This could be an extremely rational analysis of Iker Casillas’ career: the youthful exuberance, the early mistakes, the long apex, the initial signs of decadence, the fallout with the club that saw him become a star, the embarrassing farewell, the progressive renaissance at Porto, all explained with numbers that would reflect his stunning one-on-one ability, his clutch penalty saves, his always iffy response to high crosses, the decent goals-conceded stats of a team that never thought of defending... Some time ago I wrote a similar column illustrating Raul’s raise and fall. It was easy. It wasn’t fulfilling.
Instead, I’m going to go with the emotional approach, probably because this has been a frustrating season and I’m not in the mood for numbers, but also because I want to be unfair to Iker in the most positive way. I don’t want to go back to the facts and figures to remember one specific season in which he did not do well, or to explain why his last two years with Real Madrid were frustrating for his fans. Instead, I want to take advantage of the usual tricks that our memory plays on us to put together an over the top account of my relationship with Iker as a fan, as a socio of his club, as a supporter of his national team.
Let’s start, then. Half-jokingly, I spent a few seasons stating that Iker was a legitimate candidate to the title of Greatest Spaniard in History. He was obviously competing with Julio Iglesias, who still holds the title comfortably because of his past as a Real Madrid goalkeeper, his truly global success despite his limited talent in an era during which things weren’t really global, and his legendary reputation as a memorable lover. When Iker’s candidacy was in full fledge, as titles of best goalkeeper in the world mounted between 2008 and 2012, his fans could justify it by remembering his numerous sporting feats, including an unprecedented World Cup title in which he was as key as any field player, and his romantic involvement with an also successful media figure to whom he declared on live TV right after winning the 2010 WC. No sane Spaniard of my age or higher could believe we’d won the World Cup, and there was Iker, kissing a stunning woman to cap it all off.
Unfortunately, his Real Madrid exit, lacklustre as they come in part because of his own mistakes, have taken his candidacy down a notch, and now he trails Miguel Servet – who explained blood circulation in the XVI century – and Miguel de Cervantes – a decent writer – in my own rankings. Only a LeBronesque incursion in the business world when he retires including significant charity work would redeem him, and honestly I don’t think Iker has that in him.
And yet I digress. The first images of Iker that come to mind without the use of google are obviously those of the 2002 Champions League final, and yes, I know I’m leaving aside the 2000 one, but that was a piece of cake. In Glasgow, he’d lost the starting job to Cesar after a few lazy / late training sessions, but came on to replace his rival after he picked up an injury and kept the Germans at bay during their final charge, with a handful of trademark reflexes saves, one of which is truly unbelievable. Those few minutes, or rather, those few saves put him in the map of Real Madrid fans for good and built the base of his status as a youth icon in Spain. Cool under pressure, nonchalant, apparently a bit careless in his demeanour, for the next decade he conveyed the right message to his back four: It’s ok, guys, I got this if you miss. At times you could sense the frustration in the opposition’s forwards, trying to surprise them with all kind of efforts to no avail.
Again, I could follow a more disciplined order telling his story, but I’d rather focus on those matches that made an impression for me, those saves that I’d be telling my son about when he starts watching football. I remember Champions League shootouts in which I thought: “No way we’re losing this one, we have Iker”. Or matches against Atletico in which I knew they would not score – and for a long spell they did not.
In several top-level games, I remember how his saves awakened the team. It got to a point in which I’d tell the gentleman sitting next to me: “We need one of those Iker saves”, and then it would happen: he’d made an amazing stop in a one on one situation and the team immediately reacted and started to play football. It was better than having a coach on the pitch: it was an alarm clock reminding the rest of the players that they should do their bit, just like their keeper was doing.
