Interview with Sir Bobby Charlton

Share this page

Question

Are you excited the Laureus World Sports Awards are coming to London this year?

Bobby Charlton

London is a great city and when it was awarded the Olympic Games I thought you’re guaranteed a good time because people in London will be fantastic.  And of course now Laureus have decided to have the Awards there this year which will make it particularly interesting as well

Question

Lionel Messi is nominated for the third time. What are your impressions of him? 

Bobby Charlton

Lionel Messi, in Zurich at FIFA last week, was awarded for the third time the greatest footballer of the world [award].  That’s voted by very, very prominent and important journalists, so that is just something really extraordinary.  He’s a tiny little player, but I don’t know if it’s his low body weight, but he seems to be able to stay on his feet when everybody around him seems to be falling.  And some of the goals that he’s scoring are so exciting.  And there are goals where he doesn’t really need much help either.  And I think he’s just a sensational little player and Argentina should be very happy that he’s Argentinian.  He’s got an awareness and he knows when people are trying to stop him and trying to kick him and he seems to be able to read it just that

instant before it actually happens that he gets hit.  But if he gets hit he still stays on his feet if he can.  He doesn’t dive.  He stays on his feet and I find in Argentina that that’s general.  That they’re tough players and they’re hard as nails, but they won’t dive.  He’s just a wonderful player. 

Question

Of course, he is only 24, but what kind of players would you put him in the same class as?

Bobby Charlton

I think now he’s probably done more than most players.  But [he is in the same class as] Alfredo de Stefano, Johan Cruyff, Pelé.  When he finishes and he retires, he will automatically become one of them. [A player] that people will talk about forever, while the game of football is as good and as popular as it is.  He is a sensational player.

He’s an instinctive goalscorer.  He can’t help it.  He’s instinctive.  As soon as he gets within range you can see his brain working.  If he can, he likes to get it on his left foot.  When the ball comes to him, the first thing he thinks about is can I score?  And then if I can score what do I have to do to actually score?  Do I use my left foot?  Do I use my right foot?  Am I balanced properly?  And you can see these things working in his mind and eventually he makes his mind up and he finishes off by some dramatic goals.  He’s just a sensational, sensational player.  And he’s Argentinian which means you’ve got to be tough because there’s some battles when you go to Argentina and you see some of the club football or you see some of the South American games that are played.   It’s so physical.  You see Maradona was the same.  He could ride tackles.  And Messi is the same.  He focuses as soon as he gets the ball anywhere within range of the goal. And he doesn’t need help.  He does it on his own.

Question

How much help do you think he gets by being in a very good Barcelona team?  Would he be as good playing for Manchester United or for another top club?

Bobby Charlton

He’d be great for anybody.  He would be great playing for anyone.  I doubt very much whether anybody will ever prize him away from Barcelona, but if they could they are getting the best player in the world which is there for all to see.  And he is just a wonderful, wonderful player.  And an exciting player.  It gets you on the edge of your seat when he gets the ball and you think, right, what’s he going to do now? And often it’s not what you think.  He’ll change direction. He’s got this low body weight.  He can stay on his feet for ages and people can be hitting him and kicking him and trying to trip him and it doesn’t work.  He’s just got this gift.  Maradona is the only one I can compare him with. 

Question

You played with George Best. How would you compare him to Messi?

Bobby Charlton

George Best [played] many, many years ago. I tell the story of when he came into the team directly from the reserves and from the youth team.  The first time I ever saw him play, he humiliated one of my best friends in football.  It was right-back John Angus from Burnley and George knocked the ball through his legs and came round and tried to do it again.  The fans loved him because they can’t do things like that.  They could only dream about it.  And it’s the same with these great South American players of Messi, Maradona and Pelé, but George Best was up there with them all.  Unfortunately he played for Northern Ireland and never was seen on the world stage in a World Cup which was a great tragedy for the people that actually like watching football and good footballers.

