Remembering ‘Il Gigante Buono’ John Charles as Aaron Ramsey Follows Welsh Legend’s Path to Juventus

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Juventus officially announced the summer capture of Arsenal midfielder Aaron Ramsey, formally confirming what the football world had already known was coming for a number of weeks.

The Welsh international is set to earn a reported £400,000-per-week in Italy that will make him the highest paid British footballer in history and one of the biggest earners in the world.

Juventus already have a history with British and Irish players. Liam Brady and David Platt are two players specifically with Arsenal connections who have donned the black and white stripes. Liverpool legend Ian Rush was infamously a flop in Italy, while little remembered English forward William Jordan also briefly played for Juve in the late 1940s.

But one British import stands head and shoulders above the rest at Juventus and he shares Ramsey’s Welsh heritage. That is the legendary ‘Gigante Buono’ – Gentle Giant – John Charles.

Eventually becoming both a noted centre-back and centre-forward, Swansea-born Charles made his name as a footballer with Leeds United after joining the club as a 17-year-old in 1948. He made his first team debut a year later and was a Welsh international by 1950.

Having started out as a defender, Charles started to play up front from 1952 and was soon prolific. He later became club captain and his goals helped Leeds earn promotion to the top flight in 1956 as Second Division champions. He then scored even more goals in the First Division as newly promoted Leeds finished eighth, before Juventus paid £65,000 to take him to Italy.

The transfer fee paid by Juve was the most anyone had ever paid for a British player, and close to double the previous record of £34,000 set when Notts County signed Jackie Sewell in 1951. But rather than struggle to adapt to new life in Italy, as was the case with fellow high profile British players Jimmy Greaves and Denis Law not long after, Charles hit the ground running.

His debut season with Juventus saw a return of 28 Serie A goals, bringing with it the honour of the Capocannoniere top scorer award. His performances helped deliver Juve’s first scudetto since 1952 having finished ninth the season before, and he became part of an enduring Old Lady lineup alongside fellow import Omar Sivori and the long serving Giampiero Boniperti.

His impact in Turin cannot be understated. In ‘Calcio: A History of Italian Football’, author John Foot writes that ‘Charles – with Sivori – transformed the club’. Juve turned their 1957/58 scudetto into a period of dominance, adding further titles in 1959/60 and 1960/61.

In a league known for defensive football, Juventus scored for fun. Charles, who finished third in the 1959 Ballon d’Or standings behind Alfredo di Stefano and Raymond Kopa, and Sivori scored 50 Serie A goals between them in 1959/60, while Juve scored 92 in 34 games as a team.

According to Foot, ‘there is no real competition for the title of greatest British player in the Italian league’, using words such as ‘legend’, ‘superstar’, ‘hero’ and ‘role model’ to describe Charles, a player who was never cautioned or sent off in a football career that spanned 25 years in total.

On the international stage, Charles went with Wales to the 1958 World Cup, the nation’s one and only participation. Three draws in a tough group containing 1954 finalists Hungary, Mexico and hosts Sweden was followed by a special playoff win over Hungary to qualify for the quarter finals where Wales would meet Brazil. Charles, who was injured in the second Hungary game, couldn’t play and Brazil won through a single Pele goal. It remains a huge ‘what if’.

Charles’ Juventus career came to an end in 1962 as the once dominant side faded. He returned to former team Leeds in a £53,000 club record deal, although it appears that his time in Italy left a permanent mark as he apparently found it difficult to re-adapt to life back in Britain and would go on to join Roma for £70,000 only a few months later.

But with injuries seemingly taking their toll, an ageing Charles had only a shortlived returned to Italy. He went on to finish his league career with Cardiff City and eventually played non-league football for Hereford United and Merthyr Tydfil until hanging up his boots for good in 1974.

Charles died in 2004 at the age of 72. Football, both in Britain and in Italy mourned, and an obituary in The Guardian carried glowing comments from former Juventus colleague Boniperti.

“He was an extraordinary person, I would say from another world because of his human qualities. He was a great friend and an extraordinary teammate,” the Turin legend said.

“John was one of the most loyal and honest persons I have ever met. A very special person, not only because of his football skills. He managed to keep the whole team united, and any quarrels or arguments quietened down as soon as he appeared on the pitch or in the dressing room.”

Charles received a CBE in 2001 and was inducted into the English Football Hall of Fame in 2002, while the west stand at Leeds’ Elland Road stadium is named in his honour.

His memory also remains revered in Turin – he was warmly welcomed at a game at the old Stadio delle Alpi in 2001 and his 2004 passing was marked with a minute’s silence at Juve’s game the following day that broke out into applause instead. As recently as 2017 his four sons were invited by Juventus to attend the Champions League final in Cardiff.

Aaron Ramsey has huge Welsh boots to fill at Juventus next season, but if he can make just half the impact that John Charles did 60 years ago he’ll be doing more than alright.

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