Michael and Sabrina Stapf moved into a house on the corner of Karotschstrasse and Emplstrasse in the sleepy Munich suburb of Trudering in 2005. It is on ground by the end of the old runway near the Munich-Riem Airport, 10 kilometres to the east of the city.
Munich’s newer airport, which opened in 1992, is out to the north. Only a small part of the runway remains at Riem, but the control tower is still there along with the terminal building.
The year before Michael and Sabrina began renting their home, a dark-grey granite memorial was unveiled on a triangle of grassy space by their house. In English and German, it reads: ‘In memory of all those who lost their lives here in the Munich air disaster on 6 February 1958’. It is similar to a bigger one at Old Trafford and beneath it is a small plaque expressing United’s gratitude to the municipality of Munich and its people. This was paid for by Manchester United and the unveiling was attended by David Gill, Sir Alex Ferguson and Sir Bobby Charlton, a survivor of the disaster.
After that, the occasional United fans would pop by, but it was low-key, just as it was around the memorials at Old Trafford. In the 1990s, there were often only around a dozen people outside the Munich clock on the Old Trafford forecourt on the February 6 anniversaries, while travelling to Munich was barely heard of. The Munich air disaster was not forgotten by United fans and rival fans occasionally distastefully sang about it in the 1980s and 90s, but it was not mourned as it is today.
On February 6, 2008, the 50th anniversary of the disaster, around 500 people attended the memorial in Munich, including Bayern Munich legend Karl-Heinz Rummenigge and all Bayern Munich’s junior players.
“The 2008, there was the first big event here — now it’s every year,” Sabrina tells The Athletic from her home. “And since they built the monument, people are coming every day. We have guests from all over the world. And since it has been called Manchesterplatz, it’s easier to find on the maps.”
The ‘monument’ is a glass case, which was set up in 2020 and details the disaster, with memorabilia.
“We now see fans every day,” says Michael, who wears a red t-shirt with the Munich clock on it, stuck at 3.04pm, the time of the crash. As he speaks hundreds of United fans gathered outside for the 66th anniversary sing: ‘There’s only one Bobby Charlton’.
“People come from all around the world. America, Australia, Italy. They are all fans of Manchester United and they come here. We like it.”
Two months after the 50th anniversary, Munich city council decided to name the grass triangle where the memorial stone is placed ‘Manchesterplatz’ (Manchester Square).
Smart phones made this newly-named, out-of-the-way pocket of land far easier to locate, while budget airlines provided cheap, direct, flights between Manchester and Munich.
Travel is cheapest out of season — like at the start of February — and Monday’s 6am Easyjet flight was packed with United fans, the airport bar busy at 0430.
“We can’t get tickets for away games, but we can come here and pay respects,” one fan, Martin, tells The Athletic. “I see more old-school Reds here than at games.”
Bayern Munich’s involvement has raised interest in the crash, manager Matt Busby and the Babes. On February 6 2015, Bayern unveiled a museum exhibit to the disaster in their club museum, with Rummenigge and Charlton again present.
There are other factors: Manchester United did not play a single game in Munich until 1998, but have played five (plus two friendlies) since. When United visit, the players go to the site too. Manchester City did not play in Europe for decades, but they sent a delegation including Brian Kidd, who has played for and coached at both clubs, to visit the site.
Manchester United let fans lead the way. The club have sent youth teams and former players — Mike Phelan was present this year, Bryan Robson last — and support whatever the fans want to do. The Manchester Munich Memorial Foundation (MMMF) is a registered charity which raises money to send disadvantaged young people from Manchester to Munich.
It provides financial support to two Munich-based charities as well as kids’ charities in Manchester and Belgrade, where the ill-fated flight took off from before refuelling in Munich. An adult and child receive a paid-for trip to Munich each year and lay wreaths.
“More people are finding out about the Busby Babes,” says Peter ‘Ifty’ Ahmed from the MMMF. “The new Jimmy Murphy statue at Old Trafford has also helped because kids walk past and ask who he is.”
