Bobby Charlton, an English soccer icon who survived a plane crash that decimated his Manchester United team and became the heartbeat of his country's 1966 World Cup-winning team, has died. He was 86.
A statement from Charlton's family, released by United, said he died Saturday surrounded by his family.
An extravagantly gifted 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.
"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.
A humble man
Charlton was also renowned for his humility, discipline and sportsmanship. He never received a red card 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 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 crash.
"It added up to a greatness and something more — something I can only call beauty."
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 final.
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.
Player became coach
After retiring in 1973, Charlton went into coaching and founded a youth scheme that included United great David Beckham among its participants.
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 in a statue outside United's stadium.
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.
Charlton's playing career began far from home in Manchester after leaving school at 15, making his United debut three years later in 1956.
Within two years, tragedy struck the tight-knit group of United players. The team was 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 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.
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.
He is survived by his wife, Norma, whom he married in 1961, and his two daughters.