Question

What can you say about Barcelona as a team?  They are nominated for Laureus World Team of the Year.

Bobby Charlton

Barcelona have Messi and they’re very fortunate to have Messi.  He’s a great player.  But they also have an unbelievable group of artistic players in the middle of the field.  Iniesta and Xavi. They have a philosophy that they’ve got and unfortunately for the rest of us, they [have the] good players as well to actually make it happen.  Iniesta, Xavi, two of the most creative midfield players you could ever wish for.  But also they’ve got a passing system of play and everyone’s expected to do it.  Some do it better than others.  But, nevertheless, it’s a very consistent football team that goes out [to play] if it’s got Barcelona’s name alongside it.  Even when I was watching them [Iniesta and Xavi] when they were 16, 17, they were just sensational.  They have had a concentration of really, really great players and that’s why Barcelona are the success that they are at the moment.  And it’s going to continue.  We at this club (Manchester United) will try very hard and we will improve, but they are just one of the great teams there’s ever been. I mean three years running Messi has been the FIFA Footballer of the Year.  And Barcelona have been the football team of the year.  And they have greatness and it’s come because they had a good system and the good system meant that it could easily work if you had good players.  And they had the good players.  It’s great. 

Question

Are they better than the Real Madrid of Alfredo di Stefano?  Better than the Ajax of Cruyff?

Bobby Charlton

I think with the young players certainly.  I think that when Real Madrid were at their peak, you had Puskas, you had Hento, you had di Stefano, Great players. But they didn’t have this backlog that they’ve got of unbelievably young, young players.  And Barcelona will take some stopping, but it will happen.  I hope it’s us (Manchester United) that does it.  But it will happen.

Question

Did you follow Japan in the Women’s World Cup? They have been nominated as well as Barcelona as Laureus Team of the Year too.

Bobby Charlton

I go to Japan quite a lot and I’m very interested whenever there’s anything about Japanese football.  I like to watch it.  And the J League has come a long way. Japan is one of the really important countries in the world with regard to international football.  And of course the Japanese have come up with these fantastic players.  When the World Cup was on, the ladies World Cup this year in Germany, I remember thinking I must make a point of watching some of it.  And they won.  The Japanese won the World Cup.  And really it hasn’t taken much more than about five years from having no quality players with regard to ladies to actually winning the World Cup.  So what they’ve done is just sensational. 

Question

And it was very emotional because it’s the same year that they had the earthquake and the tsunami in Japan?

Bobby Charlton

After the tsunami and the problems that they had it was horrific.  I got invited to go across to Japan and my wife and I went and we walked straight into all this excitement about the ladies World Cup victory.  And everybody was mentioning it.  And it actually made the trip.  The German team had pretty much taken over ladies football.  They seemed to be winning everything and then suddenly the Japanese come and it was just terrific.  They’ve got the Sumo wrestling.  They’ve got American baseball.  But football has almost taken over I think.  It’s just been great for the game.

Question

Another of your big passions is golf and this year there are several golfers nominated for Laureus Awards?

Bobby Charlton

It’s really good to have nominations of golfers for a change. There’s been a lot of tennis players, but golf in world terms is not the most popular, I would say.  But over the last couple of years Northern Ireland has produced three players that have won a Major Championship [Darren Clarke, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy]. It’s just unbelievable to think of.

I know Rory McIlroy is a Manchester United fan. When he won his first tournament I phoned him up and said ‘well done, it’s just wonderful for your country and for yourself and you’ve got a fantastic future.’ He doesn’t get much chance now to actually watch United play because he’s almost always playing in a new tournament somewhere in the world. 

He’s just got an unbelievably simple talent.  He’s a natural swinger of a golf club.  It was like there was nothing else he was meant to be.  He’s got a great mental attitude.  He knows he’s a great player and we’re just finding out now how great he really is.  He has little hiccups because he’s only young.  But he will be one of the great players in the world for a long, long time.

Question

You actually partnered him one year in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship?  What is he like as a person?

