In modern times, the relationship between Manchester United and Real Madrid has been worse than ever with the emergence of Florentino Perez as the president of Los Blancos. Perez, in his attempts to build a team of Galácticos, has often looked to Manchester for signings, most notably David Beckham, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Cristiano Ronaldo, three men often considered to be among the best players to grace the pitch at Old Trafford.
United fans quickly became aggrieved at the fact that they were losing their best players to the Spanish capital, with Sir Alex Ferguson even remarking that Real were a ‘mob’ to whom he would not sell ‘a virus’, in reference to their pursuit of Ronaldo back in 2008.
The latest saga in this relationship took place last summer, as Real engaged in an aggressive pursuit of David de Gea, United’s world-class goalkeeper, making the Spaniard their number one transfer target. It all fell apart on transfer deadline day when Real failed to submit the documents necessary to seal the transfer on time. De Gea subsequently signed a new contract to remain at Old Trafford, while the two clubs traded press releases, both blaming each other for the collapse of the transfer.
It’s hard to visualise Manchester United and Real Madrid having a relationship bordering on mutual respect, but once upon a time, the relationship was such, with Los Blancos helping out United during their darkest hour, as outlined in John Ludden’s fantastic book, A Tale of Two Cities: Manchester & Madrid 1957-1968.
The relationship was symbolised by the friendship between the old Real president Santiago Bernabeu and Sir Matt Busby over 50 years ago. It grew out of the famous European Cup semi-final in 1957, which Real triumphed 5-3 on aggregate but were held to a riveting 2-2 draw in the second leg at the Theatre of Dreams.
Bernabeu was said to have been so impressed by the spirit of the Busby Babes on that night in April that he offered Busby the Real job. “If you come to Spain I will make it heaven on earth for you. You will have untold riches you can only dream of,” he reportedly said. However, Bernabeu’s offer was rebuffed, with Sir Matt simply saying, “Manchester is my heaven.”
Ten months after that historic semi-final, the Busby Babes would be devastated by tragedy. An air crash in Munich, 58 years today, took the lives of eight players, three staff and 10 others. Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan all perished in the crash. The side had just won a hard-fought European Cup quarter-final in Belgrade, but Busby’s dreams of conquering Europe were up in smoke.
With Busby in no fit state to manage after being seriously injured in the Munich disaster, his trusted assistant Jimmy Murphy took charge of the side for the rest of that season. He took them to the 1958 FA Cup final, where they fell to defeat against Bolton Wanderers while they would also lose to AC Milan in their European Cup semi-final, three months after the disaster.
Milan would go on to be defeated by Real 3-2 in the final, and Bernabeu dedicated the victory to the Babes who had perished in Munich, even offering up the trophy to United. The club were overwhelmed by the gesture, but they politely refused – they wanted to win on their own two feet.
While that was a symbolic gesture, Real also offered up the services of the world’s finest footballer at the time – Alfredo Di Stefano. The ‘Blond Arrow’ would go on loan to Old Trafford for the 1958-59 season, with United paying half his wages and Real the other half. The Argentine was willing to move to Manchester for a season, but the Football Association reportedly vetoed the move on the grounds that it would be taking the place of a potential British player – reasoning that would surely called out as ludicrous if the move took place in this day and age.
Despite this, Real continued to help out United in other ways, creating a special memorial pennant with the names of the Munich dead inscribed on it called the ‘Champions of Honour’. The pennant was sold off and the proceeds were sent to Manchester. On top of that, in that same summer, Real contacted United offering free holidays in Spain to those who had survived the Munich disaster as well as those who lost loved ones in Germany, with all expenses paid.
Most importantly, a series of friendly matches between the two clubs were arranged. The disaster had not only destroyed United in a human and sporting sense, it also destroyed United in a financial sense. Bernabeu normally charged £12,000 for clubs to play Los Blancos, but it was waived in this instance, with Bernabeu telling United to ‘pay us [Real] what you can afford’.
These game were not just charity fund-raisers though. With United out of Europe for the foreseeable future and severely weakened by the Munich disaster, Busby realised that it was vital for United to retain the experience of playing against the world’s best sides. He needed these games in order for the fans to continue to dream of European glory, as well as giving the players at his disposal an indication of the level they needed to be at if they wanted to get back into European competition.
In October 1959, the first of the friendlies was played at Old Trafford in front of 63,000 fans, with Real giving United a dose of reality with a 6-1 thrashing. The likes of Di Stefano, Ferenc Puskás and Francisco Gento dazzled the Theatre of Dreams with a devastating attacking performance, with the United players staying behind to applaud the Real side off the pitch at full-time.
Six weeks on from that walloping, Real won the re-match in dramatic fashion, edging out United 6-5 after falling two goals behind in the opening 15 minutes. 80,000 fans at the Bernabeu applauded both teams off and in the fund-raising banquet held after the match, the Real president once again showed his respect for Sir Matt. “Matt Busby is not only the bravest, but the greatest man I have ever met in football,” he said.
