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Bobby Charlton, Manchester United icon who survived plane crash and won World Cup for England, dead at 86

Bobby Charlton, the English football icon who survived the plane crash that destroyed the Manchester United team destined for greatness to become the heartbeat of his country’s 1966 World Cup-winning side, has died. He was 86 years old.

A statement from Charlton’s family, released by United, said he died on Saturday surrounded by his family. He is survived by his wife, Norma, whom he married in 1961, and two daughters.

An extravagantly gifted midfielder, Charlton was the top scorer for both United (249 goals) and England (49 goals) for more than 40 years before being overtaken by Wayne Rooney.

“Sir Bobby was a hero to millions, not just in Manchester or the UK, but everywhere football is played around the world,” United said.

“He was admired as much for his sportsmanship and integrity as for his outstanding qualities as a footballer. Sir Bobby will always be remembered as a giant of the game.”

A soccer player heads the ball as the others look on.
England’s Charlton (11) heads the ball towards Brazil’s goal during a friendly match at Wembley Stadium in London in May 1963. (Kent Gavin/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Alex Ferguson, who managed United between 1986 and 2013, said before Charlton’s death that he was “Manchester United’s greatest ever player and that’s saying something”.

“Bobby Charlton has absolutely no peer in the history of the English game,” said Ferguson.

“Grace, Power and Precision”

Charlton was also known for his humility, discipline and sportsmanship. He was never sent off in 758 games for United between 1956-73 or 106 for England between 1958-70.

Charlton played with George Best and Dennis Lowe in the Trinity that led United to the European Cup in 1968, surviving the 1958 Munich plane crash that destroyed the famous Busby Babes team. He won three League titles at United and one FA Cup.

“For a footballer he offered an unrivaled combination of grace, power and precision,” said former United defender Bill Fowles, one of the survivors of the Munich air crash.

“It added grandeur and more, something I can only call beauty.”

“Truly a national hero”

FIFA president Gianni Infantino described Charlton as “a footballing legend whose influence on the game has spanned generations”. United great David Beckham said Charlton was “truly a national hero”, while British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called him “one of the greatest players in the game”.

Charlton’s England goalscoring record stood for 45 years until Rooney scored his 50th international goal in September 2015. Three of his goals for England came at the 1966 World Cup, during which Charlton played every minute for the team and stood out in particular in 2015. semi-final when he scored twice against Portugal to take England to their first major final.

England beat West Germany 4-2 after extra time in the final.

A soccer player raises the trophy as teammates celebrate around them.
Charlton, centre, raises the Jules Rimet trophy in the air after England’s 4-2 victory over West Germany in the World Cup final at Wembley Stadium in London in July 1966. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Post-playing career

After retiring in 1973, Charlton went into coaching and set up a youth scheme that included Beckham among its participants.

Knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1994, Charlton remains a mainstay at Old Trafford, alongside Best and Lowe on a statue outside United’s stadium.

Charlton avoided the controversy and distraction that marred Best’s career, bringing a style and demeanor to popularity that transcended the tribalism of club and international football.

In the trio, the man ties a scarf around the statue.
A Manchester United fan places a scarf around Charlton’s statue outside Old Trafford in Manchester, England on Saturday. (Carl Racine/Reuters)

“I felt he could be a little distant,” the late Best told the magazine in 2001. “We’ve never been at each other’s throats, we’ve never just gone and had a pint together.”

In November 2020, it was announced that Charlton had been diagnosed with dementia, the same condition that afflicted his brother Jack, who died in 2020 aged 85, and fellow World Cup winner Nobby Styles.

Charlton’s death left Geoff Hurst, who scored a hat-trick in the 1966 final, as the only surviving member of that England squad.

Two people smile as they embrace.
Charlton hugs Brazilian legend Pele in Paris in February 1995. (Remy de la Mauviniere/The Associated Press)

“We will never forget him and neither will all of football,” Hurst said of Charlton on X, formerly known as Twitter. “A great colleague and friend, he will be sorely missed across the country outside of just sport.”

Robert Charlton was born on October 11, 1937 in Ashington, North East England, and his talent was evident from an early age.

“We realized Bobby was going to be a little bit special as a player when he was about five years old,” said Jack, his older brother. “He would always hit a soccer or tennis ball against the wall and when it bounced back it would stick to him like a magnet.”

Manchester United plane crash

Charlton’s playing career began away from home in Manchester after leaving school at the age of 15, making his United debut three years later in 1956 against south-east London club Charlton.

Within two years, tragedy had struck a tight-knit group of United players whose relationship had been forged as trainees under austere conditions. Team members were still celebrating victory at Red Star Belgrade to secure a place in the European Cup semi-finals when their plane burst into flames on their third takeoff attempt in heavy snow after a refueling stop in Germany.

A person with facial injuries lies in a hospital bed as he talks to a man holding a notebook.
Charlton talks to a reporter while recovering in a Munich hospital in February 1958. (Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Charlton miraculously escaped the smoldering wreckage with only minor head injuries and made his way through the wreckage to help survivors. Watching manager Matt Busby, groaning in agony on the smoke-covered runway, Charlton rushed to help his father, who had promoted him to the first team.

But among the 21 victims were eight members of the Busby Babes team, which was brimming with prospects. Among them was Duncan Edwards, considered one of the most talented players in England at the age of 21.

A footballer is seen in action with the ball at their feet.
Charlton plays for Manchester United against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge in London in April 1973. (Don Morley/Allsport/Getty Images)

“Sometimes it fills me with terrible anger and regret and sadness and guilt that I left and found so much,” Charlton wrote in 2007.

Charlton was driven by a long-standing commitment to keeping the memories alive for the Munich side by returning to the pitch less than four weeks later and helping a hastily assembled squad of survivors and players reach that season’s FA Cup final.

The biggest award of his club career came in 1968 when United became the first English club to win the European Championship. Charlton scored twice in a 4-1 extra-time victory over a Benfica side that featured Portuguese great Eusebio.

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