Bobby Charlton

Yes, when I played in the Dunhill at St Andrews a few years back, when I got there they said ‘have you seen the draw?’  And I said no.  Who have I got?  And they said ‘oh you’ve got a young lad from Northern Ireland.  Rory McIlroy.’  And he hadn’t won anything.  But as soon as I was on the 1st green he knocked the ball in for a birdie and it just seemed the most natural thing in the world and the easiest thing in the world to do.  And it’s not an easy game golf.  But he’s just got that talent and it’s a natural talent.  It’s as though he’s not been taught it.  Nobody can teach you things like that.  But he is just very, very creative.  He’ll solve problems. 

When he won the US Open I was in Africa and I had promised my wife that we wouldn’t have the television on.  We were going out to see the animals and so I didn’t know the result.  And I came back and I asked what had been going on and they said, oh yeah, the US Open’s just finished and Rory McIlroy’s won. And it was just great. He’s a lovely player and his attitude towards the game is just perfect. 

Question

He had a disaster in the Masters with a final round 80, then came back to win the US Open, what does that require in a player?

Bobby Charlton

What he did wrong in the Masters was that he thought that all he had to do was to go out and hit a ball up the middle of the fairway and everything would be rosy, but it’s not like that in this game.  He was criticised, but I think most people were very sympathetic to him because he has a lovely talent and they were prepared to wait. All his friends came round him and he was able to actually get over it.  You can imagine somebody experienced being able to handle it, this humiliation, but not a young lad like this.  And then suddenly he goes to the US Open and he wins with some of the most unbelievable golf that’s ever been seen there.  I mean it was just amazing. And he’s won the tournament by eight shots.  Eight shots, the US Open, which is one of the hardest tournaments you could ever hope to win.  But it was just breathtaking.  And because now he’s done that people will expect that he will be in the running in any of the tournaments now that he ever plays.   But it’s there for him. And he can handle it. He can handle problems.  And he’s proved that. 

Question

Another man who has handled problems is Darren Clarke who had a very emotional win at the Open at Royal St George’s?

Bobby Charlton

I watched Darren Clarke at Royal St George’s and you could tell very early on that he was really wrapped up and intent on winning. Maybe because of Rory McIlory.  Maybe he thought, well if he can do it, I can do it as well.  And he actually just played faultless golf from beginning to end and won the tournament really quite easily.  But he loves golf and he is a great golfer when he puts his mind to it.  And I mean I can’t believe how easy it was at the end.  Pressure? There was no pressure.  He didn’t have any pressure.  He was walking up the last green having a cigarette.  And just saying to the world ‘well this is what I’ve always dreamed of and it’s not difficult, this is easy.’  Everything looked so easy to him. 

Question

It was a very emotional win, because his wife Heather died a few years before?

Bobby Charlton

Everybody was happy when Darren Clarke won the Open Championship for the great golf that he played, but also for the history of the past few years, when his wife died and then he had to look after his youngsters and maybe he fell out of love with the game of golf for a period.  So I think there were a lot of people who were very happy that Darren Clarke had actually won this Major. And it was just great. I watched him coming up the 18th and I thought there’s no way that he’s not going to win this tournament.  He was just so focused.  He’s got great focus and I wouldn’t put it past him to win another Major.  Not at all.  He’s quite capable.  He knows when he should relax and when he should concentrate.

Question

One of the great golfing performances of the year was by Taiwanese golfer Yani Tseng. She won two Major Championships and dominated the US LPGA Tour. She is the same age as Rory, so we have two great young golfers there?

Bobby Charlton

They’re there for years to come and we are lucky to have them. I have not seen the young lady play, but at 22, the same age as Rory McIlroy, she has gone out into the great big world and she’s beaten everyone in sight, it appears to me.  She’s won most of the Major tournaments for the ladies, and won herself a lot of money.  She’s obviously got a great talent and a natural talent, which Rory McIlroy has.