A long overdue Iker Casillas roundtable. Let’s get to it.
What did you feel when Casillas announced his retirement?
Euan McTear: I’ll be honest, because I always am, and admit that I basically thought he’d already retired. He’d never officially announced it, but he’d obviously suffered his heart issue more than a year ago and had since announced – and then withdrew – his intention to run for the RFEF presidency. If he was already planning a career in football administration then it was clear he was never going to put on the gloves and the boots again. Yet the official announcement allowed us all a moment to reminisce and to properly acknowledge the wonderful career that Casillas had. It was a day for poring over old YouTube clips of his cat-like agility and his husky-esque roars.
José Pérez: To be honest, I’d forgotten he hadn’t retired yet after the heart attack! I felt relieved after reading Real Madrid’s statement about his retirement. It seems to confirm that Iker and club management are on good terms once again and reinforces the rumors that he will come back to the club as a consultant. It’s nice to see that wounds are being healed and that a club legend like him will be back home.
Kiyan Sobhani: In my mind, he had already retired, which is unfair, because he had finally rediscovered himself at Porto in the last few years, and would conceivably still be their starter had he not suffered a heart attack.
But video tributes always get me, and the one that Real Madrid released about a week ago punched me in the gut will a powerful blow of nostalgia. Then I started to reflect on his career: the beautiful moments, the unfortunate struggles, and remembered how much of cherished character he was to have around.
Kristofer McCormack: I regret not having seen more of him. Casillas got me into football during the 2010 World Cup, however, the most I saw of him was the 2014/15 season where he was clearly lacking confidence and past his best. I did promise myself when he moved to Porto that I would watch him, however, these things rarely work out and I’ve merely been a distance admirer of his five year spell in Portugal. I think that might be the case for most all-time greats, once they are gone, you’ll never felt you properly enjoyed their career. Casillas was a unique talent, one we are unlikely to see (at least in Madrid) for a long time to come.
Lucas Navarrete: It was pretty obvious, right? I mean, I think we all knew he wasn’t going to play any more and reports said that he wanted to run for president of the Spanish Football Federation, so the writing was on the wall ever since he recovered from that infamous heart attack he suffered more than a year ago.
Matt Wiltse: Melancholy. I could not help but reflect on all those years with Iker in goal for the club. Iker was in net during my formative years as a person and a fan. Whenever a player retires, but especially one with the impact of Iker Casillas, it comes as a stark reminder of just how quickly time passes.
Om Arvind: A certain level of sadness but also a sense of pride and happiness. The consensus was that Casillas was done as a top-level footballer after he left Real Madrid and that his stint at Porto was just a way for him to keep playing until he realized he was past it. Instead, he recovered his best form and became one of the most beloved figures in modern Porto history in just a couple seasons. But the fact that I knew he was coming back when he announced his retirement is what made me happy. It wasn’t so much a retirement from football as it was a decision that would allow him to return to his home.
Sam Sharpe: I think that the blow of losing his final season(s) due to the heart scare he suffered from last year eased the blow of this inevitable outcome for me. That initial incident was really tough to process. Seeing him lifting the title with Porto and winning over the coach and the fans after a difficult start was indescribably satisfying. The childhood memories of bragging to the other kids that my team had the best goalkeeper around will be everlasting, partly because it was so true. He really was the best around.
When everything went down with him and Jose Mourinho, which side did you lean on?
Euan McTear: At first, on Casillas’ side. It’s not that Casillas didn’t deserve to be benched, but the way Mourinho went about it all seemed to cross certain lines and seemed to have ulterior motives. Okay, not “seemed”. There were ulterior motives. Ultimately, though, Mourinho was right. Casillas had reached a point where he needed to be benched. He didn’t need to be benched for Diego López, but there was no doubt that Keylor Navas was in a better moment by the time the Spaniard eventually departed.
José Pérez: I was initially on Mourinho’s side. Casillas himself admitted in an infamous 2014 interview that he didn’t train in the gym as much as other teammates because he trusted his natural gifts. This reinforced in my mind an image of a footballer who, despite his talents, did not want to improve and most importantly, refused to give up his starting spot when confronted with his underperformance. And even worse, he seemed to be protected by the Spanish press when criticized.
While I still think these points were true to an extent, over time the numbers have also shown that we might have exaggerated Iker’ underperformance. When evaluating goalkeepers, it’s easy to focus on a few howlers per season while ignoring all the other times when the keeper does a decent job. There were certainly moments in that 2012-2015 period where Iker deserved to be benched, but as Om showed in a recent article, his shot-stopping in the 2014-15 season was above-average, yet we often talk about this season as if it were an Iker disaster-class.
And it wasn’t just the fans who thought this, by the way, even Iker’s teammates defended in that season as if they didn’t trust him to stop shots anymore. So even after Mourinho left, the image he created of Iker Casillas did significant damage to everyone in the club, from fans to players.
