You love the beautiful game. And at some point, either when you were alone or with a like-minded bunch of friends, you tried to compile a laundry list of the best footballers in the world at the moment.

It would be a safe choice to settle for Lionel Messi or, that great accumulator of goals, Cristiano Ronaldo.

Or you might decide to settle for someone whose role isnai??i??t necessarily one that gets them on the scoresheet as frequently as a forward. Xavi seems an interesting pick, for keeping the Barcelona midfield ticking like clockwork. Perhaps you worry you’ve overlooked those who only make the headlines, when they get it wrong – the often under-appreciated defenders.

Or why restrict yourself to this era? Why not the greatest players of all time? The names that would immediately come to your mind are probably Pele, Diego Maradona, Zinedine Zidane, Johan Cruyff and the Brazilian Ronaldo. Or Franz Beckenbaeur and the Italian wall of fame over the years – the likes of Gaetano Scirea, Franco Baresi and even Paolo Maldini. But could you name one player in a top ten list of both offensive-minded players and defensive-minded players?

Probably not. But itai??i??s not because, as you might think, there hasnai??i??t been one to fit the bill. There was indeed one such player, a giant among men – a certain Welshman who was known to the world as William John Charles. Such was hisAi??versatilityAi??and his greatness that in a single week, one of England’s greatest ever forwards Nat Lafthouse called him the greatest defender he had ever come across and Wolverhampton Wanderers legend Billy Wright called him the greatest forward he had butted heads against. The late great Sir Bobby Robson in his autobiography noted that Charles was probably the only player to have a world class career in two different positions.

 

Never Ever Sent Off

 

John Charles was not defined by his amazing talent alone but also the way he played the game. He played it in the right way, the way football ought to be played. He approached football with a theory. A theory which meant he was never cautioned or sent off in his entire career. A theory which believed in fair play, Charles believed the football pitch was a theatre for skill and notAi??sluggishAi??mud-fighting. The fact that he was never booked in his entire career despite being a world-class center-back just places his achievements on a grander pedestal. Could you imagine one of the top defenders in the modern game ever completing two seasons without a booking? Far-fetched, you say? Then how about, a whole career.

Charles was also considered one of the British Football’s first superstar. This was mainly down toAi??hisAi??time in Turin, where he drove the best cars in the world, dined with Italy’s finest andAi??mesmerizedAi??a foreign country with his talent on the pitch. In his time at Italy – the fans, the journalists, the players took a distinct liking to John Charles – the footballer and John Charles – the man.

The Italians loved him so much that he was voted the Greatest ForeignAi??Player to play in Serie A nearly four decadesAi??after he played in the league. Not even Maradona, Zidane orAi??MarcoAi??van Basten could top Charles in the eyes of the Italians.Ai??To them John Charles was simply the best – Ai??’Il Gigante Buono’ which in Italian means ‘The Gentle Giant’.

Arguably, Charles’ best years came before his move to Italy. His time at Leeds United can be broken down into two spells – the first one, easily being the more successful of the two. In that spell, he spentAi??nineAi??yearsAi??at Elland Road. At age 17, he was to feature in his firstAi??gameAi??for Leeds. He was against a certain Billy Houliston who hadAi??completelyAi??destroyed the English National Team, days earlier.

The young Charles wasn’tAi??fazedAi??by the task in front of him and completely marked the Scottish centre forward out of the game. Houliston was so impressed by Charles’ stupendous performance that he called a teenage Charles the toughest defender heAi??hadAi??ever come across in his entire career.Ai??As they say, he never looked back from thatAi??occasionAi??and went from strength to strength.

 

A Gentle Giant

 

Charles’ greatest strength was his ability to get to anAi??aerialAi??ball before anyone else would. A giant in terms ofAi??physicalAi??appearance, Charles was always first to any ball that was lofted anywhere near him. When a cross came in from the wings and Charles was sniffing on at the end of it, you could bet all your money it would be a goal.

It wasAi??equivalentAi??to betting on Edwin Moses in a 400m hurdles race during his decade long unbeaten streak. In the documentary ‘King John: A Tribute To John Charles’, legendaryAi??football commentator John Helm recalls watching Charles heading a ball into the goal for Leeds United against Portsmouth in the early 1950s from 30 yards out. Yes, you read that right – 30Ai??yards!

It is sad that John Charles doesn’tAi??receiveAi??the same amount ofAi??admirationAi??that someAi??other greats get in the world of football, because John Charles’ achievements in theAi??gameAi??are most definitely up there with the best of them.Ai??In an era where football stars are increasingly specialized and can suffer horrendous dips in form and motivation when played out of position, John Charles proved that the beautiful game was also a simple one. And that you could do your best with a ball at your feet, regardless of what position you found yourself in.

Wherever you are now, William John Charles. Thank You.

Nitin Fernandes

Follow the author on Twitter and visit his blog

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