Why Manchester United and Real Madrid have an Unbreakable Bond

We all know about the tragedy of the Munich Air Disaster. The difficulties Manchester United faced after this and their European glory just 10 years later.

But how did the club recover after such disarray and emotional ruin?

Geoff Bent, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Duncan Edwards, Mark Jones, David Pegg, Tommy Taylor and Liam Whelan, all lost their lives in the crash. And this was just the players.

23 people died.

The club was in turmoil.

But one team in particular, was integral to the survival of Manchester United Football Club.

This is the story of how Real Madrid and their president, selflessly aided the club and created an unbreakable bond.

The Relationship between Santiago Bernabeu and Sir Matt Busby

Sir Matt Busby managed United and Santiago Bernabeu was president of Madrid.

It all started in 1956/57 when United became the first English team to play in the European Cup.

This came with little support from the Football Association (FA) who had prevented Chelsea from competing the season prior.

United immediately impressed, winning 12-0 on aggregate against Anderlecht to secure entry into the ‘first round’. This was the equivalent of the Round of 16 now.

The Red Devils were drawn against German side Borussia Dortmund, progressing 3-2 on aggregate.

A two-legged 6-5 win against Athletic Bilbao, then saw United matched against champions Real Madrid.

The kings of Europe won 5-3 on aggregate.

Busby’s team were no match for the star-studded Madrid side, led by the brilliance of Alfredo Di Stefano and Francisco Gento. (Gento was the only player to win six European Cups until Luka Modric and Dani Carvajal achieved this feat).

How best to describe Di Stefano than to use Sir Bobby Charlton’s words.

He said: “It was as though he had set up his own command centre at the heart of the game.

“He was as strong as he was subtle. You just could not keep your eyes off him.”

Despite the tremendous competition, ‘The Busby Babes’ impressed Bernabeu.

He liked the attacking approach and was full of admiration for United and Busby.

So much so that Bernabeu ’begged’ the United manager to join Madrid.

He said: “Leave Manchester for Madrid and I will give you a paradise.”

In response, Busby said: “My heaven is in Manchester.”

There was huge respect between the two and this friendship would change the future of football forever…

Bernabeu’s Kindness

In 1958, the Munich Air Disaster left United in financial ruin.

Subsequently, Busby looked for ways to help save the club from bankruptcy.

With Real Madrid the kings of Europe, Busby travelled to Spain in a plea for help.

He asked Bernabeu for a friendly match to be played between United and Madrid, knowing this would generate huge ticket sales and media interest.

After negotiation, Bernabeu accepted, with four extra games to be played as well.

Typically, Madrid would charge £12,000 for a friendly, but in kindness, Bernabeu accepted just half.

He said to his board of directors: “We must treat Matt and Manchester United generously.”

Madrid also offered survivors of the crash, free holidays in Spain and ran a fundraising banquet for the families of the victims in Munich.

Bernabeu dedicated Madrid’s 1958 European Cup victory to United and even offered the trophy to the club.

This was politely declined.

But their kindness didn’t end there.

Bernabeu offered Di Stefano (arguably their best player) to United on a short-term loan to help the club.

Both clubs agreed but the FA blocked the move as they felt it would hinder the progress of a British player.

Di Stefano himself was affected by the disaster.

He said: “My heart was filled with sadness. I felt I had lost many, many friends. But I was more sorry for the game of football… for this Manchester United team was magnificence itself. It contained some of the world’s greatest players.”

The Five Friendlies

The First Friendly

October 1959.

A 63,000 crowd and a guard of honour awaited Madrid, as they faced United in the first friendly at Old Trafford.

A huge applause was given to the Spanish side.

Crucially, this game was televised, which helped generate additional revenue for United.

Despite the warm welcome, Madrid was ruthless in a 6-1 drubbing, just exemplifying the gap between the sides.

Busby had fielded a young team, hopeful that they could be the next generation of ‘Babes’ after Munich, but the difference was just too big at this time.

The Second Friendly

A month later, United flew to Spain to face Madrid again.

After the previous thrashing at Old Trafford, the same was expected in Spain.

In a beautiful gesture, outside the stadium, Madrid was selling a special pennant with the names of those who were lost in Munich, with the title, “Champions of Honour” on it.

Any sales were being donated to United.

The second game was nothing like the first. It was an 11-goal thriller with Madrid just triumphing 6-5.

Despite the loss, Busby’s side received huge praise for their performance.

The Daily Sketch said: “United’s supermen nearly beat Real!”

Di Stefano was full of praise for United’s performance as well.

He said: “In many, many ways they were the better team. Certainly they gave us the biggest fright we’ve had for many, many home matches. The inside forwards, Quixall, Viollet, Charlton attacked our defence that day like men with sabres. They cut us to pieces. The young left-half [Wilf] McGuinness is a wonderful prospect too… with players like these and with Matt Busby to inspire them all, Manchester United must be strong again before long.”

The Third Friendly

A year later the third friendly was played.

Madrid had won the European Cup again, just months prior, in fine fashion beating Eintracht Frankfurt 7-3 in the final.

United were near the bottom of the league with two wins in 10.

But this game still drew huge attention, with ITV giving the game a bigger build-up, despite little live football shown on television at this point.

They only televised the second half though.

United lost 3-2 but were once again praised for their performance.

The Daily Mail said: “United are beaten by Madrid, but share the glory.”

A 17-year-old Nobby Stiles featured that night, making just his second senior appearance for United.

The Fourth Friendly

This was played on the 13th of December 1961.

United sat second from bottom in the league, so a win wasn’t expected.

But Busby’s men defied the odds, in an extraordinary 3-1 victory.

This gave United a huge boost in confidence helping them rise up to mid-table by the end of the season.

The Fifth Friendly

The final friendly was on the 19th of September 1962, in front of 80,000 fans at the Bernabeu stadium.

United were victorious again in a 2-0 win.

Newly signed Denis Law (later to become ‘The King of the Stretford End’) was a terror to Madrid’s defence.

United received a huge standing ovation.

This was the first time an English side had beaten Madrid at home.

The last two games against Madrid were an illustration of how far United had come and how much they had to thank their Spanish friends for the help.

1968 European Cup

If you thought the story ended there, it didn’t.

In 1968, United faced Madrid in the European Cup semi-finals.

At a dinner to celebrate Madrid winning the La Liga title, Bernabeu said: “I want Manchester United greeted and treated and respected as the greatest club in the world.  As our friends for many years, nothing must go wrong.  If we are beaten in the European Cup by Manchester United on Wednesday then we shall have lost to a great team.  We have met them on many occasions and it’s about time their luck changed.“

Following United’s victory against Madrid, Bernabeu said: “If it had to be anyone, then I am glad it was them.”

Ultimately, if it wasn’t for Santiago Bernabeu, Manchester United might not have been the club it is today. His generosity helped provide United vital funds to stay afloat when in their greatest time of need.

Therefore, although the relationship isn’t as strong as it once was, United and Madrid will always have that unbreakable bond.