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John Charles - The Gentle Giant

Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy - British Council
 This article was generously provided to ClubFootball by the British Council, which operates in China as the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy.


Welsh forward John Charles paved the way for the abolition of the maximum wage in England after he played in Italy for five years, but his impact in Turin was even greater, reports Ben Lyttleton.
A fire to the main stand at Leeds's Elland Road stadium in October 1956 was the catalyst for their sale of John Charles to Juventus in summer 1957. The club were not adequately covered for insurance and were left with a £60,000 deficit. That was when they announced that top scorer Charles, who had just hit 38 goals in his first season in the top division, was for sale.
Leeds refused to sell the Welsh forward to an English rival but were offered a world record £65,000 fee from Juventus. Charles said: "The manager called me into his office and said 'Juventus want you.' I said, 'Who are Juventus?' and he looked at me and said, 'They're one of the best teams in Italy.' I'd never heard of them. It was a complete culture shock because in Leeds I'd been a shandy man, suddenly I was presented with red wine at the pre-match lunch. The first time I was faced with a bowl of spaghetti it went everywhere but down my throat."
Charles moved to Turin and scored the winner in his first three matches - against Verona, Udinese and Genoa. "It went from there and in the first year I was there we won the championship," he said. He scored 28 goals in 34 games that season, including three hat-tricks against Atalanta, Sampdoria and Lazio. It was enough for him to be voted Italian Footballer of the Year.
In his five years at Juventus, Charles helped the club win three championships and two Italian Cups. He was in the top three in the polls for European Footballer of the Year twice and scored 108 goals in 155 games for the club. He inspired a magnificent era for the club and in 1997 was voted as the best ever foreign player to have played for Juventus.
He explained why he settled so well: "I picked up the language, which you have to if you are living in a foreign country because it means you can go out and enjoy the new life you've got. The people there were fantastic to me and the Italians are very warm people." He also opened a restaurant in the centre of Turin.
Charles returned to Leeds in summer 1962, when they were back in the second division, but his legacy was long-lasting: after all, he had been the first player to negotiate a transfer using an agent. Unlike in Britain, there was no maximum wage in Italy and the players received signing-on fees and bonuses as well as decent salaries. "At the time Britain's highest paid player was Fulham's Johnny Haynes who was making £5,000 a year," he said, "while in my last season I was on £7,000."
Charles's successful period in Italy did three things: first, it paved the way for an exodus of players moving there but it also symbolised a special period in Italy's post-war development. Newspaper La Stampa explained: "Those were formidable years. The economy boomed and television became the national pastime. The darkness of the war and its aftermath was, if not forgotten, at least absorbed. And those [Juventus] men in black and white stripes, led by Charles, epitomised a generation finally ready to look forward, not back."
It also changed the face of the game in England. In 1961, four years after Charles joined Juventus, the maximum wage in England was removed and the transfer system was changed. The Times newspaper had recognised the importance of Charles' transfer at the time, saying: "The move by Charles may one day prove a lever to greater incentives and rewards for the footballer at home." They were right.
Charles died in February 2004 and his impact was recognised in Wales, England and Italy, who united in grief.

Ben Lyttleton, May 2004

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