John Charles: The Welshman Who Was "Better Than Maradona, Ronaldo, and Zidane"
Serie A has been one of the biggest and best leagues in the world for some time now. It has giants of the footballing world such as AC Milan, Inter Milan, and Juventus, and has seen some of the best footballers ever.
The likes of Diego Maradona, Ruud Gullit, Frank Rijkaard, Marco Van Basten, Michel Platini, Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, and Paolo Maldini have played in Italy's top division, and they are just a handful of the great players. None of them would look out of place in a list of the top ten players ever.
Yet, in a vote to determine the greatest player to ever play in Serie A, none of these players won. Nor did Paolo Rossi, Kaka, Ronaldinho, Roberto Baggio, Dennis Bergkamp, or Lothar Matthaus. All the men on this all-star list would outdone by one man from Wales: John Charles.
Between 1957 and 1962, Charles played for Juventus, and was considered the most valuable footballer of his era, in a time where Pele was starting to make headlines.
It wasn't just his skill that made him such a superstar, it was his versatility. Whether he played in defence or up-front, you knew you were in for a tough game if you were against him.
Both Denis Law and Tom Finney, great players in their own right, rated John Charles as the best centre-back in Europe. He was, however, a striker primarily. Law went on to say he was also in the top three centre-forwards he had ever seen.
Charles joined Juventus for a then British record transfer fee of £65,000 in 1957. This came after he had scored 150 goals in 297 games for Leeds, a ratio better than one every other game, despite playing regularly in centre-back. In fact, he played solely at centre-back for the first couple of season as a Leeds United player.
In the 1953-54 season, Charles scored a phenomenal 42 goals, proving he was equally as effective at the other end of the field.
Once he joined Juventus, he didn't take long to get settled in. Twenty-eight goals in 34 games during his first season helped Juventus win the league title, and was also enough for him to capture the golden boot.
He helped Juve to another two league titles, and two Italian Cup successes before his departure four years later. He scored 93 goals in 150 games for Juventus, and cemented himself in Italian football folklore. He is still considered a God in Turin.
After a second spell at Leeds, followed by a return to Italy with Roma, and then a spell at Cardiff, Charles retired from football.
His versatility and quality made fans love him, but his sportsmanship made rival fans respect and admire him. Throughout his entire playing career, for club and country, John Charles was never sent-off, or even given a yellow card, a feat even more amazing considering he lived in the age when strong challenges were part and parcel of the game.
Charles could certainly deal with the physical side of the game, but he always did it fairly. He never used extra leverage when jumping, yet heading was perhaps the most impressive part of his game. At six foot two inches, he was nicknamed "The Gentle Giant."
Many people who saw him play maintain that he was one of the best all-round players ever. He was able to play at a world-class standard in different positions, comfortable with both feet, he had a great first touch, and possessed stamina and strength in abundance.
For Wales, he played 38 times, scoring 15 goals. Had he not suffered an injury during the 1958 World Cup, the whole landscape of football may have been different.
His Welsh side came up against the Brazilians in the quarter-final, but he was unable to play. Had he been chosen in centre-back, there is a very high likelihood that he could have marked Pele out of the game. Pele eventually scored the winner, and the story of the greatest player who ever lived had begun.
Who knows, if circumstance had been different, it could have been the Welshman who was being called the greatest ever.
An underrated genius, John Charles is truly one of the greatest footballers the U.K, if not the world, has ever produced.
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