JOHN CHARLES – The original Welsh super star
In a week that has seen Real Madrid smash yet another transfer record to take Tottenham Hotspur star Gareth Bale to the Santiago Bernabeu, it is perhaps prudent to recollect another Welshman who made a record move abroad, this time more than five decades ago.
Widely regarded as Wales’ greatest ever footballing export, John Charles broke new ground by joining Italian giants Juventus in a then-record £57,000 in 1957, before going on to be voted Serie A’s best-ever foreign import by Italian football fans in 2001.
A supremely talented sportsman who epitomised versatility as a master of two positions, Charles could play at Centre half or Centre Forward with equal effectiveness, though his preferred position was centre forward. It was in that position that Charles nick named ‘Il Gigante Buono’ was embraced by a nation.
‘Il Gigante Buono’ meaning ‘The Gentle Giant’ is a name that really is a testament to the player himself as one of the true gentlemen of the game, and standing at just over 6ft 2ins it’s easy to see how he earned his name.
Born in Swansea into a footballing family Charles did not take long to establish himself, at the tender age of 16 he embarked on a trip to Leeds United for a two-week trial, a club for whom he would go on to score 150 goals in 297 games.
Whilst on trial Charles played against Queen of the South, a team that boasted Scotland forward Billy Houliston who ten days previously had been part of Scotland team that had battered England 3-1.
Charles was brought on after an injury to a Leeds player and was tasked with marking Houliston. After the game, the Scottish International stated that Charles was the best centre half he had ever played against.
Despite the glowing reference Leeds had other ideas about his future position. Standing at 6ft 2ins and weighing a powerful 14 stone, Charles was employed as a centre forward for the 1952-53 season. Despite the size of Charles, he was incredibly agile, could use both feet and was as you would expect extremely efficient in the air. In his debut season as a striker Charles notched 26 goals, not a bad tally for a defender.
In 1957, Serie A giants Juventus came in for the Welshman with a British record £65,000 bid, soon after, Charles’ bags were packed and he was heading for Turin. Despite his illustrious start to professional football in England, it was to be in Italy where Charles became revered as one of the all-time greats.
In the same season ‘The Old Lady’ had brought in Omar Sivori for a World record transfer fee of £91,000 from River Plate. The diminutive Argentine offered flair and exuberance, something that was perfectly balanced out by John Charles who offered power and precision. Together Sivori and in particular Charles, would go on to make history at Juventus.
In his debut season in Italy, much like his debut season at the top of English football, Charles was the top goal scorer and player of the year. His time in Italy yielded three Scudetto’s and two Coppa Italia’s, which is half the reason Charles was voted the greatest ever foreign player during the clubs centenary year to wear the famous Bianconeri jersey. This particular recognition is particularly remarkable when you consider who he was voted ahead of, players such as Zinedine Zidane and Michel Platini. Whilst also being capped as the greatest foreigner to play not just for Juventus but in Serie A, meaning his exploits were considered greater than that of Diego Maradona or Marco Van Basten.
It could have been due to his 93 goals in 150 games, or partly due to spending most games protecting the leads he helped create by joining his team in defence during the closing stages of games but why he is still so celebrated goes far beyond his trophies or records.
The reason for the wide scale admiration of the Welshman was his personality, he is still revered today as ‘The Gentle Giant’ for a reason. He was the perfect embodiment of what it meant to be a professional, infallible in his approach to the game.
His stature was so that he could’ve bullied opponents or conquered in any situation he was provoked into but such was his commitment to fair play he wass unerring in his performances. He played all five seasons in Serie A without receiving a single caution or red card, something that nowadays seems virtually impossible.
Perhaps the greatest example came during his first Turin derby against fierce rivals Torino. Charles accidentally knocked out an opposition’s centre half and found himself through on goal with only the goalkeeper to beat but instead of finishing and endearing himself to the Bianconeri faithful, he opted instead to kick the ball out of play and subsequently squander the opportunity.
What Charles did not know is that an act of pure integrity such as this was exactly the reason Italy embraced him and why he is considered a legend not just in Turin, but world football.
Not once did John Charles kneel to the pressure of competitiveness, rise to the countless provocation’s or retreat on his belief of how the game should be played.
Former referee Clive Thomas once recalled: “If you had 22 players of John’s Calibre, there would be no need for referees – only time-keepers”, a touching testament to a true great.
The legend himself passed away in 2004, and through all the tributes that flooded in for the fallen giant one stuck out as the most moving. Former Juventus striker and more recently vice-president of the Bianconeri, Roberto Bettega, said: “He is a person who interpreted the spirit of Juventus in the best possible manner and he represented the sport in the best and purest manner.”
The end of that quote echoes what Juventus as a club and Italy as a nation have said for years- John Charles is almost certainly one of the greatest and a true legend, in every sense of the word.