John Charles

Football's Pioneers: John Charles

Dr. Andy Dawes, from De Montfort University’s International Centre for Sports History & Culture, looks at John Charles, the first foreign footballer to be inducted into Italian football’s Hall of Fame.
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John Charles, Il Gigante Buono (The Gentle Giant), is hugely admired in Italy. He was the first foreign footballer to be inducted into Italian football’s Hall of Fame ahead of other notable stars such as Diego Maradona and Michel Platini.

He also raised Italians’ awareness of Wales, claiming in his autobiography that many Italians were fascinated about his background and had no idea Wales was separate from England. Charles was discovered by a Leeds United scout while playing in Cwmbwrla Park in Swansea.

As was the case throughout his career, Charles was switched between centre-forward and centre-back at Leeds. Despite this, he still scored an impressive 154 league and FA Cup goals for the club between 1949 and 1957.

Fire destroying the main stand at Elland Road forced Leeds into selling their prize asset to Juventus for a British record transfer fee of £65,000.

While his basic weekly wage of around £16 in Italy was less than he was earning at Leeds, the add-ons were marvellous. He received a £10,000 signing-on fee and a privileged life which included a luxurious apartment with stunning views of Turin and the Alps, a holiday villa and a garage filled with cars and Lambrettas.

In his first season at Juventus, he was the Italian Player of the Year. In his five seasons there, he helped them to win three Championships, striking up a fearsome partnership with the Argentinian Omar Sivori.

He is well remembered for foregoing a scoring chance in the Turin derby to help the injured Torino player Evo Brancaleoni.

Charles earned 38 caps for Wales. The number could have been much higher had it not been for club versus country issues while he was in Italy. It was not even certain that he would be released to join Wales at the World Cup in Sweden in 1958 due to the Coppa Italia happening at the same time.

He did travel, though, and was a targeted man in the Wales victory against Hungary which set up a quarter-final against Brazil. Persistently kicked throughout the game, Charles was injured and unable to play in the Brazil game, which Wales lost 1-0.

Pelé would later say: ‘If King John had been fit, then the 1958 World Cup story might have had a different ending’.

After unsuccessful spells firstly back at Leeds United and then at Roma, Charles returned to Wales to play for Cardiff City, who had repeatedly tried to sign him.

During a mixed three seasons with the club, highlights included passing on his expertise to the young John Toshack and being a key figure in Cardiff City’s victory against Sporting Lisbon in the Cup Winners’ Cup. His knowledge of how to handle continental tactics were seen as instrumental.

By the time his league career came to an end in 1966, one astonishing statistic remained; he had never been booked. John Charles was indeed a gentle giant.

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