There were few more bitter sagas than the long-drawn out end to Iker Casillas’ time at Real Madrid. A twenty-five year veteran of the club, the man affectionately termed “Saint Iker” departed in a shower of tears held at an impromptu press conference. His outro could not have been more different than his spectacular entrance into the 2002 Champions League Final, when he came on as a substitute to save Real Madrid. The beginning of his prime was breathtaking — a redemption story and a fairytale; his departure was subdued, anti-climactic, and charged with negativity.
Some people point to December 2012 as the beginning of the end, when José Mourinho dropped Casillas from the starting eleven and the Madrid icon fractured his wrist shortly afterwards. Others track the breakdown farther back to 2010, following the Manita humiliation to Barcelona. Somehow, Mourinho’s planned eleven had leaked to the press, revealing his desire to play Pepe in midfield. The Special One allegedly placed blame on Casillas, thanks to the latter’s relationship with reporter Sara Carbonero, creating friction in the dressing room from almost the very beginning.
It all came to a head in the Super Cup clash in 2011 — the infamous game where Mourinho poked Tito Villanova in the eye. Embarrassed by how he and his teammates had conducted themselves, Casillas took it upon himself to sort things out with the enemy. Xavi recounts their discussion:
Iker deserves a lot of credit. He called me and [Carles] Puyol. I told him that both sides had to look at themselves. He was looking out for the interests of Spanish football.
For Mourinho it was treachery. He had decided that the only way to beat Barcelona was to make war with them; Casillas had effectively raised the white flag.
Casillas has always been his own man and a Madridista through and through and, for him, that has meant living up to certain ideals of fair play and sportsmanship that the club supposedly holds dear. He is also a Spaniard through and through and, as Xavi mentioned, his belief in how Madrid should conduct themselves coincided with his desire to maintain harmony at the international level.
This is likely where Mourinho and Casillas’ relationship broke down for good and where the stage was set for the eventual turmoil. With the club performing poorly on the pitch in 2012/13 and Casillas falling from his very best form, Mourinho found his excuse to sideline the man who had seemed to get in the way of his project at every turn. Unfortunately for the polarizing coach, he had managed to antagonize most of his squad as well, allowing Casillas to survive while his rival walked away unceremoniously.
In came Carlo Ancelotti — the diplomat and peacemaker. A deal was truck; Casillas would play in the cups while Diego López would play in the league. It all went fine for awhile. Then, Casillas committed a terrible mistake in the biggest game of his career. He could only look on as his ill-fated decision to come off his line allowed Atlético Madrid to go up 1-0 in the 2014 Champions League Final.
Sergio Ramos erased the error but could not do the same in the World Cup, where repeated blunders completely overshadowed his solid 2013/14 campaign. The next season played out with a dark cloud hanging over its head. Diego López had been forced out and Casillas had been given back his starting spot. To many, this vindicated Mourinho’s agenda.
Though Casillas’ shot-stopping was objectively strong (and better than all but one of Keylor Navas’ Real Madrid seasons), the constant media scrutiny, the high standards of Casillas’ peak, his inability to save Morata’s shot in the 2014/15 Champions League Semi-Finals, and his suppression of the talented Navas’ playing time heavily distorted assessments of his final season.
The “percentile since 2014/15” portion of the table puts into context the keepers’ shot-stopping figures by translating the “Goal per xG” column (the ratio of goals conceded to expected goals conceded per game) into a percentile rank. 2015/16 Navas’ shot-stopping was better than roughly 77% of all keepers, dipping down to the 50-60% region in the following two seasons.
2014/15 Iker Casillas’ shot-stopping was superior to a little over 67% of his peers, making it the second best season by a Real Madrid goalkeeper (when mentally adjusting for sample size — Navas only started 6 games in 2014/15 and 10 games in 2018/19) within the date range provided by the table.
Nevertheless, even though Casillas was better than remembered, it was hard to argue that he hadn’t declined and even more difficult to explain how the keeper behind him, who was brilliant with Levante in 13/14, didn’t deserve a more significant role.
