“Most kids dream of scoring the perfect goal. I’ve always dreamed of stopping it”
11 July 2010, Spain vs Netherlands. Rings a bell? It’s the biggest match Spain has ever been a part of. Yet, this guy had ice flowing through his veins. Not the same for the fans though. 62nd minute, Wesley Sneijder’s pass, Robben is one-on-one with the keeper but could not beat the outstretched leg of one Iker Casillas. Cut to the 116th minute, Iniesta scores the winner and Spain are the world champions for the first time. People remember this goal as the standout moment of the match, and rightfully so. But the save was an equally important one, else one could argue there would have been no extra time in the first place. Agree to disagree.
But this isn’t the earliest memory of Iker Casillas for me. We will have to go two years back for it. 29 June 2008. A similar setting for the Spanish team. European Final against a formidable opponent, Germany. The team who boasted of goal scorers from front to back could not get past Casillas. I remember discussing the outcome of the match with my friend. He supported Germany due to craze around Germany and Schweinsteiger’s hairstyle. I chose Spain just to be on the opposite side. Spain eventually won the match bringing a major trophy for Spain after 44 years.
Casillas was the captain on both the occasions and indeed led the most legendary international squads comparable to the likes of ’70 Brazil, ’98 France, ’02 Brazil. This was definitely the peak of his career. But let’s go back a few more years to see his rise to greatness.
He doesn’t strike you as a tall or physically gifted goalkeeper. Schmeichel, Kahn, Van der Sar, Neuer, Seaman, Buffon, you know what I am talking about. Teams relied on them in front of the post to confuse the scorers given the limited space these keepers offered to aim and score. What he lacked in his build, Casillas made up for in his abilities. He was unmatched with his agility, shot-stopping and penalty saving capability and handling one-on-one situation. Not too great with set-pieces. Still, the biggest fumble would be his failure to deliver his father’s score prediction which cost his family almost a million dollars. I think he has more than made up for it over the years.
What were you doing when you were 16 years old? Homework, fighting your siblings, getting thrashed by your parents, playing with your friends in a ground. In 1997, this young bloke was sitting in his class, when his principal pulls him out. He was worried about possible disciplinary action, instead was sent away to the airport to catch a flight for Norway. He was going to be a substitute for Real Madrid in their Champions League match against Rosenborg. Hell, I could not even make the reserves for my school team at that age.
He rose through ranks at Real Madrid eventually earning the first-team call in 1999–2000 season. Youngest keeper ever that time to play in a Champions League match for the most decorated team of all time. Surely like the sound of that. He was gaining all the attention because irrespective of the age, he had the maturity, discipline and confidence of a veteran. This pissed off Kahn who said that Madrid was making a mistake. He was proven right when Bayern scored 8 against Casillas in group stages. But guess who had the last laugh? Casillas was pivotal for Madrid bouncing against Bayern later in the semis.
19 years old, keeping in a Champions League final. That should seem enough for the resume. Not for him. Casillas also kept a clean sheet. To be honest he didn’t make breathtaking saves but did enough to become the youngest keeper to win the champions league. This earned him the Spanish national team call. He hasn’t even turned 20 yet. This catapulted Casillas on a path to success and he never looked back.
An interesting fact: the only time he played as a substitute in his entire career came in the 2002 Champions League Final. Del Bosque wasn’t impressed by Casillas’ recent performances which made him the benchwarmer. An injury to the first choice keeper bought Casillas on the pitch for a tense final against Bayer Leverkusen. He didn’t disappoint by making point-blank saves and holding his ground against a tenacious attack. Remember the famous Zidane volley from the match. Two wins in three years, not bad, eh?
Just think about the players Casillas had on the pitch in front of him. Talking about Real Madrid: Zidane, Beckham, Roberto Carlos, Figo, Ramos, Raúl. The Galacticos- Real Madrid’s expensive world-class signings. When it came to the Spanish national team: Iniesta, Xavi, Puyol, Busquets, Alonso, Torres, Villa, Silva, Fabregas. You can make a FIFPro XI with the teammates he has played throughout his career and still leave out some really great players.