The two Cup finals in Valencia were beyond special, because they had that atmosphere in which the best had to show up, and also because Real Madrid only won those two matches because our keeper was much better than theirs. They thought they were so good that they could win it with Pinto, but in fact it was Iker who stopped Iniesta and Messi. Without him, Ronaldo’s header and Bale’s maze run wouldn’t have happened. Indeed, during 15 years Real Madrid won every single final they played with Iker on goal. Read that sentence again.
And of course, I can’t forget the Euro 08 or the 2010 WC even if I wanted to… In the former, and even though his feet were never the best, he was key to keep a high line in a very offensive formation with only one DM – although one of the best, Marcos Sena – and an iffy duo of centrebacks – Albiol + Marchena. And he was faultless on goal, growing bigger and bigger with each passing match. The latter deserves his own paragraph.
Iker arrived in that tournament having shown small glimpses of his own decadence in the final months of the club season. To the trained eye, he didn’t look 100%, and to be honest, never fully did after that season. To add insult to injury, in the days before the competition started he joined the on-going complaints again that World Cup’s ball, the unforgettable Jabulani, saying that it made bizarre, unexpected turns and that therefore it favoured long-range efforts.
It wasn’t an act, he really meant it: In fact, Iker kept avoiding any risks during all the first round by not even trying to grab the ball when a shot went of goal. He simply parried the Jabulani away, even if it came at minimal speed. Obviously, this didn’t convey any sense of security to fans or his own back four. The tournament started with a defeat in which he didn’t perform well, and went on with a couple of narrow wins plagued with awkward half saves and ball punches to avoid a bigger mistake.
Can you guess which was the first tough shot he grabbed? One from the spot against Paraguay. A couple of friends and I had been discussing his performances and were concerned, and then he saves a key penalty shot holding the ball with both hands, something that happens in less than 1% of cases. I’ve made that stat up, but you get my point.
From that moment, he took over. We celebrated his two saves to Arjen Robben in the final as though we had scored in each of them, but in the previous matches he was already the Iker of yore. Again, he was as influential as any outfield player. He raised the trophy and we could not be happier. The heir to Julio was delivering in every step of the way.
But the signs of decay were there, and they started to become more apparent. For each reflex or one-on-one save – one against Sevilla in which he shows up out of nowhere comes to mind – a bizarre reaction to a cross happened, and then the Mourinho fiasco took place. Once more, this is supposed to be an upbeat memoire of times under Iker, so I won’t elaborate. It’s enough to say that neither side behaved their best.
Mou’s biggest win in Madrid was not his Liga or Copa titles, but the fact that Iker’s reputation became tainted: the man who could save anything couldn’t be saved from Mou’s combination of indiscretions, leaks and evil half-comments in press conferences. The Portuguese manager finished Iker’s brand for all intents and purposes, and having known and felt the keeper’s connection with his fans before Mou decided to burn all bridges, it’s an amazing achievement, even if it belongs in the evil section of the records’ books.
Not even the well-humoured Ancelotti could reinstate Iker, but he gave him a decent last run, although a sizeable amount of fans had already turned on him. His farewell was such a bizarre affaire that it’s become probably one of the best demonstrations of the theory that says that Real Madrid doesn’t know how to part ways with its legends (see Di Stefano, Alfredo).
And I like to believe that, after three seasons with Porto during which he’s improved from his poor first one, the news of his heart condition may have brought many of those fans back to where they were in 2012, or close enough to that. Sports fans take some things a bit too seriously, but life has a way of keeping you real, and an event as shocking as this – Iker will become 38 on Monday –, should make many of us reflect on the man and his achievements rather than on his shortcomings. Seems likely that he won’t be able to play anymore. That is close to the worst possible news for a footballer.
At some point in our lives and for a decent sequence of seasons, Iker was the surest thing we knew. We lost penalty shootouts despite the fact that he saved two shots: if we weren’t better, it was never his fault. Having gone back to that sensation, one I honestly did not recall —not with Keylor and definitely not with the Belgian womanizer –, I can tell you that it felt good. Watching Iker gave us peace. We owe him big.