x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

'Gentle Giant' was a priceless entertainer

According to the latest transfer rumour, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona are falling over themselves in the rush to buy the 20-year-old French international striker Karim Benzema

According to the latest transfer rumour, Manchester United, Real Madrid and Barcelona are falling over themselves in the rush to buy the 20-year-old French international striker Karim Benzema. Olympique Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas reacted to this hot gossip by promptly attaching an £80million (Dh452million) price tag to the young man's shirt along with a contract that does not expire until 2013. And, so, while the canny president may have to drop 10, 20 or even 30 million before a deal is done, the world-record transfer fee of £45.6m Real Madrid paid Juventus for Zinedine Zidane in 2001 looks certain to go.

Having scored 33 goals in 85 games for the French champions and five goals in his 16 international appearances, it is obvious why Sir Alex Ferguson, Bernd Schuster and Frank Rijkaard have all placed Benzema on their "Most Wanted" chart. But even they may blanch at being asked to splash out ?100m (Dh456m) and around £250,000 a week in wages when all Europe is in the midst of a financial crisis. But the Benzema situation begs the question, what present day value would be put on Pele or Alfredo di Stefano or George Best on the floor of football's stock exchange?

Or, indeed, one of my personal favourites and arguably the best all-round footballer in history - John Charles, a magnificent 6ft 2in chunk of Welsh marble who bestrode the pitch like a Colossus (as soccer scribes used to wax lyrical five decades ago) in the No 9 shirt of Juventus. I must admit to being a little biased because shortly before he contracted Alzheimers, Il Gigante Buono (the Gentle Giant) invited me to serve as ghostwriter on his autobiography. Alas, with his memory fading by the day, we never did get round to collaborating on his life story, although we remained in touch until his death at the age of 72 in 2004.For those of you too young to have seen JC in action, I can tell you that he ran like a stag, leapt like a salmon, kicked like a mule, yet possessed the elegance and artistry of Fred Astaire. After leaving Leeds for Juventus in 1957 for the then British record transfer fee of £65,000, he scored 29 goals in his first season in Turin, led his club (who had only narrowly avoided relegation a year earlier) to the First Division championship, and was voted Italian Footballer of the Year.

Such was his prowess that Juventus often fielded him at centre-forward in the first half then, having plundered a goal or two, would switch him to centre-half after the interval to prevent the other side scoring. If this makes him sound like Roy of the Rovers, then that is exactly what he was, for in his entire career he was never once ordered off or even cautioned. During his five seasons in Turin - during which time Juventus won three league titles and two Italian cup finals - John scored 93 goals in 155 Serie A games.

Goals like the flying-header against AC Milan in the San Siro, which was still being used in the introduction to Italy's Sunday night football highlights TV programme in 1978 - 20 years after the deed, and goals like the audacious winner he scored in the 1959 Italian cup final victory against Fiorentina when he cushioned a cross on his forehead then, as the goalkeeper came out, cheekily nodded the ball over his head like a sea-lion toying with a beachball in the circus.

When Andy Cole was transferred from Newcastle to Manchester United for £7m in 1995, I asked modest John to put a price on his own head. "Well, if Andy Cole is worth seven million, then I suppose someone might have paid eight million for me." More like 80 million - and then some, my old friend. rphilip@thenational.ae