Casillas became an integral part of Real Madrid in 2000s. The team won major trophies including League Title and Spanish Supercup. However, the decade was dominated for the major part by their bitter rivals, Barcelona. Frank Rijkaard with Ronaldinho and the emergence of Pep with the little magician, Messi. Ohh, the 2008–09 season.
We always say that attack wins you the match but defence wins you the championship. Goalkeepers are the ones who always get overlooked while talking about the defence. Every great team throughout history has had a great keeper as their saviour. Schmeichel for United’s Treble, Seaman for Arsenal’s Invincibles, Cech for Chelsea, Van der Sar for United’s second three-peat and champions league win, Neuer for Bayern’s treble and Germany’s world cup win. A good keeper keeps quiet in his box and saves the shots, but a great keeper has a strong personality, organizes the defence, can read the game and show leadership.
Casillas was making similar strides to be the best goalkeeper. The first milestone, Real Madrid offered a lifetime contract to Casillas in 2008. But the greatest players always shine at the greatest stage. Many players have performed extraordinarily for their respective clubs but have not reached the same heights at the international level. Spain was never considered a dominant name in International football. But they were about to take the world by storm. Everyone was witnessing the rise of a new style of play, a beautiful one. Tiki Taka. Johan Cryuff introduced this in the 90s while managing Barcelona which was adopted by Del Bosque and Guardiola. Short passes, quick ball movement through channels and dominance over the possession. Ferguson’s nightmare.
Del Bosque made this team so dominant it took years for the competition to figure out ways to beat them. However great the midfield be, they needed players to defend and goalkeeper to save. Casillas was the leader of this squad and didn’t let the team down. Casillas kept clean sheets in quarters, semis and finals of the tournament with him becoming the first goalkeeper-captain to lift Euro trophy.
Spain lost their opening fixture of the 2010 World Cup tournament against Switzerland and everyone blamed Casillas for his mistake. He pulled his back his form like a rabbit from the hat and kept clean sheets in quarters, semis and finals to win the first world cup for Spain. Casillas won the golden glove for conceding only 2 goals in the entire tournament.
Casillas said to Xavi after the match “Now what’s left, seeing as we’ve already won everything?”
During the 2012 Euro campaign, there were rifts in the dressing room due to the clash between Barcelona and Real Madrid players. Casillas became the peacekeeper and guided the team to defend their European Championship. He also maintained his clean sheet record in quarters, semis and finals and conceded just 1 goal in the entire tournament. They won 4–0 in the finals against Italy, biggest margin in a major internal competition final.
La Roja became the first team to win three consecutive major international tournaments. They were undefeated in 12 consecutive European Championship finals matches. Casillas didn’t concede a single goat at the knockout stage of these tournaments since 2006. That’s just mind-boggling. He was the leader, captain and the saviour. He was crucial in two penalty shootouts in Euro 2008 Quarter Finals and Euro 2012 Semi-Finals. Deservedly, he was selected in FIFA XI PRO from 2008–12, UEFA Team of the Year from 2007–12 and named IFFHS World’s Best Goalkeeper from 2008–2012. A record for a goalkeeper. That’s Mr Consistent for you.
While Casillas maintained his dominance in the international stage, a certain Jose Mourinho had different plans for him in Real Madrid. No matter what you say, Jose Mourinho has been a great coach and tasted successful with different teams. Porto, Chelsea, Inter. He delivered the league title to Madrid in some style by winning 100 points. However, things turn for worse in his third season wherever he goes. Real Madrid was going to be no different. Casillas eventually lost his starting position due to Mourinho’s tactics. I still blame Mourinho to this day for Kaka’s downfall. Madrid has one of their worst seasons finishing without any trophies. Mourinho was out and in came Ancelotti. It looked promising for Casillas but he still couldn’t restore his position as the first-choice keeper in the league matches. However, he started for Copa del Rey and Champions League and Madrid were the champions in both the tournament for the season. La Decima for Los Blancos.
