x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Charlton loves to pitch in

Football is still the driving force for the World Cup winner and Manchester United legend Sir Bobby Charlton.

Sir Bobby Charlton thoroughly enjoys being a global ambassador for the game of football.
Sir Bobby Charlton thoroughly enjoys being a global ambassador for the game of football.

It was not the Aztec Stadium in Mexico City, the Maracana in Rio, or even my beloved Partick Thistle's Estadio Firhill in the west end of Glasgow, but it was the most magical 'stadium' that I have ever stumbled across; on a recent holiday in Thailand, I visited the island of Nangyuan where, on a narrow sandbank sitting about 20 metres from the shore, I came across a swarm of hotel waiters and kitchen staff joyously engaged in a game of football during their work-break before serving dinner.

With bamboo sticks for goalposts, the sparkling aquamarine waters of the Gulf of Siam serving as the touchlines and the departing rays of the setting sun acting as golden floodlights, their shrieks and laughter filled the evening air. Although my 'mastery' Thai is limited to Sawadee kap (hello), Kop khun kap (thank you) and Tom Yam Kung (red hot prawn soup), I was quickly appointed referee, answering each claim for a free-kick or whatever with a thumbs up or down; football being the world's common language.

I was reminded of this heart-warming experience when I renewed acquaintance with the sport's global ambassador, Sir Bobby Charlton who told me: "There are those who use football to further their personal ambitions - be those power, politics or what have you - and others who use it for financial reasons; but I honestly believe that if football is used in the right way, then it's a wonderful means of communication."

Now 71, Sir Bobby is "Mr Football" - World Cup winner, European Cup winner, 766 games and 253 goals for Manchester United, 106 appearances and 49 goals for England; European Footballer of the year in 1966, elevated to "Sir Bobby" by the Queen on behalf of a grateful nation in 1995. He never cheated to win a penalty, never feigned injury to land an opponent in trouble and never argued with the referee, for, as Bobby Moore said after being cleared of stealing a diamond bracelet in Bogota before the 1970 World Cup: "The fact they accused Bobby [Charlton] of sheltering me while I 'stole' the bracelet proves that I am innocent. Bobby has never done a dishonest thing in his life."

Famously described by the now football pundit Jimmy Hill as "the most famous Englishman in the world" (a title of which Sir Bobby is still the undisputed holder despite the claims of David Beckham), this unpretentious, spaniel-eyed son of a Northumberland coal miner is as welcome in any dot on the globe as he is in his native Ashington. "The Prince of Wales' visit was big news here but Mr Charlton's visit is even bigger," conceded a British Embassy official in Morocco a few years ago, while his arrival in Beijing to accompany the Chinese under-18 squad on a visit to England was watched by a television audience of 300 million. Far more, whispered an admiring government official indiscreetly, than used to tune in for Chairman Mao's speeches.

Typically, the object of this global outpouring of affection squirms with embarrassment at the very suggestion that he is considered so special by so many. "Oh, I don't know ... I appreciate the sentiment ... I was lucky I was good at the game ... yes, it is nice to be loved by perfect strangers but it's difficult, quite difficult ... you've got to behave yourself all the time ... funnily enough, I've never considered myself solely English - or British for that matter - I'm just a human being.

"I've had unbelievable benefits because I get invited to places most people can only dream about." From Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe, from royal palaces to a football pitch that sprung up on a former minefield in Battambang, Cambodia, which he visited recently, Sir Bobby is an honoured guest where'er he roams. "Norma [Charlton's wife of 48 years whom he first met in a dry cleaners] and I have been privileged to travel just about everywhere in the world that they play football. My favourite pitches? There are so many," he says.

"In Indonesia we came across a field - with all the touchlines and penalty areas immaculately drawn out - but with 20 palm trees scattered higgledy-piggledy about the pitch. The players had to dribble round them; it was part football, part slalom. Ever since, I've been taking pictures of games being played in unusual surroundings which I keep in a collection of albums. "On one visit to Malaysia we went on a tour of the Cameron Highlands, which are stunningly beautiful, so the driver stopped the bus to allow us to take some photographs. I was studying one particular peak which soared straight up into the heavens through my binoculars when I noticed a little patch of green. You've guessed. On a plateau half way up the mountain, there was a cluster of wooden houses and a full-sized football pitch. A magic moment.

"In the shadow of a massive statue of Buddha in Rangoon, we found a patch of ground no more than 30 yards by 10 yards complete with full-sized goalposts, and in Norway there's a stadium where the stands and terraces have been chiselled out of the ice. After the match there's little melted hollows where the spectators' bottoms have been. "Norma's favourite is on Goree Island off the coast of Senegal, from where the African slaves were shipped out. They reckon about six million shuffled through an archway known as 'The Door of No Return' in chains on their way to United States.

"It's estimated that half of them did not survive the sea voyage and the site has become a shrine which is covered in messages from their American descendants. You can see the Atlantic through the arch and you can't stand there without being deeply moved. "But incredible as it seems, squeezed into the middle of all this is a bizarre football pitch. The two sets of goalposts are out of alignment and one of the corner flags is on the other side of a stone wall. So when you take a corner out there, you've got to scale a bloomin' great wall before you can rejoin the game. That's the wonder of football. Give a few lads a patch of ground and anything resembling ball and you have game..."

rphilip@thenational.ae