Fifa World Cup: David de Gea can escape his Spain pain at Manchester United rather than Real Madrid
De Gea feels he gets a rough ride from Spanish media, but the goalkeeper is loved and respected at Old Trafford
If anyone benefits from David de Gea’s recent mistakes for Spain, it will be Manchester United.
De Gea, United’s player of the year for the fourth time in five seasons last term, is almost faultless for his club.
He’s so good that United fans worry about losing him to Real Madrid, where he’s continually linked with a move. The attractions are obvious – it’s Real Madrid, they play in his home city and De Gea could be the proud possessor of three Champions League winner’s medals had he joined Madrid as he hoped to do in 2015.
Three years on and he’s still a United player, where he’s loved by fans who sing “Everywhere you go, always take De Gea with you” to the Crowded House song.
He’s still appreciative of the support he received during a difficult first seven months in England. He’s happy being a United player, if not with the lack of trophies for a team that punches below the sum of its parts.
The English giants have no interest in selling the 27-year-old, and no financial pressure to do so. They can pay him more than any club in the world and hope to tie him to an even longer, more lucrative, contract than his current one which runs until 2020, but Madrid are always there in the background, the silent mistress. More De Gea mistakes for Spain and they’re likely to flutter their eyelashes elsewhere.
Feelings are different about De Gea in Spain, where he feels he gets a rough ride from the Spanish media. He has a point – following Iker Casillas, long-time captain of Spain and Real Madrid and the man considered Spain’s greatest ever goalkeeper, was like following Alex Ferguson as Manchester United manager. Casillas was a hero for club and country, the King of Spain without the title. He was popular with players, fans and journalists.
Anyone who replaced him had to be perfect with spades of charisma to boot. De Gea is one of the best three goalkeepers in the world, but Spain doesn’t see that every week as he doesn’t play in Spain. Instead, he plays in England for a team which doesn’t compete for football’s biggest trophies and, unlike his United teammates Juan Mata and Ander Herrera, he says almost nothing of note in interviews.
Casillas, no stranger to the odd mistake himself, played for Madrid and had large swathes of the Madrid media supporting him. De Gea does not.
De Gea lets his performances do the talking. He leads a quiet life and he’s exceptionally good at his job.
In Spain, there are Madrid fans who can’t get their head around why he wouldn’t want to join their club, which they consider to be the biggest in the world.
They don’t appreciate just how big United are globally – even though United had far more fans in a vast 109,000 crowd when the clubs met preseason in Michigan in 2014. But when they read the Spanish media the day after the match, the images of the crowd were distorted so that it made it look like there were more Madrid fans present. Madrid are used to getting their way, but not with De Gea.
De Gea has other factors against him. Pedro Sanchez, a politician, criticised him two years ago after unfounded allegations of a sexual assault broke on the eve of Euro 2016. Sanchez later apologised to De Gea in private but it irks De Gea that he has yet to do so in public. Sanchez recently became the prime minister of Spain and De Gea was the only Spain player who refused to applaud him when he met the international squad.
De Gea barely speaks to the media in England either and even then only in Spanish, but there’s far more pressure on him to be more candid in Spain.
“Rather today than in Russia”, is what De Gea said after an error in a friendly against Switzerland two weeks ago. Ivan Perisic’s goal for Croatia in Euro 2016 didn’t show De Gea in the best light and he also made an error for Spain against Argentina in March, then he made another uncharacteristic blunder for the second goal in Russia during Friday’s epic 3-3 draw against Portugal.
“I haven’t killed anyone,” said the former Atletico Madrid goalkeeper after the match. True, but most players are wise enough not to look at social media after a game where a sense of perspective is often sadly missing.
Yet, when a team which won the World Cup in 2010 by conceding two goals in the whole tournament concedes three in its first game, widespread scrutiny and condemnation is inevitable.
In Spain, his short, fast passing out from the back is criticised. His authority, too – specifically when organising walls. Alfredo Relano, a leading journalist, said of De Gea’s place for Spain: “He’s not meriting his spot.”
De Gea expects to start in Spain’s second game against Iran in Kazan on Wednesday night.
Another howler and the calls will intensify for new Spain boss Fernando Hierro to play Athletic Bilbao’s Kepa or Pepe Reina, the two second string goalkeepers in Spain’s squad.
De Gea has the talent and confidence to pull through. He deals with pressure exceptionally well, but if the criticism becomes unfair and personal, he can always return not to Madrid, but to the place where he’s loved and respected, the place he’s called home for seven years: Manchester.