Little did Casillas know that these successes were going to be short-lived.
At the 2014 World Cup, Spain was terrible. Casillas was coming from a club season to forget with lowest appearances. On the other hand, De Gea had a similar season to forget with United under Moyes but he managed to outshine. Casillas was preferred over De Gea for his experience and seniority. They lost 5–1 to Netherlands, 2–0 to Chile and were eventually knocked out in the group stages. Casillas had the nights to forget for his mistakes led to goals in these games.
2014–15 season saw Casillas become the number one option at goal again for Madrid. Madrid won European Super Cup and Club World Cup. Yet a string of errors and terrible performances saw Madrid bow out of all the competitions. Casillas thought he had the worst of his days until the fans started booing him. Just change the stadium name already to Santiago Bernaboo. The fans who had seen him grow and become a legend wanted no part of him. This felt like the greatest betrayal and Casillas could see the end of this road. The biggest thing to pinch him would be the fact that he could not get a proper send-off by the club. It further hurts to see Barcelona returning the favours to Xavi and Iniesta while Madrid couldn’t even acknowledge Casillas’ contributions.
I still remember a teary-eyed Casillas in his last press conference for the Real Madrid. This wasn’t the happy tears of a 16-year-old boy called to play for his dream club, but of a legend left alone by the people and the place he called his home.
He moved to FC Porto, helped them win a few trophies but he was a mere shadow of himself and could never reach the same heights again. He finally put his gloves aside and retired on 4th August 2020.
Buffon wrote a heartfelt message to Casillas “Maybe this futile pursuit of perfection is what made us who we are. Grac1as Iker, without you, everything would have been less meaningful.” Talent recognizes talent.
Such a long illustrious career doesn’t happen without entering into the record books:
- Most appearances in Champions League
- Second most appearances and caps for the Spanish national team
- Most clean sheets in Champions League and International matches
- Second most victories in Champions League and International matches
- First goalkeeper to win 100 matches in Champions league
- Fewest goals conceded by a winning goalkeeper in a World Cup and European Championship campaign
- Most penalties saved in Champions League
- Youngest goalkeeper to play and win Champions League final
- Most consecutive seasons in Champions League and First player to reach knock out stage 19 times
- IFFHS’s second-best goalkeeper of the 21st century and second-best goalkeeper of the last 25 years
Consistency, dominance, brilliance.
He has won everything the sport can offer. His glittering career is filled with 27 major titles over 1000 professional games. He came 4th in Ballon d’Or standing in 2008. Only one goalkeeper has ever won Ballon d’Or in its history. They have recently started an award especially for the goalkeepers in his name. Better late than never. He never cared about personal glory over team success but eventually achieved both.
Casillas has been a legend of this game. His discipline in training, calm and composure during the matches and maturity with leadership are the traits to learn from. He personified humility while being at the top. When you think of the biggest clubs, you can name a player who symbolizes the club. United: Giggs, Liverpool: Gerrard, Chelsea: Lampard, Barcelona: Xavi, Inter: Zanetti, Milan: Maldini, Roma: Totti, Juventus: Buffon, Bayern: Lahm. When it comes to Madrid, Casillas is the greatest ambassador of the club. You can make an argument for Ramos, but I would still put Casillas ahead because of his humility and fair play. You could see Puyol and Xavi fighting with Ramos during El Clásico due to his dirty plays. But Casillas was always looked up and greeted with respect no matter the result. Either you die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. He was the dark knight. He is and will always be our “San Iker”.
Us fans worship great attackers, admire midfielders and respect defenders. Yet, goalkeepers are mostly overlooked. When you speak about the greatest players to grace the sport, you might fight for your Messi/Ronaldo spot. Argue over Spanish or English midfield. Have your pick of Italian or German defenders. But go ahead and find me a better goalkeeper than Casillas. I will wait.
“I don’t want to be remembered as a good goalkeeper. I want to be remembered as a great person.”