Real Madrid are the 'mafia' – Sir Alex Ferguson's love-hate relationship with the Spanish giants

The Manchester United manager vented his anger on the Liga champions over the club’s persistent pursuit of Cristiano Ronaldo. Relations these days, however, are somewhat smoother

By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer

He called them a “mob”, a “mafia”, said he “wouldn’t sell them a virus”, let alone Cristiano Ronaldo, and even taunted them with a mention of their association with Spain’s fascist dictator General Franco. Sir Alex Ferguson’s love-hate relationship with Real Madrid was at an all-time low.

For a period between 2008 and 2009, the Manchester United manager despised the Spanish side, angered and annoyed by the club’s persistent pursuit of Ronaldo and strong stance over a possible transfer. On several occasions, an agreement was announced via the press in Spain as then Madrid president Ramon Calderon launched a media campaign to help him seal the signing of the 2008 Ballon d’Or winner – a player he had pledged to bring in as an ambitious election promise in 2006.

Los Blancos knew Ronaldo had admired their club from a young age and had dreamed of moving to the Santiago Bernabeu, but the more Madrid pushed, the more Ferguson resisted. The bitter battle became a wretched war and the Scot spoke sternly about the Spanish champions. Never one to mince his words, his ire was directed at Madrid in a way he had never previously attacked another club. This was serious stuff.

But it had not always been like this. Indeed, Ferguson’s first encounter with the Liga side had left him in awe; as an 18-year-old striker still making his way as a promising prospect at St. Johnstone, a starstruck young Alex was one of 135,000 souls packed into Scotland’s national stadium for ‘Hampden’s greatest game’, Madrid’s sensational 7-3 win over Eintracht Frankfurt in the 1960 European Cup Final.

May 24, 2008
“You get used to this, Madrid’s behaviour on these things. I read about Calderon making the great statement that slavery was abolished many, many years ago. Well, did they tell Franco that? Jesus Christ! Eh, give me a break … Great clubs, clubs with great morals like Barcelona, have far better morals than Real Madrid will ever have.”
June 1, 2008
“I’ve had a couple of meetings with the Glazers. Their attitude is, ‘to hell with them’. They’d sit a player in the stand, I’m telling you, absolutely no doubt about it, just to prove a point. Not to give in to these people. They’ve got balls, I can tell you. I’ve been delighted with them in that respect.”
Dec 18, 2008
“You don’t think we’d get into a contract with that mob, do you? Jesus Christ. I wouldn’t sell them a virus.”
May 16, 2009
“After Barcelona battered Real Madrid 6-2 our players were telling Cristiano that, if he goes to the Bernabeu, he’ll have to play centre-half.”

Years later, Ferguson would wistfully wonder at the might of that magnificent Madrid, led by the astonishing Alfredo Di Stefano, and the Scot’s arrival as coach on the international scene saw him outwit the Argentine’s Madrid outfit with unfancied Aberdeen in the 1983 European Cup Winners’ Cup Final.

In 2000, then defending champions, his Manchester United side lost out to Vicente del Bosque’s Madrid in an epic quarter-final tie which will be remembered for Fernando Redondo’s beautiful back-heel in the 3-2 win for the Spanish side at Old Trafford. Before those matches, the Scot spoke glowingly of Real, recalling the 1960 side and hailing them as the most glamorous club in Europe. “People talk about Juventus, Internazionale, AC Milan and Barcelona, he said. “But for me, Real Madrid are the biggest of them all.”

Some of that nostalgia now appears to have returned after Ferguson claimed on Tuesday that Madrid and United are the world’s two biggest clubs. In the end, Ferguson knew he could not stand in the way of Ronaldo’s Blancos dream, while the Scot is also on excellent terms with Real coach Jose Mourinho, a man he has consistently praised, described as his possible successor at Old Trafford and with whom he is likely to share a glass of wine or two when the sides meet in Manchester. But it is not only the Portuguese pair who have helped to heal the relationship between these two iconic clubs. When he returned to the Madrid presidency after Calderon was forced to resign for a vote-rigging scandal in early 2009, Florentino Perez told reporters: “If I had to choose between friendship with Manchester United or signing Cristiano Ronaldo, I would prefer the former.”

The construction magnate got both, but repaired relations with United and AC Milan, similarly sore from Madrid’s quest to sign Kaka. Agreements had been in place to sign the two players under Calderon, but the former president’s arrogant attitude scuppered deals and Florentino’s charm offensive helped Madrid get their men in the summer of 2009.

“Ferguson’s stance has softened now because he has great relationships with both Cristiano Ronaldo and Jose Mourinho”

Greg Stobart, UK correspondent

“It is worth bearing in mind that Ferguson is a big historian and has deep socialist roots – hence his comments about Franco in the past,” explains UK correspondent Greg Stobart.

“He also felt Real Madrid signed Gabriel Heinze as a stalking horse for Ronaldo. They were great mates at United – on a couple of occasions Cristiano ran to the United bench to celebrate with Heinze.

“His stance has softened now and he’s being very complimentary about Real Madrid because he has great relationships with Mourinho and Ronaldo. Really, however, he finds what Real Madrid stand for rather distasteful despite the mutual love-in about the great traditions of the two clubs.”

As a staunch socialist, the Scot is unlikely to identify with Real’s right-wing traditions, yet Mourinho, Ronaldo and Perez have helped smooth over and rebuild a relationship which appeared broken beyond repair. And in purely football terms, Ferguson’s admiration for the great Madrid sides of the past will continue to live long in the memory. Just don’t ask him about Ramon Calderon.

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