When attempting to evaluate a player that you’ve never seen, and where video footage is sketchy, you’re relying on those who came before you. Statistics can only help you so far, and piecing together a valid assessment from secondary sources is a risky business: you’re at the mercy of past prejudice and fashion, less able to diagnose misrepresentation or exaggeration, constantly in danger of unwittingly repeating and so magnifying somebody else’s mistakes.
Despite all of which, I am confident in saying that John Charles is the greatest footballer ever to play for Wales. The secondary sources are just so good.
Example the first. In 1958, Wales qualified for the World Cup, their first and only appearance at a major international tournament. Charles – world-class at centre-half or centre-forward – was at the heart of the finest Wales team of them all as they progressed to the quarter-finals, where they met eventual winners Brazil. The only goal of the game came from the 17-year-old Pele, and Charles was missing, having been injured against Hungary the game before. Years later, Pele wrote “It was a very close game, and who knows what would have happened had Charles been fit”. Brian Glanville was happy to go further, stating that, had Charles played, Wales would have won.
Example the second. In 1997, Juventus celebrated their centenary. Their fans were asked to vote for their greatest foreign player and – ahead of Michel Platini, Zbigniew Boniek, or then-recent signings Zinedine Zidane and Pavel Nedved, or even his own strike partner Omar Sivori – they chose Charles. His arrival in Italy had revitalised a moribund team, and his 93 goals in 150 games, along with the lethal partnership he formed with Sivori, delivered three league titles across five seasons. He subsequently became the first non-Italian inducted into the Azzurri Hall of Fame.
More testimony. Denis Law called him the greatest no. 5 he’d ever played against, as well as one of the best strikers. Jack Charlton rated him higher than his own brother. Danny Blanchflower said that he could never hope to play as well. Bobby Robson placed him alongside Maradona. There comes a point when you have to simply believe what you’re told, and for a player to be idolised across two countries by almost everyone he encountered is as unprecedented as it is persuasive.
While his finest moments at club level came up front, he generally played at centre-half for Wales, and so he does in this all-time team. 38 caps is perhaps too small a number for a player of his talents, though release for internationals from Juventus came only intermittently. (The telegram above is dispensation for the 1958 World Cup.) But perhaps the most impressive statistic about Charles’ career is that despite being a 6’2″ 14-stone centre-half/centre-forward – and despite playing quite a few of his 700-plus games for Leeds – he was never once cautioned. All hail the Gentle Giant.