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Bobby Charlton, the Manchester United and England football great, dies at 86

The late Sir Bobby Charlton
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MANCHESTER, England (AP) — Bobby Charlton, an English soccer icon who survived a plane crash that decimated a Manchester United team destined for greatness to become the heartbeat of his country’s 1966 World Cup triumph, has died. He was 86.

The death of Charlton, who is regarded by many as the greatest ever English player, was announced in a statement from his family that was released by United, which said he died Saturday surrounded by his family.

An extravagantly gifted attacking midfielder with a ferocious shot, Charlton was the leading scorer for both United (249 goals) and England (49 goals) for more than 40 years until being overtaken by Wayne Rooney.

He was easily recognizable with his comb-over, and known globally for being a gentleman of the beautiful game.

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

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

Alex Ferguson, who managed United from 1986-2013, said before Charlton’s death that he “is the greatest Manchester United player of all time — and that’s saying something.”

“Bobby Charlton is absolutely without peer in the history of the English game,” Ferguson said.

Charlton was also renowned for his humility and discipline. He was never sent off in 758 appearances for United from 1956-73 or 106 internationals for England from 1958-70.

Charlton played with George Best and Denis Law in the so-called “Trinity” that led United to the 1968 European Cup title after surviving the 1958 Munich crash that wiped out the celebrated “Busby Babes” team. He won three English league titles at United, and one FA Cup.

“For a footballer, he offered an unparalleled combination of grace, power and precision,” said former United defender Bill Foulkes, another survivor of the Munich air crash.

“It added up to a greatness and something more — something I can only call beauty.”

FIFA President Gianni Infantino described Charlton as a “football legend whose impact on the game spanned generations.” United great David Beckham said Charlton was “truly a national hero.” British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called him ”one of the game’s greatest players.”

Charlton’s England scoring record stood for 45 years until Rooney scored his 50th goal for the national team in September 2015. Three of his England goals came in the World Cup in 1966, during which Charlton played every minute for the team and stood out especially in the semifinals when he scored twice against Portugal to lead England to a first major final.

England beat West Germany 4-2 after extra time in the title match at Wembley Stadium.

Although Ryan Giggs beat Charlton’s appearance record for United in 2008, his scoring record for the club lasted another nine years. It was only in 2017 — 44 years after Charlton last wore the famous red jersey of England’s most successful club — that Rooney scored his 250th goal for United.

United played a Premier League match against Sheffield United a few hours after Charlton’s death was announced. Man United’s players laid a wreath on the field ahead of the game and took part in a period of applause while a picture of a young Charlton was displayed on the screens inside the stadium.

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

After brief spells in charge of Preston, Wigan and Irish side Waterford, Charlton returned to United in 1984 as a director and persuaded the board in 1986 to appoint Ferguson, who delivered 38 trophies during nearly 27 years in charge.

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

Charlton avoided the controversies and distractions that damaged the career of Best, with his style and demeanor bringing a popularity that transcended the tribalism of club and international football.

“I felt he could be a bit aloof,” the late Best said in a 2001 magazine interview. “We were never at each other’s throats, we simply didn’t go and have a pint together.”

In November 2020, it was announced that Charlton had been diagnosed with dementia, the same disease that afflicted his brother Jack — who died in 2020 at age 85 — and another World Cup winner, Nobby Stiles.

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

“We will never forget him and nor will all of football,” Hurst said of Charlton on X, formerly known as Twitter. “A great colleague and friend, he will be sorely missed by all of the country beyond sport alone.”

Robert Charlton was born Oct. 11, 1937, in the coal-mining town of Ashington, northeast England, and his talent was obvious from a young age.

“We realized Bobby was going to be a bit special as a player when he was about 5 years old,” said Jack, his older brother. “He was always kicking a football or a tennis ball against a wall and when it bounced back it stuck to him like a magnet.”

Charlton wrote in 2007 that his family sometimes relied on illegally caught salmon or rabbit to ward off hunger, while his father — also named Robert — gathered coal washed up on local beaches and sold it to bolster his income.

His father’s commitment to his mining colleagues meant that in 1966 he missed Charlton scoring both goals against Portugal in that World Cup semifinal because he didn’t want someone else to have to cover for him in the pit. He was, however, persuaded to attend the final when the Charlton brothers lifted the trophy.

Charlton’s playing career began far from home in Manchester after leaving school at 15, making his United debut three years later against Charlton in 1956.

Within two years, tragedy struck the tight-knit group of United players whose relationship was forged as trainees in austere conditions. The team was still celebrating winning at Red Star Belgrade to secure a place in the European Cup semifinals when their plane caught fire on its third attempt to take off in heavy snow after a refueling stop in Germany.

Charlton miraculously emerged from the smoldering wreckage with only light head injuries and picked his way through the wreckage to help survivors. Spotting manager Matt Busby groaning in agony on the smoke-shrouded runway, Charlton rushed to help the father-figure who had promoted him to the first team.

But eight members of the “Busby Babes” team packed with bright prospects were among the 21 fatalities. They included Duncan Edwards, considered one of England’s most talented players at 21.

“Sometimes it engulfs me with terrible anger and regret and sadness — and guilt that I walked away and found so much,” Charlton wrote in 2007.

Charlton became driven by a lingering obligation to preserve the memories of the Munich dead, returning to action less than four weeks later and helping a hurriedly assembled team of survivors and stand-ins reach that season’s FA Cup final.

Busby rebuilt his team around Charlton, adding the 1965 and 1967 English league titles to the championship they won in 1957.

“There was always one great hope — the return to greatness of my beloved club,” Charlton said.

The biggest prize of his club career arrived in 1968 as United became the first English club to become champion of Europe. Charlton scored twice in a 4-1 extra-time win over a Benfica team containing Portugal great Eusebio.

But Charlton is perhaps best known for being part of the England team that won the World Cup. It remains England’s only major title in men’s soccer.

Charlton and his brother fell out over Jack’s public assertion that Bobby’s wife caused him to become estranged from his mother. But the pair reconciled and Jack presented Bobby with a lifetime achievement trophy at the 2008 BBC Sports Personality of the Year Award.

“We have had our public disputes, proving that in any family discord can sometimes disrupt the force of love and blood, but throughout that time I never lost the sense of wonder and gratitude that we were together in 1966 on such a great day in the history of our nation’s sport,” Bobby Charlton said.

Charlton was rarely seen in public in the final years of his life after being diagnosed with dementia. He was never forgotten, though.

“This man, from day one, was everything I wanted to be,” United striker Marcus Rashford wrote of Charlton after hearing about the diagnosis. “Kind, professional, caring, talented.”

Another former United player, Phil Neville, said Charlton deserved to stand alongside the likes of Pele, Diego Maradona and Lionel Messi as a soccer great, because of what he achieved and the way he did it.

“He’s up there with those players,” Neville said on NBC on Saturday.

He is survived by his wife, Norma, whom he married in 1961, and his two daughters.