Real Madrid were incredibly generous to Manchester United in the aftermath of the Munich Air Disaster and I think the reason for that basically came down to the relationship that had formed between President Bernabeu and Sir Matt Busby. Both men were kindred spirits. Each liked to play wonderful attacking football, the difference being Busby and his assistant Jimmy Murphy tended to develop their own players, whilst Bernabeu simply scoured the planet and bought home the best talent around. Di Stefano, Puskas, Santamaria. Bernabeu’s and Real’s cheque book knew no limits. Even after achieving what some claim is the greatest club performance of all time in the 1960 European cup final. When Real thrashed Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3, they attempted an audacious swoop to land Pele from Santos. Only the intervention of the Brazilian government prevented this happening. They were not prepared to lose their most precious jewel overseas for no amount of Spanish gold.
Whilst also at first Bernabeu’s generosity before the crash was to keep an eye on United. For he knew if the calibre of players such as Duncan Edwards, Eddie Colman, Liam Whelan and Bobby Charlton kept developing at such a rate, Real Madrid would have serious competition in the coming years of the European cup. Post-Munich Bernabeu shown his true colours and Real Madrid acted with great kindness in lending United a helping hand when they were all but down and out and on their knees. The air disaster left the Old Trafford club not only devastated in terms of human loss, financially also they were close to meltdown. Under-insured from the crash and a future uncertain meant there was no guarantees United would survive beyond 1958. Never mind go on to become the phenomenon they are today.
President Bernabeu acted fast.
Firstly he spoke with his greatest player Alfredo Di Stefano and asked if he would consider being loaned to United until the end of season. With Madrid and United each paying half his wages. Di Stefano, to his eternal credit agreed and it was only the unwanted and crass intervention of the English FA refusing to sanction this move that it never happened. They claimed the ‘Blond Arrow’ would take the place of a British player? I ask you. Madness.
Bernabeu also issued a pendant that went on sale in Madrid with the names of the lost United players inscribed upon it. All sales were sent directly over to Manchester and to the grieving families. He also arranged that same summer, paid holidays in Spain for the bereaved and opened up Real Madrid’s lavish facilities for those rehabilitating. These included Sir Matt Busby who one evening whilst having dinner with Bernabeu came up with the idea of the friendly matches. At first Busby was wary of approaching the Real president because Madrid charged £12,000 a game. However he need not have worried for when the subject arose Bernabeu simply stated. ‘Simply pay us what you can afford.’
So they began. A series of five games over the coming seasons that enthralled and brought much needed cash into the United coffers. The contest if ‘friendlies’ in name were all keenly fought affair with both sides going all out to win. The first took place at Old Trafford in November 1959 at Old Trafford. 63,000 watched on astonished and with a little sadness as these white shirts, dazzling under the hazy floodlights ripped United apart. A 6-1 scoreline hardly doing justice to a Madrid performance sublime beyond words. Ferenc Puskas, Francisco Gento and above all Alfredo Di Stefano indulging themselves in a goal fest. The ‘Blond Arrow’ scoring that night with a remarkable back flick volley from a corner! For United supporters there were bitter and tragic memories as those chosen in red to carry on the fight in the absence of the fallen babes were simply swept away. Men against boys. For now United were light years behind the men from Madrid.
One last example of the goodwill between the teams occurred in the next friendly played at the Bernabeu. At 3-3 in a magnificent contest, United were playing out of their skin and giving Real a proper match. Then, on the hour Madrid were handed a clearly unfair penalty. The red shirts pleaded and raged with the referee to change his mind but the French official Monsieur Barberan was not for turning. Up stepped Di Stefano to take the penalty. For once he looked uncertain; the Argentine appeared to say something to the United players before smashing the ball high over the crossbar. Then he gestured an apology to the crowd. There was class and then there was Di Stefano.
For more on the history between United and Real Madrid, read John Ludden’s excellent book: Tale of Two Cities: Manchester & Madrid 1957-1968
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