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Europe: Sir Bobby Charlton Diagnosed With Dementia

Fifth member of England’s World Cup squad of 1966 to be diagnosed with dementia

Wembley 1966 - Bobby Charlton holds aloft the Jules Rimet trophy flanked by Alan Ball and England captain, Bobby Moore.

England World Cup winner and Manchester United legend Sir Bobby Charlton has been diagnosed with dementia.

He’s the fifth member of England’s victorious 1966 World Cup squad to suffer from the disease after Ray Wilson, Martin Peters, his brother Jack, who passed away in July and Nobby Stiles who died on Friday. Former Everton full-back Wilson died in 2018, and midfielder Martin Peters in 2019.

Sir Bobby, 83, won three league titles, a European Cup and an FA Cup with United during 17 years at Old Trafford.

His wife, Lady Norma, expressed the hope that the knowledge of his diagnosis could help others.

Manchester United said in a statement: “Everyone at Manchester United is saddened that this terrible disease has afflicted Sir Bobby Charlton and we continue to offer our love and support to Sir Bobby and his family.”

United striker Marcus Rashford, 23, said on Instagram: “Sir Bobby, you are my hero and I am devastated that you are having to go through this.

“I filmed alongside this man as a child and was in awe. I still am when I see you. This man, from day one, was everything I wanted to be. Kind, professional, caring, talented.”

Sir Bobby was reportedly too ill to attend the funeral of brother Jack in Northumberland back in July, and many linked his absence to a long-standing fall-out between the brothers, especially as he had attended former team-mate and Munich survivor, Harry Gregg’s funeral in Northern Ireland in February. Now it seems reports of ill-health were not unfounded.

Funeral For Manchester United Goalkeeper Harry Gregg Held In Northern Ireland
Sir Bobby with wife, Lady Norma (right) attending the funeral of former United team-mate and fellow Munich survivor, Harry Gregg in Coleraine, Northern Ireland in February this year.
Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Born in Ashington, Northumberland, Sir Bobby held the goalscoring records for both Manchester United and England for many years before being surpassed by Wayne Rooney on each count.

In 2008 Ryan Giggs finally broke another long-standing Bobby Charlton/Manchester United record when the Welshman recorded his 759th appearance for Manchester United.

At just 20 years-old, Sir Bobby was a survivor of the Munich air crash of 1958 in which 23 people died, including eight of his Manchester United team-mates.

He helped inspire United to a first European Cup win ten years later, scoring twice in the final, and was awarded the Ballon d’Or (then called simply, European Footballer of the Year) in 1966 after playing every minute of England’s World Cup victory.

The previously unimaginatively-named South Stand at Old Trafford was renamed in Sir Bobby’s honour in 2016.

Manchester United Win European Cup, 1968
Sir Bobby holds soft the European Cup at Wembley in 1968...
Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

Dementia in Football

Stiles, Peters and Wilson were diagnosed with it while still in their sixties. In a BBC documentary screened in 2017, Stiles’ son John, also a former professional player, told former England captain Alan Shearer he was “utterly convinced” heading a football was responsible for his father’s dementia.

Also from the BBC, a study by Glasgow University in 2019 found former professional footballers are three and a half times more likely to die of dementia than people of the same age range in the general population.

The study began after claims that former West Brom striker Jeff Astle, who played for England at the 1970 World Cup Finals in Mexico, died at the age of 59 because of repeated head trauma and compared deaths of 7,676 ex-players to 23,000 from the general population.

Former England striker Jef Astle, (white shirt, centre) playing against Brazil at the 1970 World Cup died from dementia aged only 59.

The inquest into Astle’s death found heading heavy leather footballs repeatedly had contributed to trauma to his brain, but research by the Football Association and the Professional Footballers’ Association was later dropped because of what were said to be technical flaws.

Astle’s daughter, Dawn, said “players who have suffered dementia must not be a statistic” after she was left “staggered” by the study’s findings.

In response, the FA launched new coaching guidelines to restrict the amount of heading by under-18 players in training.