Questo articolo è la versione originale, in inglese. Trovate qui la versione tradotta in italiano da Caterina Capelli.
The last time my dying Dad was still strong enough to speak, we spoke of Bobby Charlton.
By then, at the hospice, we were mostly just holding and squeezing hands. But football was big between us, and I’d just read something I thought might stir a happy memory.
On the morning of the 1966 World Cup Final, to take his mind off the game, Bobby Charlton had left the England team hotel and come to the shops in our neighbourhood, to change a shirt. If only we’d thought to wander out that morning, we might have run into England’s greatest footballer on the brink of his greatest triumph. It hardly mattered because the day was perfect as it was. We watched the match on our black and white TV, and England won, and it’s one of the loveliest memories of my childhood.
But the cancer had rendered Dad horribly weak. All he could manage was: “Bobby Charlton? Yes, I remember him”. He slipped away a couple of days later.
It feels apt that remembrance of unsullied joy is fused now with grief and mixed with memories of the joy-bringing, grief-full Bobby Charlton.
In the late 1960s he was the best footballer on the planet: swift and strong, he didn’t so much dribble as sway past opponents at speed. He sprayed passes all around the field and deployed what in those days boys’ football stories still called a “cannonball shot” (imperial-era martial language suffused English football talk). Most of Bobby’s best goals, including his most famous, a 25-metre strike against Mexico in ’66, were long-range screamers.
Far more important than his prowess was our sense of him as a figure of unique dignity.
Never sent off or even booked, “Saint Bobby” was considered the ultimate sportsman: melancholy and modest, beautiful and dutiful, he was the ideal Englishman, and he transcended football. As the writer Richard Williams put it after his death last month: “In the collective memory Charlton exists as a force for good, made of light and speed, as much an artist and symbol of the beautiful game as Pelé”.
In November 2020, five months before Dad died, the Charlton family revealed that Bobby was suffering from dementia, the illness that had already killed his older brother Jack and three other members of England’s 1966 final team.
The England of my happy childhood was slipping away bodily.
And last month, two weeks after the start of the Israel-Hamas war (and overshadowed by it), the family announced Bobby’s death. This superb athlete once famed for his exquisite balance had tried to stand up from a chair at his care home, broken his ribs as he fell, and subsequently contracted pneumonia. I expected an outpouring of national grief, but it was more than 50 years since his heyday, and public mourning was surprisingly muted.
Something to do With Death, the title of Christopher Frayling’s great biography of Sergio Leone, would fit Bobby Charlton, too, because everything in his life turned on the events of 6th February 1958.
He was 20 years old and heading home with his Manchester United teammates from a European Cup match in Belgrade. Grey, post-war Britain was thrilled by the beauty and youthful verve of the “Busby Babes” (they were young; their manager’s name was Matt Busby). The team was the future until, with shocking suddenness, it fell into the past.
At a snowy airfield near Munich, the team’s twin-engined Elizabethan aircraft stopped to refuel. Two take offs were aborted, then it sped down the runway once more… and never left the ground. Slowed by slush, the plane smashed into a house and broke in half with the tail section skidding into a barn in which a fuel truck was parked.
Twenty-three people on board died, including eight of the Babes, and the chief steward, a 40-year-old Welsh former RAF man called Tom Cable, whose baby son Rob I later played football with at school.
Bobby, thrown clear and dragged to safety by the team’s goalkeeper, Harry Gregg, was physically undamaged. Psychologically, though, he never entirely recovered.
Five days before the crash, the Babes had played their last, astonishing match in England: a 5-4 win at Arsenal. Dad was there, and when he talked about it, he added: “And Bobby Charlton wasn’t even the best player in that team”.
Bobby agreed. He considered his close friend Duncan Edwards a better player, better even than Pelé. In fact, said Bobby whenever he was asked, “Big Duncan”, just 21 when he died, was probably the greatest player ever.
The Munich Air Crash is England’s equivalent of the disaster at Superga in 1949, but, unlike Torino’s tragedy, Manchester United rose from the dead. Even in rapidly secularising England, it was hard to miss the resonance of that. Munich and its redemptive aftermath became the central plank of United’s identity.
The tragedy has been sentimentalised, commercialised, and, on occasion, rendered into kitsch. For those who lived it, though, the emotions remained raw. Bobby never discussed the disaster with his post-Munich team-mates. Even 60 years later the subject was taboo.
