Sir Bobby: A Gift To Football & The World
October 25, 2023
Michael Pirrie reflects on a personal meeting with Sir Bobby Charlton and the football legend’s role with Seb Coe’s team that won the bid for the London 2012 Olympic Games, which also involved fellow United great David Beckham.
It was a moment in time; a brush with sporting greatness of the most unexpected kind that would leave a forever uplifting impression – just like Sir Bobby Charlton left on the world.
The kind of moment that came to mind after gathering my thoughts following news of Sir Bobby’s passing.
The memory of a moment when fate and fortune crossed paths to change the arc of sporting history. A Sir Bobby Charlton kind of moment.
Moments when Sir Bobby Charlton changed the trajectory of British and world sporting history.
The kind of moments that Sir Bobby seemed destined for, like the World Cup and all that jazz.
The kind of moment when Sir Bobby united the world of football with the Olympic world, and London won the 2012 Olympic Games.
Sir Bobby brought football’s greatest prize to England and helped bring the world’s biggest sporting spectacle to the British capital.
UNIQUE LIKE THE BEATLES
This was a unique double. Two extraordinary moments linked by one extraordinary man on one extraordinary journey.
Sir Bobby and his team from 1966 transcended time, place and culture like The Beatles.
I did but pass Sir Bobby by briefly on this monumental journey, our paths crossing at London’s final presentation to the IOC in Singapore to decide host city for the 2012 Olympic Games.
After being scanned, I was ushered into a queue reserved for the London delegation at the Raffles City Convention Centre.
The line for London was steered towards the presentation room, stopping and starting along the way at security check points.
The queue began to swell as we neared the entrance, and while checking my credentials were visible, I became vaguely aware of a famous presence at my side, suddenly realising I was standing next to Sir Bobby Charlton.
Turning around, I also saw Catherine Freeman, the iconic indigenous Australian Olympic gold medallist, one of our international bid ambassadors.
We huddled in together, as a small group, while awaiting the final call up, discussing the various voting scenarios needed for London to reach the last round for casting ballots.
This was the most fiercely contested and expensive bidding contest in the history of the modern Olympic Movement, dating back to 1896.
The five finalists – Paris, New York, Madrid, Moscow and London – were estimated to have spent a combined total of $150 million on their campaigns.
Much had been invested in the London bid and much was at stake – billions of pounds in investment across the UK in new sporting venues, urban renewal projects, transport upgrades, jobs, and other valuable community benefits.
After taking their campaigns to the four corners of the globe, Singapore was the ultimate setting for the final showdown between the super cities.
Hopes, expectations, and tensions fluctuated wildly as the rival bid cities searched for even the most marginal of advantages in their communications and presentation strategies.
We looked to Sir Bobby as the London team waited anxiously to enter the presentation room.
Charlton’s views on London’s prospects were eagerly sought by those around him as our delegation was finally called in to present.
He radiated calmness and cautious optimism.
“This could be the best afternoon of our lives or it could be the worst,” Charlton ventured reservedly before pausing.
Then: “I think it will be the best afternoon,” continued Charlton, the survivor of two previous failed Olympic bids by his beloved Manchester.
MAKING IT COUNT
All the intelligence surrounding the 2012 bid cities contest, referred to internally amongst IOC members as “The Great Race,” indicated the final victory margin would be paper thin (in the end 54 London; 50 Paris).
As bid leader, Olympic champion, Seb Coe insisted that everyone needed a compelling reason and role to be included in the Singapore delegation.
While David Beckham was one of the faces of the bid, Coe had great admiration for Sir Bobby and understood the high regard within Olympic circles and amongst IOC members for Charlton.
Sir Bobby was not an Olympian but he embodied the Olympic values and ideals, and was as important a figure in world sport as many of the great Olympians.
Once the greatest footballer in the world, Charlton’s achievements on and off the sporting field were pure Olympic gold.
While Sir Bobby is one of only nine men to win a World Cup, European Cup and the Ballon d’Or, he was also committed to humanitarian causes post football, including landmine charities.
Charlton’s presence in Singapore was a sign of respect to IOC members, and an almost irresistible commitment by the London bid committee to the best in sport.
A HUMAN PHOENIX
This was reflected in Charlton’s own story, which helped to build momentum and a vibe and buzz for London in the countdown to the Singapore vote.
Rising initially from humble beginnings and later like a human phoenix from the smouldering remains of a crashed passenger plane that killed many of his team mates, Charlton’s miracle-like comeback encompassed the broad spectrum of tragedy and triumph in sport and life like few others.
Recalling the impact of the deaths from that plane crash in his autobiography, Charlton observes: “Even now…it still reaches down and touches me every day. Sometimes I feel it quite lightly, a mere brush stroke against an otherwise happy mood.”
If so, Singapore was a happy time for Sir Bobby.
While former British Prime Minister Tony Blair described London’s unexpected win as “a momentous day,” Sir Bobby was equally elated, reacting to London’s selection almost like another World Cup victory.
“Happiness is a moment like this. It is just amazing. Everything was in place and right about the London bid, but you still wonder, and when the last name came out it blew my mind,” Sir Bobby said, erupting in joy shortly after the envelope with London imprinted inside was opened.
That happiness fluctuated over the years since as Sir Bobby continued to wrestle with tragedy of his lost team mates.
“Sometimes it engulfs me with a terrible regret, and sadness – and guilt that I walked away and found so much. The Munich air crash is always there, always a factor that can never be discounted,” Sir Bobby says in his autobiography, perhaps also reflecting the feelings of London and the UK in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that claimed 56 lives including the 4 suicide bombers just hours after the Games victory in Singapore.
LEGACY OF HOPE IN TROUBLED TIMES
Sir Bobby was the only member of England’s 1966 team in Singapore that day, just as Sir Geoff Hurst is now the singular survivor from that team.
Sir Bobby carried London’s Olympic Torch past his beloved Old Trafford in the countdown to the Games, with hundreds filling surrounding streets to cheer on the two icons – Sir Bobby and the torch.
Sir Bobby has now passed his torch on as a gift and beacon of hope, needed even more now on a deeply disturbed planet.
His life is a towering legacy of how sport can bring out the best in ourselves, our nations and our world.
Michael Pirrie was executive advisor to the London 2012 Olympic Games Committee and chairman, Seb Coe, and led the global media campaign for the UK Governments Olympic bid campaign committee.