`He has the features of Marlon Brando, the body of a light-heavyweight boxer, the breathing of a tiger and the bite of a snake.` (La Gazzetta dello Sport)
Recent news of Christiano Ronaldo leaving Real Madrid for Juventus at the age of thirty-three brings to mind another player who graced the Juventus Stadium many years ago and at a time when football was an entirely different game – Welshman, John Charles.
Over the years, and up until his death in 2004, there has surprisingly, been little written about John Charles – who’s career in the 1950s challenges even that of Real Madrid’s Gareth Bale’s in terms of ability, worldwide recognition and humility as an international footballer.
John Charles was one of the earliest footballers to leave Britain. He was also considered the most gifted of his time – both as centre-forward and centre-half representing Wales, illustriously, at international level throughout his career.
Born in Swansea to a working class family, Charles signed for Swansea Football Club as a youngster. He was however, consigned to ground keeping duties and was never selected to play for his home club first team and so inevitably became unsettled.
Leeds United, however quickly recognised Charles’ potential and he was signed by the Yorkshire club as their new centre-half for a fee of £55000. While Charles excelled in this position, the manager at the time, Major Frank Buckley, converted him to play experimentally as a centre-forward, when the team needed a goal scorer in search of promotion.
The experiment worked more successfully than anyone could have hoped for with Charles scoring twenty-nine goals in forty-two appearances and Leeds were promoted. In the following season, Charles scored thirty-eight goals in forty appearances helping Leeds to an eighth position in the then First Division of English football.
It was inevitable that Charles would attract the attention of more illustrious surroundings and while many of the top English clubs sought his services, his immediate destiny lay in Turin. Juventus signed Charles for sixty-five thousand pounds, and with the maximum wage operating in the UK of only ten pounds – offered Charles a lifestyle, UK players of the time could only dream of.
Juventus and the `Holy Trident`
Along with Charles, Juventus signed Argentinian Omar Sivori and Giampiero Boniperti who formed such an immediate and lethal bond – fans named them the `Holy Trident.` Such was Charles’ genius, temperament and lack of ego he was taken into the hearts of the Italians earning the nickname `Il Gigante Buono` or `The Gentle Giant.` In 1997 he was voted the best ever foreign player for Juventus so eclipsing the achievements of both Michel Platini and Deigo Maradona in Italian football’s Hall of Fame.
The Decline – Life after Juventus
After five outstanding years at Juventus, John Charles signed again for Leeds United. However, as with most things in life, the magic faded and he found it difficult to regain his previous form. He later returned to Italy briefly with Roma and then on to Cardiff City after which his career came to a marked decline with a mix of poor judgment, financial and business misfortunes.
While not definitive, John Charles’ life was seemingly governed by achievement through personal constraint – allowing others to act in ways he could not permit or acknowledge as a legitimate part of himself. His experience of Italy complemented many positive aspects of his early upbringing in Wales and his relationship with his father and brother Mel.
While football arguably facilitates controlled aggression, there are occasional documented accounts concerning John Charles and fleeting but uncontrolled aggression – perhaps offering a glimpse of a part of his real self and the bedrock of his abilities – the `King of football` with a bite of the snake.`
Diolch Juventus – Grazie Juventus
Charles’ love affair with Italy continued long after his career was over and he would regularly visit Turin – fluent in the Italian language and culture. Juventus in return would demonstrate respect and affection for John Charles and his family up to and following his death.
It was during preparation for an interview on Italian television be became ill with a heart attack and later died. Never cautioned, never `sent off` and in my view, never adequately celebrated as a football ambassador in his home country.