton not only made most lists of the sport's greatest players, he was one of its best-loved. "He was admired as much for his sportsmanship and integrity as he was for his outstanding qualities as a footballer," Manchester United said in a statement, per ESPN. His club called Charlton "a hero to millions, not just in Manchester, or the United Kingdom, but wherever football is played around the world."

His career with United began early, when he joined its youth academy in 1953; he left school when he was 15. The next three years, Charlton and his teammates won the FA Youth Cup. He then turned pro, scoring 10 goals in 14 First Division appearances and capturing his first league title. In 1958, a teammate pulled the 21-year-old from the wreckage after a plane crash in Germany. He was back on the field three weeks later. Charlton's dignity and sportsmanship in leading his team in that time, and role in rebuilding the club, enhanced his gentlemanly reputation, per the New York Times. "There was always one great hope," Charlton said of the crash aftermath, "the return to greatness of my beloved club."

Playing mostly as an attacking midfielder, Charlton was known for a bullet of a shot and prolific goal scoring. His 49 goals for England stood as a record for 45 years, until Wayne Rooney topped it in 2015. In his country's only successful World Cup run, Charlton scored both goals in the semifinal against Portugal before the 4-2 victory over West Germany in the final, played in London. His 249 goals over 17 years was United's record until Rooney passed it in 2017. In 758 appearances for United and 106 in internationals for England, Charlton was not once sent off the field by referees, per the AP. After retiring as a player, Charlton was a director of Manchester United for 39 years, per CNN.

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David Beckham was among those paying tribute to Charlton on Saturday, posting a photo of him, as a boy, with the star, per the Guardian. Charlton "was the reason I had the opportunity to play for Manchester United," Beckham wrote. Rio Ferdinand, who played later for United, said Charlton didn't say much, per the BBC. "But when he spoke you stood still, stopped what you were doing and listened," Ferdinand said, adding, "Win, lose or draw he would be in the changing room wishing us well." Bill Foulkes, who also survived the plane crash, said of his teammate: "For a footballer, he offered an unparalleled combination of grace, power and precision. It added up to a greatness and something more—something I can only call beauty." (More obituary stories.)

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