Bobby Charlton, one of soccer’s greatest players, who won the World Cup with England in 1966 in a dazzling career that was tinged by the tragedy of losing eight of his Manchester United teammates in a plane crash at the start of his playing days, died on Saturday. He was 86.
His death was confirmed in a statement from Manchester United, which called him one of the club’s “greatest and most beloved players.” The statement did not say where he died or cite a cause. It was revealed in November 2020 that Charlton had dementia.
Charlton was famed for his bullet shot and his relentless goal scoring, even though he did not play as a traditional striker. He was England’s top scorer, with 49 goals, for 45 years until Wayne Rooney beat the mark in September 2015. Charlton was also Manchester United’s top scorer for decades, with 249 goals in 758 appearances over 17 years, until Rooney surpassed that figure, too, in January 2017.
In addition to his scoring feats, Charlton’s career was indelibly marked by a plane crash in 1958, shortly after he had become a professional player. Following a European Cup match against Red Star Belgrade, the plane on which the Manchester United team was traveling crashed in heavy snow during a refueling stop in Munich. Of the 23 who died, eight were players. Charlton, who was dragged from the wreckage by a teammate, was 21 years old at the time.
Barely three weeks later, with the United manager, Matt Busby, still in a hospital in Germany, Charlton was back on the field. Because of his dignity in leading the Manchester United team through that dark period, his sportsmanship, and his central role in United’s revival and in his country’s sole success on the international stage, several commentators referred to him as the first gentleman of soccer.
Charlton became a director and ambassador of Manchester United in 1984. A statue of Charlton, alongside his fabled teammates George Best and Denis Law — known as the United Trinity — was erected outside Manchester United’s stadium, Old Trafford, in 2008, and in 2016 the club renamed the south stand of the stadium in his honor. Charlton is also credited with giving Old Trafford its nickname, the Theater of Dreams.
Robert Charlton was born on Oct. 11, 1937, in Ashington, Northumberland, in the north of England, to Robert and Elizabeth (Milburn) Charlton. His father was a miner, but the family had soccer in its genes. Four of his uncles were professional players, and his mother’s cousin Jackie Milburn was a legendary striker for Newcastle United; Bobby’s brother Jack became a professional player with Leeds and also represented England.
“There was nothing else in life, it didn’t appear to me, except football,” Bobby Charlton said in a 2010 Sky Sports documentary.
Charlton turned professional in 1954 and made his first appearance for Manchester United on Oct. 6, 1956, at age 18. When called up to the first team by Busby, he had to hide the fact that he had an injury.
“I actually had a sprained ankle, but I wasn’t going to admit to it,” Charlton said in a 2011 BBC documentary. He scored twice in his debut.
Manchester United won the league title in the 1956-57 season, with Charlton becoming a central player. The team was known as the Busby Babes after the manager, who had combed the playing fields of England to find the best young talent to fit his vision of soccer played with panache, pace and quick passing.
Its league success earned Manchester United a place in the European Cup, the forerunner of the Champions League, the next season. After a 3-3 draw with Red Star secured a spot in the semifinals, the plane carrying the team home stopped to refuel in Munich. Amid terrible weather conditions, two attempts to take off were aborted. On the third, the plane crashed.
Crawling to safety through a hole in the fuselage, the team’s goalkeeper, Harry Gregg, dragged Charlton and another teammate, Dennis Viollet, clear. “I left them there dead,” Gregg told the BBC in 2011. “The biggest shock I had was when I turned and there was Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet staring at the rest of the plane exploding in the petrol dump. Just staring.”
Charlton returned home to recover from his injuries, which were relatively minor. He also faced the psychological trauma of trying to return to the field of play without his lost teammates.
But after watching a scratch United team featuring several youth-team players and loanees overcome Sheffield Wednesday in an F.A. Cup fixture soon after the accident, Charlton told the acting manager, Jimmy Murphy, that he would return. Many saw Charlton’s stoicism and refusal to give up as a ray of hope amid the tragedy.