For the third friendly, which took place in October 1960, Puskás and Di Stefano were injury doubts for Real. Bernabeu rang Busby up, asking if he would like to postpone the friendly due to the fact that two of the main attractions may not have been able to play. Busby insisted that they come without the pair, saying, “Real Madrid had become like family and whether bearing their most fabulous gifts or not Manchester was eagerly anticipating their visit.”
Puskás and Di Stefano were so astonished by Sir Matt’s words that they showed up and played through their niggles, helping to produce another classic encounter between the clubs as Real triumphed 3-2 at Old Trafford. United may have lost, but Busby sensed that his side were coming back to life.
United were slowly but surely making their way back into being the side feared by Europe before the Munich disaster and at the fourth time of asking, United finally beat Real in December 1961. The 3-1 scoreline sent Old Trafford into wild celebration, and it was a special moment for both Busby and Murphy, who had failed to beat Los Blancos before and after the Munich disaster, as well as for all associated with Manchester United.
The following September, United travelled to the Bernabeu and repeated the trick, beating Real 2-0 with the masterful performance of Denis Law key to the victory. Real were on the decline, and with Puskás and Di Stefano now well on the wrong side of 30, United were as close to Real on the pitch as they were before the Munich disaster, all the while developing a close bond off the pitch.
This would be the last time that the two sides would meet in a friendly encounter. United went on to win the FA Cup in that 1962-63 season, their first trophy since Munich, and the old First Division title would be theirs in 1965. Busby had rebuilt the side, with the talents of Bobby Charlton, Denis Law and George Best driving them towards bigger and better things.
And Busby’s journey in rebuilding United would culminate in 1968. But in order to grasp the European Cup that so eluded him, United had to first get past Real in the semi-final, as fate would have it. This Real side was different to the one that was built around Puskás and Di Stefano – the pair had retired – and it was a more pragmatic one designed to strangle the flair and creativity of United’s Holy Trinity. They aimed to frustrate United at Old Trafford in the first leg before letting the leash loose in the fiery cauldron of the Bernabeu in the return leg.
Best would decide the first leg at the Theatre of Dreams – a snapshot past Real keeper Antonio Betancourt ensured that United would take a slender lead to Madrid for the second leg. It was by no means a great result, and Busby’s side would have to produce the performance of their lives to reach the final at Wembley.
125,000 supporters packed the Bernabeu, urging Real on. Pirri and Gento would overturn the deficit from the first leg, but a frenetic period before half-time saw the pendulum swing both ways. A hopeful long ball from defender Tony Dunne somehow produced a goal for United, as Real defender Ignacio Zoco contrived to slice the ball into his net. The aggregate score was level again.
However, just moments after the goal, Real poured forward and star striker Amancio once again put Los Blancos ahead with a magnificent strike past Alex Stepney in the United goal. United were on the ropes and their European dreams were once again slipping away, just as it seemed that lady luck was on their side.
However, United came out of the tunnel a different side, and with the spirit that the club continues to be renowned for today, they clawed their way back into the game. Paddy Crerand’s lofted ball into the Real box found Best, who flicked it onto the far post. David Sadler, nominally a central defender, rushed into the area and forced the ball home, once again levelling the score on aggregate.
And it would be United that sealed their place in the final. With thirteen minutes left, Best found himself with the ball on the right-hand touchline. He twisted and turned both Zoco and Manuel Sanchis, before delivering a cut-back into the path of 36-year-old Bill Foulkes.
Centre-half Foulkes, who had survived the Munich disaster, was the last man that Best would have expected to be in the area, but he kept his cool and side-footed the ball past Betancourt, in the process scoring the most important goal in the history of Manchester United at that moment in time. He was immediately buried amongst the red shirts celebrating but was determined to get back in position as there was still time for Real to turn the tide once again.
But Los Blancos had been broken by the spirit shown by United, and they would not be able to muster another goal. As the full-time whistle sounded, hundreds of delighted supporters invaded the pitch to celebrate with their heroes. The Madrid police would not stop them, stunned by the scenes. Emotions flowed as players fell to the turf. Busby’s smile was as wide as it had ever been – he knew he was close to his crowning achievement. As for Real, the defeat was significant. It would be 31 years before they would get anywhere near the European Cup again.
Up in the presidential box, Bernabeu applauded United’s efforts. Although he was disappointed with Real’s defeat, he would later admit, “If it had to be anyone, then I am glad it was them.”
The rest is history, with United going on to beat Benfica 4-1 after extra time in a memorable final at Wembley. Busby’s side became the first English side to win the European Cup, and to do it ten years after the Munich disaster was an incredible achievement. The iconic images of Busby embracing a tearful Bobby Charlton after the game will go in history as one of the defining moments in the history of Manchester United – the end of a chapter of hurt, rebuilding and ultimately glory.
In the celebrations that followed United’s triumph, one of the first telegrams congratulating Busby and the club on finally winning the fabled European Cup came from an old amigo. It was sent from Madrid. “To a wonderful football man and club. Real Madrid toast your great success. Don Santiago Bernabeu.”
So, despite all the bitterness that exists between the two clubs today, both sets of fans would do well to remember that once upon a time, they had the tightest of bonds. Perhaps without the support of the institution that is Real Madrid, Manchester United as it is today may not exist. These two clubs will always have a special bond, no matter the circumstances.