A group called the Red Docs — they were founded by doctors in Munich — help keep the site and displays in good order.
“We take care of the Manchesterplatz and help build the showcase and we keep up the memories of the Busby Babes,” says Mark Salzmann from the Red Docs. “We think it’s important to keep in contacts with our friends from Manchester.”
This is a world away from Anglo-German hostility after the two world wars and the disgusting chants of “Ten German bombers…and the RAF from England shot them down” around England games.
As Rummenigge said when he spoke at the Manchesterplatz on the 60th anniversary, when almost 2,000 fans travelled. “We all know that relations between England and Germany were not at their best at the time of the crash,” he said. “But I have the impression that in the darkest of days for Manchester United, the selfless support and sympathy offered by Munich, in particularly the German doctors at the hospital, the residents and FC Bayern Munich, made an important social political and contribution to restore those relations.”
Those relations continue. United fans have firm friends in Munich. The bars, the florists, the restaurants, they all appreciate the business. Some locals watch on bewildered as fans parade United flags around the Marienplatz, others learn of the disaster for the first time.
In the Augustiner beer hall, fans sang songs in honour of the Busby Babes. Groups of Spanish and German teenagers watched and…then start singing United songs. And the red travellers have long met locals, even those with a connection to the crash. Nurse Weber, 86, sat on the new bench paid for by United fans, explaining how she had helped tend to the injured players after the crash. She even smiled as she said: “I remember those English boys (in the hospital), they complained about our German tea.” Over the years, fans have met firefighters who were among the first on the scene.
The fan-led services are not polished and nor should they be. Words are spoken and sung with passion and emotion from hardcore United fans. There is a strong Mancunian following among the travellers, but The Athletic spoke to fans from Malta and the 25 travelling members of United’s 65-year-old supporters’ club who were formed a year after the disaster.
From Norway and Austria and a father and son from Wilmington, North Carolina who travelled across the Atlantic to be in Munich. They were all at the Manchesterplatz, others also attended the grave of Franz Beckenbauer, the German great who died in January, with Franz Roth, Bayern’s three-time European Cup-winning midfielder.
Munich has more visible reminders of the disaster than ever. For decades, the only memorial was a wooden one which features a stone figure of Jesus on a wooden cross. There is a trough beneath, which is usually full of flowers. It is decorated with the German inscription, which translates to: “In memory of the victims of the air disaster of 6.2.1958 including members of the football team of Manchester United as well as all the traffic victims from the municipality of Trudering.”
On Tuesday, Sabrina and Michael were happy to let a giant flag from their house. One large red, white and black tricolour read: “Danke schon Munchen” and featured two shaking hands from the Bayern Munich and Manchester United badges. Another featured a silhouette of Roger Byrne, the captain of the Babes. Around 600 people saw them as speeches were made and beautiful wreaths of red, white and black roses were laid in the unseasonal sunshine.
These public displays of mourning are not for everyone but the Munich air disaster is central to United’s history and fans are keeping their memory alive and doing good deeds along the way.
The Busby Babes’ reputations are even stronger in death than in life and as the number of fans who remembers them and fell in love with them fades, younger ones learn the legacy.
“I’ve thought about coming for such a long time,” explains Sue from Salford as the fans begin to clear the site. “This place is such a big part of our history and I said to Margaret, who I’m travelling with, that we should come and pay our respects, especially after Sir Bobby passed. That hit us hard.”
Margaret is 79 and from Salford. “I loved Duncan Edwards,” she explains. “I’d sit at the front of the terrace and watch him and nobody else. We heard the news at school. Everyone was crying. They said the United plane had crashed. I thought Duncan, my little love, was going to make it. But he didn’t. I loved Duncan.”
(Top image: The fans at Manchesterplatz in Munich. Photo: Manchester United/Manchester United via Getty Images)