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Gentle giant's mighty legacy

Published: Thursday 3 February 2011, 17.00CET
World-class in defence or attack, John Charles is still revered in Italy – where he inspired Juventus to three Serie A titles – and his native Wales.
by Ken Jones
Gentle giant's mighty legacy
John Charles in action for Wales at the 1958 World Cup finals ©Popperfoto/Getty Images
Published: Thursday 3 February 2011, 17.00CET

Gentle giant's mighty legacy

World-class in defence or attack, John Charles is still revered in Italy – where he inspired Juventus to three Serie A titles – and his native Wales.

To help mark UEFA's Jubilee in 2004, each national association was asked to nominate its most outstanding player of the past 50 years. Wales chose John Charles as their Golden Player.

John Charles was, in the narrowest, best and most exacting sense of the term, a great footballer. Imagine a man standing 1.88m and weighing around 88.5kg, with a huge torso rising from slender hips to broad shoulders; with exceptional balance, effortless touch and the spring of a high jumper. No wonder many good judges place Charles among the ten supreme players in history.

In Italy, where Charles reached the peak of his career, he is fondly remembered not only for the 93 goals he scored in 155 league games for Juventus between 1957 and 1962, helping the club to three Serie A titles, but for a refusal to use his great strength unfairly. A placid temperament thwarting all attempts at provocation – he was never sent off or cautioned and scorned petty fouling – earned Charles the lordly sobriquet that most clearly defines his career: Il Gigante Buono (the Gentle Giant).

Various honours came Charles's way; a CBE, and the freedom of his home city Swansea from whence as a teenager he was spirited away to play for Leeds United AFC. Charles's rise to fame was swift from the moment of his league debut for Leeds in 1949 as a 17-year-old centre-half. The following year, at the age of 18 years and 71 days, he became the youngest player to turn out for Wales, winning the first of 38 caps, a total that would have been much greater but for Juventus's reluctance to release him.

The big lift in Charles's career came in the 1952/53 season when he was tried at centre-forward, one of the two positions in which he was irrefutably world-class. The experiment was immediately successful as Charles scored 27 goals in 30 matches. The following season he was the league's top scorer with 42 goals, still a club record, and looked unstoppable. Having helped Leeds to promotion in 1956 he continued to cause havoc in the top flight, 38 goals attracting the attention of Juve, who paid a British record fee of £65,000 to sign him in 1957.

After his first season in Italy, when his tally of 28 league goals – remarkable in the then ultra-defensive Serie A – was the prime factor in bringing Juventus the championship, he was voted Italy's Footballer of the Year and hailed as the most valuable player in Europe ahead of Real Madrid CF maestro Alfredo Di Stéfano.

When Wales qualified for the 1958 FIFA World Cup, their only appearance in the finals, Charles scored in their opening draw with Hungary; he struck such fear into the opposition that he was the most persistently fouled player in the tournament, sustaining injuries that forced him to miss a quarter-final against Brazil. The South American side went through by the only goal, fluked by the emerging Pelé, and went on to lift the trophy.

In 1962, his first marriage on the slide and concerned for his children, Charles returned to play again for Leeds. Three months later he was back in Italy turning out for AS Roma but with none of the impact he had made in Turin. At odds with Roma's coach, beset by injuries, he made only ten appearances, lost his place in the Wales team and was sold to Cardiff City FC. There followed spells in non-league football as the player-manager of Hereford United FC and Merthyr Tydfil FC. In 2002 he was made a vice-president of the Football Association of Wales and he died on 21 February 2004 in Wakefield, West Yorkshire.

Because the curve of Charles's ascendancy preceded the widespread televising of football, glimpses of him are confined to grainy snippets of film, the most revealing that of a soaring header which brought victory over AC Milan at the San Siro, and was used for more than 20 years by Italian television to introduce a football highlights programme.

Some felt that Charles had no peers at centre-half. Others that he was the complete centre-forward. Asked to state a preference, he replied: "No question. A defender can kick five shots off the line but goalscorers get all the glory."

Last updated: 22/03/11 22.50CET

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