Manchester United’s David De Gea has become the undisputed no. 1 goalkeeper. Can he help lead Spain to a second world cup victory in eight years?
It’s said that Sir Alex Ferguson missed just three matches during his 27-year tenure as manager at Manchester United. The first was for a wedding, the second a funeral, and the third? A September evening in Valencia, Spain. On that occasion, Ferguson didn’t dip his toes in the Mediterranean, nor did he admire the frescoes inside the Church of San Nicolás de Bari. Instead he spent the night crammed into Valencia’s football cathedral, Camp de Mestalla, where he joined 49,500 to watch Valencia clash with Atlético Madrid.
Under the Mestalla lights dangled many a shiny object—Juan Mata, Diego Costa, Diego Forlán—but the legendary manager’s eyes never wavered from the lanky 19-year-old patrolling the visitor’s goalmouth. David De Gea had debuted with Atlético’s first team only a year before, but the young Spaniard was already causing a stir in the capital. Reports floating across the Channel compared his length to Edwin van der Sar, the Manchester United keeper that had given Ferguson a UEFA Champions League trophy and a pair of Premier League titles. But the post-teen’s reflexes were a different beast entirely. De Gea blocked snap headers and gloved deflections with mutant proficiency, playing as if the abnormal were merely par for the course.
Manchester United’s then head goalkeeping coach, Eric Steele, had begged Ferguson to watch De Gea in person, and with his Dutch keeper retiring at season’s end, the skipper wanted a glimpse of the future.
From his perch in Mestalla that evening, that future looked young. Though Ferguson built a football dynasty largely developing academy players into first-team talent, goalkeepers had typically arrived as completed packages. Van der Sar was 34 when he joined Manchester United; Old Trafford legend Peter Schmeichel, 27. When it came to protecting a goal line, the learning curve was abrupt, if not nonexistent.
Still, the legendary manager knew he had his man within the hour mark. A deft parry wide on a low, blind drive through traffic showed him that his Spanish detour would pay dividends for years to come.
“After 65 minutes, [Ferguson] turned around and said, ‘I’ve seen enough,’” remembers Steele, who accompanied the manager on the Valencia mission. De Gea, Steele continued, “had done enough within 65 minutes to convince him, even though he was just 19. And that was it.”
By season’s end, De Gea, a player that had never trained further than an hour from his hometown, had left Spain for England, signing the biggest contract of any goalkeeper in the history of the English Premier League before his 21st birthday and beginning one of the most successful goalkeeping careers in Old Trafford history.
Seven years later, I just can’t quit gawking at De Gea’s hands. Though his brooding stare and 6-foot-4 frame cut a striking form amid the tangle of frazzled photographers and handlers, it’s De Gea’s fan-size appendages that direct the media-day orchestra. These are the instruments that have paid back Ferguson’s 2011 investment many times over, earning Manchester United three Community Shields and a Premier League title while pulling the club into Champions League contention with 16 clean sheets already in 2017–18. Now De Gea’s hands are snapping to speakers blasting, “Enter Sandman”—the only electricity in his otherwise composed exterior.
In Madrid on international duty, the keeper has his sights on the not-so-distant 2018 World Cup. It won’t be his first—he backed up World Cup royalty Iker Casillas in Brazil in 2014—but this year proves to be a different show. De Gea is the headliner on a reconstructed Spanish team searching for its second World Cup in a decade, and while much of his success to date has been on foreign turf, Russia 2018 is a chance to finally etch his legacy at home.
Fittingly, La Roja’s World Cup fate rests squarely in their goalkeeper’s hands. “I want to help this team do as well as it can,” says De Gea in an interview after the photo shoot ends. “I want to build my legacy now.”
Were he left to his own devices, it’s quite possible the world may have never met David De Gea the goalkeeper. Raised in Illescas, a dusty satellite of Toledo in central Spain, De Gea spent his early years scoring goals instead of saving them. “I liked to score goals,” he says. “The truth is that I wasn’t that bad at it, either.”
But De Gea’s father had other plans. Jose De Gea had played goalie for Elche and then-third-division Getafe in Madrid, telling his son bedtime stories about Iríbar, the stoic Athlétic de Bilbao goalkeeper that led Spain to a European Nations’ Cup championship in 1964.
“I was three years old, and [my father] had already installed a mini goal in the house,” laughs De Gea. “So you can imagine.”
In addition to organizing living room training sessions, Jose was also David’s travel-along coach, attending nearly every practice and match around the country. During David’s tenure with Atlético, Jose would drive 50 kilometers to the training ground every day, dropping his teenage son off to train with the likes of Forlán and Kun Agüero before assuming his own place along the sidelines. It’s the kind of reinforced singlemindedness that can break a young player—or forge one.
While De Gea split time between the field and the net untl he turned 13, family history eventually won out. “In the end, I was worth more as a goalkeeper,” says the 27-year-old with more than a hint of irony.