Post-Mourinho, I have learned that you need to trust your legends a bit more when they are going through rough patches. Can you imagine what would have happened if we had booted Karim Benzema out of the club because of that woeful 2016-18 period!?
Kiyan Sobhani: I lie somewhere in the middle, have sympathy for both, and lean on both sides. That’s a cop out answer, though, so here’s an elaboration:
Mourinho, during his first couple seasons at Real Madrid (and for what he did with Inter the prior year) was borderline infallible to me. I loved the ‘us vs the world’ mentality. It reminds me of the good traits that Juanito had: You don’t look at the opponent, you don’t shake their hand in the tunnel before the game, and you don’t help them up if they fall. Mourinho wanted to band together a feared brotherhood, and I’m into that.
But as the Mourinho project unfolded, it became clear that he took things too far, and lines were crossed.
I brought this analogy up on the Casillas tribute podcast last week:
Imagine if Managing Madrid and Barca Blaugranes have a hostile, competitive relationship. (To be clear we have zero relationship with them.) At some point during a few verbal exchanges, I go and start poking their writers in the eye. Sam Sharpe, embarrassed from my behaviour, texts BB behind my back, and says “hey, sorry about my asshole boss. He doesn’t reflect our values.” Who would you side with? In hindsight, I side with Casillas for reaching out to Xavi and Puyol, even if it was only to preserve the harmony for the upcoming Euros. As a consequence of Casillas’s text, Mourinho doubled down on his agenda against Iker that stemmed from Iker allegedly leaking the team’s lineup to the media (which has yet to be proven). Mourinho’s relationship with Ramos and Pepe deteriorated too after they both sided with the Spanish captain.
Mourinho did a lot of good. A lot. And Casillas declined rapidly. But that’s the football side of things, not the off-the-pitch stuff we’re discussing here.
It also became clear over the years after Mourinho left Real Madrid that he himself was declining as a manager, and his shtick stopped working. His brotherhoods became internal volcanoes.
Kristofer McCormack: My Jose Mourinho experience was a 4-1 loss against Borrussia Dortmund and the second leg in the Bernabéu where we came heartbreakingly close to a remontada, I am in no position to take sides in this debate.
I did a podcast with Phil Ball on my newsletter in May and the Mourinho-Casillas dynamic came up and how, in many ways, it encompassed what went wrong with Mourinho at the club overall. Despite success, the key to staying at Real Madrid long term is understanding the club as an institution and, contrary to the advice of Jorge Valdano, Mourinho worked his way exclusively. That he fell out (from day one according to Phil) with Casillas, a man who understands Real Madrid better than almost anyone else, is probably no surprise.
What you should take from this point? I am not sure, again, I didn’t live this debate enough to be able to offer anything of real value in who was right and who was wrong. Perhaps the two biggest elements of all this one can take is Jose Mourinho comments following Casillas’s retirement and how’s Phil story about club’s values and their falling out demonstrates what a unique figure Casillas was and will remain for Real Madrid.
Lucas Navarrete: Veteran Managing Madrid readers will know that I was on Mourinho’s side, mostly because I thought that the press was protecting Casillas way too much back in the 2012-2013 season, which was fairly terrible for him and the ultimate reason why Mourinho decided to send him to the bench.
Matt Wiltse: For the first two years of Mourinho’s tenure, I was bought in. I respect Mourinho for the winning mentality he re-instilled in the club and the players. He laid the foundation for our future Champions League triumphs. I will always be grateful for his initial work. But, his final year and some of the antics over the course of the three years (prime example: poking Tito Vilanova in the eye) was a step too far for me. As Steven Mandis book attests to, Real Madrid is a club of values and Madrid were losing those values under Mourinho. Iker Casillas felt that as did much of the fan base. I was 100% behind Iker Casillas and I think most of the dressing room was as well. Had Mourinho stayed and gotten his way, he would’ve rid Madrid of their core — the same core that won 4 Champions League trophies in 5 years.
Om Arvind: I used to be a huge Mourinho guy. I was the clown who unironically said “Pep Fraudiola” in debates, fervently believed the entire world was rigged against Real Madrid, and passionately defended every one of Mourinho’s antics, including his disgusting eye poke. But, at a certain point, Mourinho’s self-destructive nature and insufferable ego become too much to ignore. For me, it was relentlessly antagonizing Casillas and dragging his name through the mud — along with turning the entire squad against him — that did it. For some, the breaking point was his collapse at Chelsea or United. Still, others have yet to escape the cult in the year of our lord 2020.
