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 in Munich at the start of his playing days, died on Saturday. He was 86.
A statement from Manchester United called Charlton one of the club’s “greatest and most beloved players.” It was revealed in November 2020 that Charlton had dementia.
One of the best-loved players in the English game, Charlton was famed for his bullet shot and relentless goal scoring, despite not playing 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 from 758 appearances over 17 years, until Rooney surpassed that figure, too, in January 2017.
As well as the feats of scoring, Charlton’s career was indelibly marked by a plane crash in 1958, shortly after he had become a professional player. After a European Cup match against Red Star Belgrade, the plane on which the Manchester United team was traveling crashed in heavy snow after 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 at the time.
Barely three weeks later, with the United manager Matt Busby still in the hospital in Germany, Charlton was back on the field. 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 major success on the international stage led to several commentators referring to him as the first gentleman of soccer.
Charlton became a director and ambassador of Manchester United in 1984. In 2016, the club renamed the south stand of its Old Trafford stadium in his honor, and a statue of Charlton, alongside his fabled teammates, George Best and Denis Law — known as the United Trinity — was erected in 2008. Charlton is also credited with giving Old Trafford its nickname, the Theatre of Dreams.