Somehow, manager Matt Busby also survived. When he recovered, he returned to work and, in the 1960s, built another great United team, this time around Bobby.
Other key figures in that side were striker Denis Law (briefly, unhappily, of Torino, now also suffering dementia) and the young George Best, another doomed genius who eventually drank himself to death. Driven, gorgeous, still-grieving Bobby was the soul of the team.
After Munich he’d wanted to give up football, but a doctor persuaded him to carry on, as soldiers do, for his “fallen comrades”. He came to think that winning for them was the only way to justify continuing.
Thus, ten years after Munich he led United to a 4-1 victory over Benfica in the final of the European Cup, the trophy his ghosts, when living, had died trying to win. At the end of the match, on the Wembley pitch, Bobby and Busby tearfully embraced.
Later that evening, at the team hotel, Bobby suffered a nervous collapse and missed the reception. As Gordon Burn relates in his book Best and Edwards, his wife explained to the families of his dead friends who’d travelled to London, that it had “all been a bit too much for Bobby”.
Burn then imagines the scene in his room: “Every time [Charlton] tried to make it to the bedroom door, he fainted. When he swung his legs off the bed, his legs couldn’t take the weight of him. And tomorrow would bring only more of the same: the consuming guilt of being a survivor when his friends had perished; the trial of carrying the Cup home in glory to Old Trafford… If any of them were doing it, it really should have been Duncan”.
Illustrazione di Antonio Pronostico.
Having been the central figure in two of England’s most profound football triumphs, Bobby’s withdrawal accompanied a near-biblical Fall.
In the 1966 final he and West Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer had largely cancelled each other out (“England beat us because Bobby Charlton was just a little bit better than me,” Beckenbauer said).
The two greats confronted one another again in the 1970 quarter final in Mexico. With 21 minutes to go, England were comfortably winning 2-0 so manager Alf Ramsey decided to take off Bobby to save him for the semi-final (against Italy).
Bobby noticed his replacement warming up, realised he was about to be substituted, and momentarily lost concentration. Beckenbauer escaped, shot speculatively, and scored, thanks to a mistake by goalkeeper Peter Bonetti. The Germans, who had seemed beaten, were reinvigorated. Ramsey took Bobby off anyway, and England slumped to a 2-3 defeat.
Bobby retired from international football after that trauma, and, without him, England failed to qualify for the next four major tournaments. When they did finally return – at Euro ’80 – their hooligan fans rioted in Torino, one of many steps on a road that led to the Heysel disaster of 1985. In the space of 15 years English football had become a source of national shame.
Things weren’t great at United, either. Bobby played on until 1973, by which time, after Busby’s retirement, the club had declined steeply. George Best, whose playboy lifestyle Bobby loathed, was on his long road to self-destruction. In 1974, United were relegated and their hooligan fans invaded the Old Trafford pitch.
Growing up in the Northumberland mining village of Ashington, Bobby’s brilliance had been natural and obvious. His older brother Jack, with whom he had an uneasy relationship, had to work harder to become a great defender with Leeds United and England.
They played together in the ’66 world cup team but were profoundly different. On the field, Bobby was virtue and grace incarnate, Jack looked clumsy and was notorious for his fouls. Off the field, as Jonathan Wilson put it in his book Two Brothers Bobby “seemed oddly out of time, a representative of a previous age”. A natural introvert, he symbolised the England of stoic suffering and fair play. Extrovert Jack, by contrast, was ebullient, rebellious, and represented things to come: systems, pressing, planning. Jack became a successful manager, most notably with Ireland. Bobby’s attempt at management ended after two mediocre seasons with Preston North End.
I saw Bobby play in a match that stirs melancholy for more political reasons. In a Britain now gravely diminished by Brexit, it’s poignant that in January 1973, in a game to mark the accession of the UK, Denmark and Ireland to what is now called the European Union, Bobby captained The Three (new members) against The Six (old ones). Charlton faced Beckenbauer again and The Three won 2-0.
Three months later, Bobby played his farewell game for Manchester United, at Chelsea. Boys from school went because it seemed a landmark event, the kind of thing you’d tell your children and grandchildren about, like the funeral of Winston Churchill, or the moon landings.
There was a modest ceremony. Something or other was presented to Bobby. The players ringed the centre circle and applauded. Bobby’s name was sung. At the end, Bobby waved and Chelsea and United fans alike waved scarves and roared their love. It was felt to be a great honour merely to witness the passing from the field of such a noble man.