Hindsight reveals all, but even in 2013 you’d have to be completely steeped in ahistorical revisionism to buy Mourinho’s bullshit. It’s evident that Mourinho had a problem with Casillas going back all the way to 2010 (the leaking of the starting eleven before the Manita Clásico, which Mourinho attributed to Iker based on exactly zero evidence), with the unforgivable “betrayal” being Casillas’ discussion with Xavi and Puyol in 2011. The idea that such an act could be treacherous can only work in Mourinho’s twisted worldview, where acting in the most disgraceful and unsportsmanlike manner is the only way to win and be a true part of his team. To normal people who think that Pepe trying to purposefully injure players is bad, attempting to cool tempers and create a basic sense of decency between the two teams is commonsense, if not a thoroughly classy act.
But Mourinho has a special way of filling your brain with worms and cognitive dissonance when he coaches your team, so I’m sad but not surprised that many Madridistas sided with him then and probably still do now.
Sam Sharpe: This whole situation remains completely baffling to me. Rather than picking sides, I can only say that there is absolutely no chance whatsoever that a coach should be dropping an icon who at the time was the best in the world in his position. That was a disastrous, albeit complex decision that effected Real Madrid for years after. A number of decent but unfitting keepers were given a shot between the sticks, which made it feel like you were skating on thin ice when watching Real Madrid every time. Only Keylor Navas, and now Thibaut Courtois, have managed to calm my nerves in the goalkeeping department in recent times.
What is your favourite Iker moment?
Euan McTear: When he came to beautiful Glasgow and came off the bench to produce save after save against Bayer Leverkusen. He produced some other technically superior saves during his career, but the importance of those stops at Hampden Park and the way it seemed that Bayer Leverkusen would never score was something special.
Then, there’s an off-the-pitch moment that stands out too. After winning the 2010 World Cup with Spain, Casillas was interviewed by his journalist girlfriend Sara Carbonero. After starting to give a professional answer and discuss the moment, he tears up and can’t help but kiss her. Because Casillas was more than a great goalkeeper. He was a great teammate, leader, friend, partner and human being. When there was a need for a human touch, which there often is in the world of football, he provided it.
José Pérez: For some weird reason, a random Iker performance that has been stuck in my head ever since was a wonderful 2007-08 game against Real Zaragoza, back in the days when Diego Milito was their striker. Iker’s massive saves were the only reason that game resulted in a clean sheet for Real Madrid. I don’t think Iker was the most important player in those 2006-08 La Liga victories (may God bless Ruud van Nistelrooy), but boy was it useful to have him between the posts.
Kiyan Sobhani: Hampden Park, Champions League Final 2002. I was a kid, in my basement, screaming and jumping up and down with my dad, chanting Iker’s name.
Kristofer McCormack: Nothing summed up 92:48 than Casillas hugging Sergio Ramos and shouting “you are the fucking man”. His tears and cartwheels at full time will stick me as a Madridista. In general, his one-v-one save against Arjen Robben in the World Cup final was an awakening for me in this sport — its the moment I got on the football bandwagon.
Lucas Navarrete: His saves against Bayer Leverkusen in the Final in Glasgow. Cliché, I know.
Matt Wiltse: Every time I think of Iker, I think of the double-saves he produced not once, but twice - two separate matches - at the Sanchez Pizjuan:
Om Arvind: In the quest to find something a little less cliché, I’ll go with Casillas’ save vs. Dani Alves in the opening minutes of the “Calma Calma” Clásico.
For whatever reason, this moment is one of the first things I think of when someone utters St. Iker’s name. It’s probably down to the importance of the moment and the sheer nervousness and fear I had going into that game. After years of heartbreak against Pep’s Barca, I had tried to emotionally prepare myself for the possibility of losing and, when Real Madrid’s build-up faltered against the press in the 6th minute, I thought: “here we go again.” And then, out of seemingly nowhere, Casillas apparates in front of the edge of the box to deny Alves a clear 1v1 opportunity and stem a developing 2v1 situation. As I breathe a sigh of relief, my dad — who knows virtually nothing about football — looks at me and nods sagely before saying, “Casillas,” as if he’d imparted some sort of grand wisdom about the way the sport works.
This moment is also really cool because it highlights how insanely quick and accurate Casillas was at coming off his line. Not enough people appreciate that about him.
Sam Sharpe: The sequence against Sevilla way back when, in which he managed to dart over and cover one of those square passes across goal for a tap-in that never gets saved is one of my favourite goalkeeping moments ever. It just perfectly summed him up at the time, and I just thought that it was so epic.
Rank Iker’s place among all-time goalkeepers
Euan McTear: It’s difficult to compare goalkeepers across eras that are so different, but if we look at the start of the 21st century then it’s Casillas and Buffon and then a long drop-off to the rest. I loved every Casillas vs Buffon matchup and the way the two would so often meet in the middle and walk off the pitch together discussing what had just happened like two tennis players, as if they’d just played their own individual sport. Casillas got the edge over Buffon in head-to-head meetings with eight wins to four draws and six losses. Personally, though, I feel Buffon was probably the better goalkeeper overall.
