David De Gea was guilty of a rare howler in Spain’s 3-3 draw against Portugal in their opening World Cup game on Friday night.
Social media was awash with rival supporters laughing at the goalkeeper, the best in the world for his position, with some suggesting that United fans had become quiet. The reality is the opposite was true. While they love De Gea and want to see their players do well for their national teams, the goalkeeper’s mistake gave United supporters reason to celebrate. Anything that stops Real Madrid from pushing forward their interest is fine by United fans.
The 20-times champions of England have endured a difficult few years since the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson. They may have had a few cups to enjoy but have failed to mount a title challenge since last winning the league in 2013. Thankfully, United have had De Gea to save them, with him proving far and away their most important player. He’s been named the Sir Matt Busby player of the year four times, more than anyone since the award was introduced 30 years ago. When you consider that the club has fallen short of the fans’ expectations over the past five years, it’s worth reflecting on how much worse it could have been without De Gea in the team.
Yet they feel like they are on borrowed time with the goalkeeper, who was minutes away from leaving the club for Real Madrid in the summer of 2015. The Spanish club had been admirers for some time, but left their approach until the final day of the transfer window to put United under pressure. If the club didn’t sell him then, they would have likely lost him on a free transfer the following year. With the deal not completed in time, De Gea not only stayed, but committed to a long-term contract at United, much to the relief of supporters.
However, with just two years remaining on that deal, Real Madrid have begun sniffing around him again. The news that Julen Lopetegui was set to be their next manager was awful, knowing he would have all summer to convince De Gea of a move to the Bernabeu. Thankfully the manager’s dismissal with Spain denies him that opportunity, but that’s not to say the Lopetegui, who was manager of De Gea’s Spanish under-21 team that won the European Championship in 2013, won’t be in touch after the World Cup to let his interest known.
Still, every error that De Gea makes this summer will be greeted warmly by supporters back in Manchester. Friday night’s mistake was his third in the past four games for the national team. It’s hard to recall three mistakes De Gea made all season for United and certainly none as glaring as the one with Cristiano Ronaldo’s shot.
Maybe this is why De Gea has been so content at United over the past few years, with him spending the peak of his career at Old Trafford instead of winning Champions League titles with Real Madrid. That’s not to say he can’t cope with pressure, because it’s well documented how much abuse he had to overcome following his debut season at United to stake his claim for the best in the world. But he is roundly adored and supported in Manchester, and that isn’t the case in Spain, and certainly wouldn’t be at the Bernabeu.
Despite being regularly linked with a return to his homeland, the 27-year-old doesn’t believe he is appreciated as much there.
“In England, I have a great affection and respect that I do not notice so much here,”De Gea said in March, ahead of a friendly against Argentina.
In the final home game of the 2014-15 season, with it more or less accepted he would be signing for Real Madrid in the summer, De Gea went off with an injury and was given a standing ovation from the Old Trafford crowd. It mattered little to them that he was about to jump ship. Instead they took the opportunity to show their appreciation for what they thought was the last time.
De Gea’s next appearance for the club came a few weeks in to the 2015-16 season, after the transfer to Madrid had collapsed. He played in United’s 3-1 win over Liverpool, and his name was chanted by the Stretford End when he walked to the goalmouth ahead of kickoff.
“The first game I returned, after all that had happened, was impressive,” he said. “The way Old Trafford received me, it made the hairs stand up. It’s very difficult to describe what that day was like. I really appreciate it.”
De Gea has to know that however well he may play for Real Madrid, he will never get the same love from the fans that he gets now. The moment he makes a mistake or goes through a period of bad form, they will turn on him. Let’s not forget this is the same fan base who have jeered and whistled Ronaldo on occasion, despite the glory he has brought them.
In contrast to his acknowledgement of the great support he gets in Manchester, after his mistake against Portugal, De Gea was again critical of the Spanish fans.
“I don’t see much that they support me from Spain,” he said. “I would have liked that they defend me more in a difficult moment in my life.”
Any mistakes De Gea makes in this tournament will be a further reminder to him of this and that is why every error will be celebrated by United fans. They are desperate for him to stay put, and the belief that he will might not be as far-fetched as once imagined.
Scott is one of ESPN FC’s Manchester United bloggers. Follow him on Twitter: @R_o_M.