Sir Bobby Charlton: A footballing giant who found a new goal

Bobby Charlton was once the greatest footballer in the world, but his work with Laureus and landmine charities is an equally important part of his legacy.
The lasting images of footballers are caught in time, our memories of them framed by the achievements of their youth. In the case of Bobby Charlton – who died this week at the age of 86 – there is the image of him lifting the 1966 World Cup with England, with whom he scored 49 goals in 106 appearances, setting a record in both categories. Then there is the image of him hoisting the European Cup above his head in 1968, when he scored twice to inspire Manchester United’s 4-1 victory over Benfica at the same venue. 
These are snapshots of a young man at the peak of his powers – an athlete whose achievements were elevated still further by his ability to rebuild his career after the Munch air disaster of 1958, in which he was severely injured and eight of his teammates died. 
However, there are other, powerful but less heralded images of Charlton, this time from his post-football life – images that speak of a commitment to humanitarian causes that found its expression in his involvement in Laureus Sport for Good programmes across three decades.
Sir Bobby Charlton - Laureus Sport for Good
There is the image of him in 2004, at a primary school in Strabane, Northern Ireland, 66 years old, wearing smart trousers and shiny black shoes. A teacher has just asked him if he would like to join in a kickabout with the children. Charlton puts on the bib, joins the blue side and is immediately transported back in time – body swerving past opponents, unleashing powerful shots with either foot. 
Afterwards, he reflected: “It’s just that when I’ve got a football in front of me, the years disappear and I’m in the middle of the field with tens of thousands watching. I can hear the cheers. The goal’s in front of me and I belt it at the keeper. It’s wonderful. I’ve scored. It’s only when you look up that you’re brought down to earth and realise that the kid in the net is only about seven years old. Oh dear.”
Then there is the image of Charlton, in 2007, on a visit to Cambodia to another Laureus-supported programme. He is running a football coaching session with a 14-year-old, who is then presented with a T-shirt with a picture of Wayne Rooney on it, holding up a sign preaching landmine awareness. Charlton is there to share the same message: “Don’t play with landmines. Play football.” 
A final image. It is 2009 and he is standing outside the Palace of Westminster in the armoured chest protector and helmet worn by landmine removal squads. A queue of people line up to shake his hand, but Charlton is not there for a meet and greet. He there in his role as a Laureus Academy Member, about to make a presentation to UK members of parliament about the evils of landmines – and to lobby for their support in a bid to improve means of detection. 
If the images of Charlton’s career speak to his unforgettable talent on the pitch, then those from his life after football speak to his character. He was elected as a founder member of the Laureus World Sports Academy in 2000 and travelled around the world to support Laureus Sport for Good projects. 
The 2004 trip to Northern Ireland was part of Laureus’ mission to encourage children from all races, religious, gender and political backgrounds to play sport as a means of self-development. Charlton believed in sport as a unifier, as a vehicle of social change, a sentiment shared by Nelson Mandela, the founding father of Laureus, who said: “Sport has the power to change the world.” 
There were other project visits, including a trip to Hong Kong in 2013 to lend his support to Operation Breakthrough, which uses sport to help youngsters who have either been arrested by the police for minor offences or identified by schools or social worker as being at risk. 
However, the cause with which he became most closely associated was landmines. An August 2005 visit to the Spirit of Soccer landmines awareness project in Sarajevo, Bosnia – supported by the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation – ignited his passion for that cause and led to his sustained involvement. 
The trip to Northern Cambodia two years later – to visit another Spirit of Soccer project – left a lasting impact. After three decades of war, the countryside was scattered with landmines, resulting in Cambodia having one of the highest rates of physical disability of any country in the world. The Cambodian Mine Action Centre estimates that there as many as four to six million unexploded mines in the country. Over five million people are at risk of death or injury and 98% of casualties are civilian. 
While he was there, Charlton visited S-12, a former security prison, where 16,000 Cambodians were tortured by the Khmer Rouge, before taking coaching sessions and making representations at the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh. 
Following his visit, Sir Bobby reflected: “It was very emotional. Seeing youngsters without limbs just getting on with their lives is hard to take. 
“I am very proud of the work that the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation is doing in Cambodia, but I would like to see the international community doing even more. It is awful to think that so many years after the fighting has ended people are still being maimed by landmines.”
Sir Bobby Charlton - Laureus Lifetime Achievement Award
He carried the fight forward by founding the ‘Find a Better Way’ charity to support research into technological advances which would make it easier to uncover landmines, and also to improve surgical techniques for those who had suffered blast injuries and limb loss. The work of the charity evolved into supporting civilian populations in developing countries where conflicts past and present fuel poverty, disadvantage and discrimination. 
He was a founding member of the Laureus World Sports Academy in 2000 and received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2012 Laureus World Sports Awards. Over his 20-plus year involvement, he became a respected and beloved member among his fellow inductees.
Sean Fitzpatrick, Chairman of the Laureus Academy, said: “Sir Bobby was a sporting icon, but you would never have known it. He was humble, reflective and, above all, committed to using sport to change the world. He will be missed by each of the 70 members of the Laureus World Sports Academy, the wider Laureus family and all the people whose lives he touched.”
Much will be written about Sir Bobby’s footballing talent and achievements.  He would be ill-served if his contribution to the world, its young people and using sport for good was not celebrated and remembered at the same time.

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