Manchester United were first drawn against European champions Real Madrid in the 1957 European cup semi final. In the previous round United had seen off Spanish champions and Real’s great domestic rivals Athletic Bilbao. It was an epic clash, one which United clinched with a stunning 3-0 win in Manchester, after going down 5-3 in Bilbao. Suddenly all Europe sat up and took note of Manchester United and their incredible ‘Busby babes.’ No more so than in Madrid and their President Don Santiago Bernabeu, who suddenly realised that his footballing conjurors, wizards and magicians, recruited from all parts of the word for a king’s ransom had some serious competition.
It was in the mid afternoon of Thursday 11th April 1957, that Real Madrid and Manchester United first stepped out into the Chamartin (soon to be renamed Bernabeu) stadium to do battle. The arrival of the two teams was greeted by a huge magical shower of white roses thrown from the highest bastions of this magnificent arena. Flashbulbs glittered across the terrace like a million fireflies as the stadium exploded in a glorious deafening symphony of rockets and cheering. A huge posse of Photographers scuttled like ants across the turf as both sides posed for their team photos. It was to be an afternoon they would talk about in Madrid for generations to come.
Led by their great Argentine playmaker Alfredo Di Stefano, the ‘Blond Arrow’ Madrid won a scintillating contests 3-1. For an hour it was all Real as Di Stefano led his Madrilenos in an all out assault against Busby’s young team. Under constant pressure it could not last and finally Francisco Gento, the man nicknamed ‘El Motorcycle’ by United defender Bill Foulkes careered down the wing and crossed for Argentine hitman Hector Rial to flash a header past keeper Ray Wood. Then, as Sir Matt Busby most memorably remarked. ‘The walls came tumbling down,’ as Di Stefano sensed blood and went for a swift kill.
Minutes later it was 2-0 as the ‘Blond Arrow’ broke clear to loft a superb shot over Woods and double Real’s lead. The Chamartin was on fire and it appeared a rout was on the cards. But United rallied and in the last thirty minutes played in a manner more associated with the devil on their on their shirt. Eight minutes from time Tommy Taylor converted from a Liam Whelan cross and it was game and tie on. 2-1. With the referee looking at his watch United continued to carry the fight forward in search of an equalizer. Only to be caught right at the last. The impetuous of youth saw them cruelly punished when the Madrid striker Mateos crashed a dramatic third for the home team with literally seconds remaining.
Come full time the Real payers celebrated in the centre-circle like they had already won the European cup itself. It had been that sort of an occasion. The post match banquets proved also to be a memorable affair with President Bernabeu impressing Busby with his sheer class and generosity, to the extent every United player was handed as a gift a solid gold watch. For working class lads from Manchester this was an act beyond words. Different world, different class. This was Real Madrid in 1957.
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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