For Manchester United, that worth is an estimated transfer tag of nearly $126 million. De Gea plays the superstar part, having been the club’s consistent bright spot through the tumultuous rebuilding period following Ferguson’s 2013 retirement. He won the Sir Matt Busby Trophy, Manchester United’s player of the year award, three times in a row, joining other consecutive-year winners Roy Keane, Ruud van Nistelrooy, and Cristiano Ronaldo. But he rarely embodies it, often opting for band T-shirts over tailored suits and skipping sports cars to drive his Chevrolet Captiva SUV around Manchester.
The bands are what finally gets a rise out of the notoriously subdued goalkeeper on media day. You see, De Gea, the blond-haired, blue-eyed Spanish giant, is actually a huge metalhead. In fact, when he’s not on the field, De Gea bangs on the drum set in his Manchester home. Asked about his greatest memories, he lists meeting hardcore rockers Avenged Sevenfold near the top. As Metallica moves to Slipknot, De Gea’s energy is palpable. I swear if someone tosses him a ball, he might punt it through the window at the back of the room.
His musical taste is rarely shared in the locker room, but few teammates and coaches will argue with the results. This year, the Spaniard broke his own single-season clean-sheets record and became the second most-capped goalie in Manchester United history behind Schmeichel.
But De Gea’s shot blocking doesn’t stop at his gloves. While the Spaniard’s hands have elevated him to goalkeeping’s upper echelon, it’s often his feet, honed during those youth-academy years, that save the day. De Gea’s kick saves on Liverpool’s Joel Matip and then Arsenal’s Alexis Sánchez (along with 13 more saves on the day) nearly broke the internet this season, and handfuls of top-level attackers have suffered a similar fate. What he credits as instinct has given birth to a new archetype between the posts—a gymnastic shot stopper that isn’t just comfortable playing with his feet but thrives on it.
“He doesn’t let anything affect him,” Juan Mata, De Gea’s current Manchester United and Spanish teammate, once told the press. “At times, it seems almost like [he’s] unconscious.”
De Gea’s father equates his mental sobriety to the family’s household hero, Iríbar, the aura of a man whose sole objective is to keep the ball out of the net, no matter where that net may be.
“You can have very little to do [in goal], but there will be a match-defining moment, and you have to have that focus, concentration, and belief to be ready,” explains Steele. “For me, [De Gea] has got that.”
Now, De Gea faces his biggest test yet. Ask any Spaniard and they will tell you that Casillas’s World Cup shadow is a long one, even for the country’s new number one. To cement himself among the international greats, De Gea knows that only a second World Cup trophy will suffice. Loading that type of pressure onto any player should be enough to crack the egg, but his battle through his years in the Premier League has proved that De Gea is not just any player.
Fresh off winning a U-21 European Championship with his national side, De Gea struggled to find a rhythm when he first landed in England. The Premier League proved faster and more physical than what he’d faced in La Liga, and early follies ignited the ire of British media. Soon, even Ferguson’s confidence wavered; he sat the Spaniard halfway through his first season.
His on-the-field issues were compounded off of it. A player that had spent nearly his entire professional career living at home was now a multi-hour flight away. He says he struggled to pick up English and found the mundanity of asking directions a challenge. The lack of familiar Spanish cuisine was particularly harsh.
De Gea, however, refused to bow to the pressure. Adding extra gym sessions and a nutrition plan to his regimen, the lanky keeper put on 11 pounds of muscle ahead of the next season, catapulting Manchester United to the 2012–13 Premier League title. The following year, he began his run of three consecutive Matt Busby trophies, becoming the Premier League’s most dynamic goalkeeper and turning Ferguson’s experiment into a success story.
In the process, he’s made Manchester into a second Spanish campus, bringing his parents to live with him and offering Spanish lessons through the Manchester United Foundation. He’s formed a Spaniard trio with Mata and Ander Herrera, and even facilitated his former Atlético mentor Ángel Rodríguez’s takeover as United’s goalkeeping coach.
“At Manchester United, it’s learn or be left behind,” says De Gea. “I think because of that, I’m a much more complete player today.”
The keeper’s adoration for his club is apparent throughout our conversation, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that De Gea bleeds La Roja. In the halls of the Spanish National Training Center, he studies the portraits of past and present national teamers as if looking through a high school yearbook. He smirks in front of Mata and lingers a second longer at the fresh-faced blond that made his senior team debut four years and a lifetime ago.
Just as De Gea carved his place in England, the keeper must now prove himself again, back here, where it all began. He leads a Spanish team that features the experience of players like Andrés Iniesta and Gerard Piqué and the youthful flair of Isco and Lucas Vázquez. De Gea is the link between two eras, a veteran at just 27 tasked with leading a talented squad unproven in its newest form.
“Not only in the last seven years has he taken over from a legend in Edwin van der Sar, he’s taken over from Casillas at the international level. You load that onto a [young man’s] shoulders,” says Steele. “He’s not even in his prime yet.”
When asked if he sees himself following in the footsteps of goalkeeping ironmen like Van der Sar and Italy’s Gigi Buffon, he smiles. “I don’t see myself playing at 40 years old,” he says. He sits focused and calm, enjoying a final pause in his midweek performance. In the game of football, patience is a virtue that often goes unrewarded. Luckily for La Roja, De Gea is tired of waiting.