United rebuilt around Charlton. Busby recovered from his injuries, and through the course of the 1960s he set about creating a new team. By the middle of the decade, Charlton was a Manchester United mainstay and a linchpin of the England side as the country prepared to host the 1966 World Cup.
England started the tournament slowly, but in the second game, against Mexico, Charlton provided the inspiration with a trademark goal. Advancing across the halfway line, he bore down on the opposition penalty area as the defender retreated, and he thumped a shot into the top corner of the net with such languid violence that the ball almost tore the goal posts out of the ground.
“I hit it, and it was sweet as a nut,” Charlton said in 2011. “I thought, people will remember that, because I’ll remember it for a long time.”
In the semifinal against Portugal, Charlton scored two more goals to put his team into the final against West Germany, thus setting up one of the most memorable games in World Cup history.
Charlton was told by the England coach, Alf Ramsey, to shadow Germany’s best player, Franz Beckenbauer. Unknown to the English, Beckenbauer had been given the same instructions in reverse by his own coach.
“He was so fit,” Beckenbauer later recalled. “He was running like a horse. It was very, very difficult to stop him. It was almost impossible.”
Beckenbauer and Charlton largely canceled each other out, but the pulsating game went to extra time, when England took the lead, 3-2, with a disputed goal by Geoff Hurst. The shot hit the crossbar and bounced down, and the Russian linesman, Tofiq Bahramov, flagged for a goal. Whether the ball crossed the line is still a subject of dispute.
Buoyed by the lead, England scored a fourth, with Hurst hitting his third of the match in the dying seconds. As Hurst lined up his shot and fired into the net, the BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme uttered perhaps the most famous lines in English football: “Some people are on the pitch, they think it’s all over. It is now! It’s four!”
With the trophy won, Charlton and his teammates were feted as heroes. But the Charlton fairy tale had not yet turned the final page.
Busby had added Law, a predatory Scottish striker, and Best, a willowy, mercurial genius from Northern Ireland, to his retooled Manchester United team, which still had Charlton as its fulcrum. In the 1967-68 season, a decade after the Munich disaster, Manchester United again qualified for the European Cup.
The team overcame Real Madrid, then a six-time champion, in the semifinal, and went on to meet Benfica of Portugal in the final at Wembley Stadium in London. Flushed with the memories of the players lost a decade before, the occasion dripped with poignancy.
“The most important thing leading right up to it was that we were going to win the match,” Charlton said. “There was no alternative. We had to win that match.”
Charlton opened the scoring with a headed goal, but the match went to extra time. Drooping with exhaustion but fired with the determination to finally win the trophy that had cost the club so much, United’s players dug deep. Best put the team ahead, Brian Kidd scored a third, and Charlton added the coup de grâce with a fourth.
“We’d done it,” Charlton recalled in 2011. “When the final whistle went, everybody dashed to Sir Matt. They were his players that got lost in Munich. They were his lads, his team, and everybody in the whole crowd, maybe even in the whole country, thought a little bit about Matt Busby’s feelings that night.”
Charlton is survived by his wife, Norma, whom he married in 1961; two daughters, Suzanne and Andrea; and grandchildren.
Charlton finished his career in 1973 with a playing record that bears comparison with the world’s greatest. In his later role as a Manchester United director, he provided an important link between the era of the Busby Babes and a new period of dominance forged by another Scottish manager, Alex Ferguson.
“Unquestionably the best player of all time,” Ferguson said of Charlton in 2011. “He could float across the ground just like a piece of silver paper.”
Beloved by Manchester United fans, Charlton was also lionized by supporters of all teams, not only at home but also throughout the world. He became the embodiment of the fabled, perhaps mythical, nobility of English soccer.
Hurst, his England teammate, said that when talking to people who didn’t speak English, Charlton’s reach became clear. “There’s only one piece of English they can say,” Hurst explained. “And that’s ‘Bobby Charlton.’”