What made Bobby Charlton the best footballer ever?
Ahead of his special 80th birthday BBC documentary, Simon Barnes argues why Charlton’s starring role in 1966 isn’t the only thing that makes him extraordinary
A contentious new documentary is making the astonishing claim that Bobby Charlton is 80. Which is manifestly absurd. He’s 28, and always will be, running like the wind at the agitated Mexico defence with a ball at his feet.
Neither I nor the Mexico defence had any idea just how hard a football could be struck, but we were about to learn. It wasn’t wonderful because it was way back then and I was a boy watching the World Cup in sepia on the television in our sitting room in Streatham.
I think if we were to rerun the footballing summer of 1966 all over again, line for line and letter for letter, it would be just as wonderful now. Not only because England won, as you may have heard. The way of winning was also wonderful: the glorious unfolding narrative of the summer, match by match revealing more about the people involved. Especially Charlton.
Charlton seemed to be a footballing angel sent down to earth to bring us unworthy people the richest gifts that football can bring – and he gave that impression despite his comb-over, which kept its dignity for a least five seconds into any match before breaking free, wafting in the breeze like the pennant on a racing yacht.
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That World Cup was all great, of course, but it was Charlton’s goal against Mexico that started it all. Even now it looks pretty special. Back then, it was the goal that brought, in words borrowed from the hymn Charlton heard at every FA Cup final of his life, help to the helpless.
England had begun the tournament with a truly dismal 0–0 draw against Uruguay and it looked as if they were going the same way against Mexico. No hope, no goals, no fun, no glory. That all changed in a single instant – in the way football, more than any other sport, can change – with that single right-footed strike.
You can’t score from there, ridiculous idea, no one ever scored from there, not on purpose, anyway – and then the ball was hammering through the air as if laser-guided and rocket-powered. It hit the top corner and it’s a wonder it didn’t bust the net, break the fence around the dog track and bury itself in the concrete terraces.
From gloom to golden hope in the space of about 0.5 seconds… It was one of those eternal sporting moments when the triple forces of partisanship, drama and excellence were all manifest at the same time: oh, brave old world, that has such footballers in it!
Anonpareil. That’s what David Miller called Charlton in his 1986 book about the tournament, England’s Last Glory (shame the title isn’t out of date). The word is Charlton to perfection; and as the tournament unwound, we learned more about Charlton’s exceptional skills and his exceptional nature.
Here’s a story I was told about the England manager Sir Alf Ramsey, taken from a conversation with Alan Ball, barely 21 at that World Cup.
“Do you have a dog?”
“Do you throw a stick for him? Or a ball?”
“A ball, boss.”
“And what does the dog do?”
“He fetches it back to me.”
“What the dog does for you, I want you to do for Bobby Charlton.”
Charlton was at the heart of England’s victory, and it was all wonderful – yet afterwards Charlton seemed just the same as he ever was.
In this week’s documentary is Sir Alex Ferguson, former manager of Manchester United, which was and still is Charlton’s club. And this notoriously difficult and disputatious man softens, until he’s almost unrecognisable. He seems nice.
He talks about Charlton’s humility: “He never changed… success can change people. It never changed Bobby Charlton.” Ferguson also talks of his debt to Charlton. Ferguson doesn’t often do humility himself, but he does when he speaks of Charlton. That’s worth paying attention to.
Ferguson’s words are not just code for saying that Charlton was a million miles from the flash footballers of today. His humility was not the sort of class-cringe that went out of date in the 60s. Sure, as Ferguson said, Charlton never forgot his roots, but he never thought they were anything to apologise for. Human nature doesn’t change.
There were plenty of flash footballers in the 1960s, and there are plenty of decent, balanced individuals among the millionaires who play the game now. But Charlton is different. He was humble because he never found humility demeaning.
He knew how good he was as a footballer, and in retirement, he knows how intimidating his record is – World Cup winner, European Cup winner, 106 caps and 49 goals for England, 249 goals for Manchester United – but the idea that this should bring him special privileges in life was, and is, anathema. That ability to be genuinely humble while knowing you are genuinely remarkable is a truly rare thing.
I never believed England would beat Portugal. In the great tournament of 1966 Portugal had Eusebio, and surely that would be enough. But Nobby Stiles marked him suffocatingly tight in that semi-final and Charlton did the rest, with a vintage strike for the winner.
And then came the final, one of Charlton’s quieter games, but there, at the end of it all, was England’s and Charlton’s glory.
England never quite got over that day of dizzy triumph: Charlton has. Not because he comes from another age, but because he’s a remarkable man for any age.
Sir Bobby Charlton at 80 is on Sunday 10.30pm BBC1