Comparing Casillas to the current crop of goalkeepers, there are so many right now who have what it takes to put together the kinds of careers that Casillas and Buffon had. Again, though, it’s difficult to compare the Spaniard and the Italian to the current group since the position has once again evolved so much.
Jose Perez: I don’t have enough knowledge to compare Iker to all-time greats from previous eras, so the best I can do is to compare him with other keepers from the last 20-30 years. From that reduced sample, I can say Iker was, at his peak, the greatest pure shot-stopper I have ever seen in my life, and a player who burnt unforgettable moments into my retinas.
However, there’s more to goalkeeping than just shot-stopping, and the more rational side of me must admit Iker had deficits in his aerial game and with the ball at his feet (the latter aspect, to be fair, only became super relevant until the 2010s). I would prefer to have Buffon or Neuer in my team because I see them as more complete players. And particularly in the case of Buffon, his consistency is practically unparalleled among his peers.
Kiyan Sobhani: He is the greatest goalkeeper of all time.
We don’t have deep analytics for goalkeepers, so the answer to this will be somewhat subjective, but from what I saw from Iker Casillas from 2000 - 2010 was nothing short of superhuman.
The Messi to his Ronaldo, Gianluigi Buffon, had a shield in front of him. Here are a couple defensive lines that played in front of Buffon when I was growing up:
Casillas might as well have been playing defense by himself, and over and over again, single-handedly, kept Real Madrid in games. Save a point-blank shot, scream at your defense, repeat. That’s what Real Madrid’s defense was from 2000 - 2006.
Kristofer McCormack: I’ve maintained there is plenty of ammunition to say Iker Casillas is not the greatest of all time. He fell off his pedestal on more than one occasion and was the starting keeper during one of the worst periods in Real Madrid history. The game is cruel in how it judges footballers. Our narrow, understanding of greatness doesn’t allow for Casillas to be great and Real Madrid to be bad, only one or the another can exist in a debate.
I wrote about his case for being the greatest C of all time and how understanding his case can change your definition for greatest for These Football Times in November and I stand by the case I made there:
Too often, our discussion on greatness revolves around numbers, trophies and flawless resumes. We expect perfection from sporting greats despite the fact that no sporting heroes have ever actually reached those heights. There are many holes in Iker Casillas’s case for being the best, and yet that is precisely what he is. There is more to greatness than simply winning matches. There is greatness in rising up when you’ve failed and continuing to give your best even when it will likely count for nothing in the short term.
What’s more, there may be brilliance to be found within a player that wins all the time, but equally, there is a special type of brilliance in a player whose years of dedication as a professional are finally paid off through a dramatic final day league title or a first international title in 32 years, reaffirming their every belief, ambition and effort excreted along the way. Iker Casillas can, therefore, instigate a change in one’s perception of greatness and that surely suggests a talent worth celebrating.
Lucas Navarrete: He’s the best goalkeeper in Spanish football history and also in club history. To me, he’s not the greatest of all time, though. As Kristofer mentions above, he has holes in his game and those holes and mistakes weight too much for me. That doesn’t mean he is not great or clutch. He performed in big games —if we forget Lisbon 2014 at least— and deserves a lot of credit for that, he truly knew how to step up his game in the big stage. To me, consistency is more important in a goalkeeper and that’s why I would put Buffon ahead of him, for example.
Matt Wiltse: Iker Casillas is the greatest goalkeeper in Real Madrid and Spanish national team history. At his peak, is he the greatest of all time? I would argue yes. For me, at their peaks, I would rather have Iker Casillas in net than Buffon. There are other names that can be contested like Schmeichel, Yashin, Neuer, but my heart tells me Iker.
Om Arvind: Iker Casillas is no doubt the greatest goalkeeper for club and country. There is greater difficulty in assessing Casillas against the likes of Buffon and Neuer, though. Neuer’s longevity is worse than Casillas’ so far — the former having fallen off a cliff due to injury following 2016/17, when he was 30 — but did Casillas have the higher peak? I lean Casillas but I’m not absolutely sure. The eye-test is so unreliable when it comes to shot-stopping and we simply don’t have — and will likely never have — the post-shot xG numbers of past seasons to make more objective evaluations.
Having said all of that, Buffon is the better rival, anyway, given his uninterrupted longevity and impressive prime. However, I think Casillas’ resurgence at Porto is underrated and adds quality years back onto his total career value. Which is to say that I’m not really sure where to place Casillas definitively. What I can claim confidently is that he has a case for being the GOAT and that’s honestly enough for me.
Sam Sharpe: I’m unsure if comparing players from different eras can even be done sufficiently, and I certainly can’t say that I was around to see how a few of his rivals to the title performed. What I can state with confidence however, is that he is definitely up there —no doubts about it.