What If Oliver Kahn Had Gone To Manchester United?

The great German goalkeeper stayed at Bayern Munich and Man U bought Tim Howard instead.

Oliver Kahn is a giant of the game. The 2002 World Cup Golden Ball winner with Germany spent 14 years at Bayern Munich, winning eight Bundesliga titles and a Champions League. But what if he had left Germany to play for Manchester United when Alex Ferguson came calling in 2003? The paths of Bayern, United and even U.S. soccer would have played out much differently.

Kahn, now 48, told Sport Bild on Thursday he regrets not taking on the challenge of going abroad to play in England. In 2003, Ferguson, the now-retired legendary manager, was still looking for a replacement for Peter Schmeichel, who helped United beat Bayern Munich in an epic 1999 Champions League final. 

“Looking back, I believe that I should have done it back then,” Kahn said. “It would have been one last big challenge for me.”

In 2003, Kahn was 34 — old for most soccer players but not for goalkeepers. He was just coming off an impressive performance at the South Korea/Japan World Cup, helping (with Torsten Frings’ arm) Germany reach the final before Ronaldo finally proved too much for the keeper. Since the Golden Ball became an award in 1982, he is the only goalkeeper to win the honor (he also won the Yashin Award for being the best goalie, obviously).

United was desperate for a replacement to the iconic Schmeichel, who left following the Champions League victory and treble in 1999. The keepers who followed him were never lived up to Ferguson’s desires, including: Mark Bosnich, Raimond van der Gouw, Nick Culkin, Massimo Taibi, Paul Rachubka (an American), Fabien Barthez, Andy Goram, Roy Carroll and Ricardo. Barthez was a decent stopgap but the others have been lost to history. 

Ferguson, with all the might and momentum of the best club of the era, was keen on signing Kahn, at that time arguably the best goalie in the world. But Kahn declined, opting to finish out his career at Bayern Munich.

"Alex Ferguson is still at odds with me," Kahn said. "He was convinced I'd join Manchester United in 2003 or 2004, but building an era at Bayern was more important to me.”

Instead, Manchester (at that time the only Manchester that mattered), brought over young American sensation Tim Howard. 

Oliver Kahn Manchester United

Tim Howard went to Manchester United instead of Oliver Kahn. Photo: @ESPNFC | Twitter

Howard made 77 appearances with the Red Devils, but a costly error against Jose Mourinho’s Porto in the Champions League diminished his confidence. He was replaced by Edwin van der Sar in 2005, who himself became a club icon, winning four league titles and a Champions League.

With van der Sar on the squad, United sent Howard out on loan to Everton, where he eventually signed and became a club hero himself. Amidst his 10-year stint with Everton, Howard became the U.S. Men’s National Team’s No. 1 goalkeeper, ultimately becoming a legend/meme for his performance in the World Cup Round of 16 match against Belgium in 2014. 

But what if United had been able to lure Kahn from Germany and Howard never got that opportunity with United? Would another European club have taken the chance on Howard, an impressive goalkeeper but one from a country not known for producing starters on European squads? Fellow keepers like Brad Friedel and Kasey Keller had already shown American goalies could succeed in the Premier League, but there was still (and arguably still is to this day) a reticence to sign Americans.

Who knows where Howard would have ended up and who knows how the USMNT would have been different. The U.S. has always produced strong goalies, but Howard is arguably one of the best ever, earning more caps than any other goalie. Would he have been the same had he not gained valuable experience in the Premier League?

Oliver Kahn Manchester United

Edwin van der Sar stopped the carousel of goalkeepers at Manchester United after Peter Schmeichel left. Photo: @1000_am | Twitter

Van der Sar might have gone to another EPL squad (he spent four years with Fulham) and been a forgotten figure, just another Dutch goalie and former Ajax product. 

And what of Oliver Kahn? Would the Bayern Munich legend be viewed differently had he gone abroad late in his career? He helped the German giants win three more league titles and three more DFB-Pokal Cups after 2003, but he lost his position as the No. 1 for Die Mannschaft to Arsenal keeper Jens Lehmann. 

Had Kahn gone off to England, he might have been able to remain as starter in Jurgen Klinsmann’s Germany. Maybe he saves Fabio Grosso’s extra-time winner in the 2006 World Cup semifinals. Maybe Germany goes on to win the World Cup instead of Italy. 

Of course, this is all conjecture. Kahn did play in the third-place match against Portugal and had a strong performance in a 3-1 victory, but Italy’s goals against Germany were so well-placed I’m not sure Spiderman could have saved them.

Oliver Kahn was ultimately given a testimonial in 2008 to conclude his 20-year career and his final appearance was played before 120,000 fans in India prior to the start of the 2008-09 season. He retired a legend of the game, especially in Germany, but would he have been any better off going to England? 

Would the U.S. have been better off, or Manchester United? 

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