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A tribute to Iker Casillas

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His time with Real Madrid comes to a bittersweet end.

Denis Doyle/Getty Images

As someone who has both idolized Iker Casillas since his first match for the senior side and someone who has been calling for him to lose his starting job for both club and country for the better part of two plus seasons, his exit from the only club he's ever known fills me with mixed emotions. He's undoubtedly one of the most accomplished players ever and someone who's been directly involved in some of this club's most important moments. He's also someone who's been at the epicenter of possibly the biggest locker room discord this club has ever seen, a former hero turned villain by half the fanbase. With his move to Porto virtually done and dusted, it's bittersweet to look back fondly on a career littered with trophies but one which was a key in dividing the fanbase in its last years.

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Iker Casillas has been a part of the Real Madrid system since 1990. He joined the first team for the first time at an unthinkable age of 16 years old when he was added to the roster for a Champions League game versus Rosenborg in November of 1997. He made history as he became the youngest goalkeeper to ever start a Champions League final in Real Madrid's 3-0 victory versus Liga rivals Valencia. Though Casillas lost his starting spot in the 2001-2002 season due to playing form, he was thrust into game action in his second Champions League final as starting keeper Cesar Sanchez had to be taken off in the 68th minute. What followed was a masterclass of goalkeeping as Casillas held off a ferocious Leverkusen side looking to equalize (but never could).

Over the years, Casillas became a mainstay at Real Madrid as high-priced names came and went. While his career unfortunately coincided with the greatest Barcelona side ever assembled, he still enjoyed five league titles with Real Madrid and three Champions League trophies (along with several lesser titles). His club efforts saw him rewarded at the international stage as he was named Spain's captain following the 2006 World Cup and was the man to lift Spain's 2008 European Championship title, the 2010 World Cup title and Spain's second consecutive European Championship title in 2012.

Individually, his accomplishments are virtually second to none. Per Wikipedia:

  • Bravo Award: 2000
  • La Liga Breakthrough Player of the Year: 2000
  • La Liga Best Goalkeeper: 2009, 2012
  • BBVA Fair Play award: 2012-13
  • Zamora Trophy: 2007-08
  • Best European Goalkeeper: 2010
  • IFFHS World's Best Goalkeeper: 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012
  • FIFA FIFPro World XI: 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012
  • FIFA World Cup Golden Glove: 2010
  • FIFA World Cup Dream Team: 2010
  • UEFA Euro Team of the Tournament: 2008, 2012
  • UEFA Team of the Year: 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012
  • ESM Team of the Year: 2008

Casillas also finished fourth in the 2008 Ballon d'Or voting, finishing only 46 voting points behind Fernando Torres. At his peak, he was a titan in net despite his diminutive size.

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However, it would appear that many of these moments of brilliance were overshadowed by the drama which plagued him and the club in recent years.

In late 2012, manager Jose Mourinho controversially dropped him in favor of Antonio Adan, a lesser goalkeeper by most accounts, as rumors swirled about a locker room dispute between the two men and various players who backed either side. Following a hand injury one month later which sidelined him for the rest of the season, Diego Lopez was brought in as an emergency replacement and the seeds of discontent between the two camps grew enormously. Mourinho was dismissed following the 2012-2013 season, but critics of Casillas remained and grew louder with each fumbled ball or mistimed attempt at an aerial ball, possibly most exemplified in his mistakes versus Atletico Madrid in the 2014 Champions League final and Spain's poor showing in the 2014 World Cup.

I won't lie, my allegiance toward the man has been tested numerous times over the years. I never really bought into the conspiracy theories of him leaking lineups or being that buddy-buddy with the press, but there were times that I wished he would've been more willing to accept his personal shortcomings and be more supportive of Lopez, who I still feel was unfairly run out of town, and his comments about time spent in the gym struck me as unprofessional. I am someone who generally supports Jose Mourinho's time in Madrid and what he tried to establish at this club, I am someone who is more of a pragmatic cynic than a romantic, someone who doesn't believe that this club can have the title aspirations it does while also serving as a retirement home for aging players.

Despite those beliefs and my wanting Casillas to have been a backup (at best) following his hand injury, it's hard to see anyone get pilloried by the fans and press when they're out for blood, much less the club's captain and someone who's been here for well over two decades. After all, this is a man who stuck by this club in its ever-swirling seas of changes, someone who has been lauded as one of the greatest in his position, someone who has produced countless jaw-dropping saves while playing behind some atrocious defenses and someone who has served as a voice of leadership during the roughest moments imaginable. His physical ability might be fair game for questioning, but there is absolutely no doubting his love for this club and the commitment that he's shown toward it.

And now, this is how it ends. Not with a major trophy in his hands like at the finish line of the 2013-2014 season, not with any recently-won individual accolades, not with a united fanbase and press corps lining up to extol his virtues the way legends at other clubs experienced. A press conference or a tribute match is nice, but the boos and insults outside the stadium will still be there and a certain portion of this fanbase will undoubtedly find glee in any mistake he makes while at Porto. Instead, it ends with the club essentially paying the greatest keeper it has ever had to leave and join a talented Champions League squad but one in a league which is a clear step down from the one where he's plied his trade for all these years. It ends with the man's own parent lashing out against the club. It ends not with a farewell like Xavi received, a collective pat on the back with tears of remembrance, but rather with so many who used to idolize him now saying good riddance to a man who knows nothing but Real Madrid.

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I know that not everyone will agree with my relatively warm look back at his career. I'm aware that there are those who view him as some kind of unskilled, traitorous mole and I'm okay with this as I've had my gripes about the man as well, but this is the one time where I'm willing to overlook all the drama and the press garbage to take time out of my day to celebrate 25 years of service and to praise someone who is undoubtedly one of the greatest players to ever play for this storied club. Someone who would rather be remembered for being a good person rather than being a good goalkeeper. Someone they call the Saint.

All the best.

"No one knows the meaning of being part of Real Madrid. This club is my life."

-Iker Casillas