In Casillas’ mind, he could only envision a Real Madrid with him as a starter. Not only was he his own man and a Madridista through and through, but he was also a leader, and leadership did not mean sitting on the bench. Being a leader meant being on the front lines, where he could inspire and galvanize his teammates with his vocality and glorious saves.
At the end of the 14/15 season, Real Madrid’s and Casillas’ visions of what the club needed diverged. Casillas was still interested in being the face of the team, the heir to Raúl, and a leader of men. Real Madrid were interested in having a better goalkeeper.
As Sid Lowe put it, the resulting ending was as acrimonious as it could have been:
Some had turned up two days earlier, expecting a big send-off on Friday, proudly announced in the press, but final negotiations to rescind his contract had become bitter and the deal had momentarily fallen through. By the time it was put together, both sides’ only satisfaction came from seeing the back of each other. The send-off had been cancelled, if there had genuinely been plans for one in the first place. It is not clear why, but reports suggested that Casillas had turned down the opportunity, seeing it as hypocritical, the insincere embrace of a club that forced him out.
Those scars remain; relationships have not been repaired. There is a divide that has become entrenched and purely footballing criteria have been buried beneath politics and phobias; it is not just about the player but the legend and the legends.
Casillas said his farewell in an environment that dripped in metaphor. If Casillas shed tears with no one around him but the goggling press, it is because that is how he saw his reality.
Whether Pérez was right to respect Casillas’ supposed wishes or not (and the president probably should’ve demanded something grander), it soon became clear that Madrid’s decision was a disastrous one in the eyes of the footballing world. There was still a well-written “communicado oficial” and Real Madrid continued to acknowledge Casillas over the years — most notably when the legend suffered a heart-attack — but the mentions were too brief and too close to the painful divorce to feel like the wounds had truly healed.
Casillas mostly became an afterthought, as a new generation of fans saw Keylor Navas as their goalkeeper and Madrid forged their own history in Europe without their greatest captain. Meanwhile, Casillas played a lower level of football at FC Porto, with his parents seeing that as an insult. His mother angrily proclaimed:
FC Porto is like a Segunda División B team and our son deserves a better club like FC Barcelona.
But Porto turned out to be the perfect place for Casillas. Unbeknownst to most Madridistas, Iker quietly regained his best form after a shaky first season. Away from the unrelenting pressure of the Spanish capital, he put in clutch performances vs. league rivals Benfica and Sporting CP time and time again and set new personal bests.
As Portuguese football expert Tiago Estêvão put it:
[Casillas was an] icon. Legend. Incredible on the pitch, particularly in big matches. Embraced the city and represented the club like few ever did.
Porto was the best thing that happened to him after what Real Madrid didn’t do for him, and he became the best thing that happened to Porto. [It] was just the perfect blend for both parties.
Casillas went where his leadership, classy personality, and pure passion for the game was still needed and he became a Porto icon and cult legend as a result.
Now, five years on from the teary press conference and with confirmation that his career as a footballer is over, it feels like time has finally melted away the bitterness and pain. The official statement is very similar (in fact, nearly identical) to the one announcing Casillas’ departure in 2015, but the mood feels very different.
This time, there is the emotional seven to eight minute video that can’t help but jerk a tear from your eye.
This time, there are the triumphant memories crystallized in iconic photos and a heartfelt tribute by none other than Florentino Pérez himself.
It is almost as if Real Madrid are taking the opportunity to say goodbye to Casillas the footballer the proper way, half a decade on from a debacle that broke all of our hearts and cast the club’s image in a negative light.
But this isn’t so much of a goodbye as it is a welcome party bringing Casillas back into the fold. After all, it was announced in July that he would be returning in the capacity of an advisor to Florentino Pérez, with Casillas’ role yet to be defined.
As skeptical as I am of former players automatically getting management positions, I can’t help but think that something about this just feels right. Not only will Casillas likely be good counsel for Pérez — given his firm commitment to Madridismo values and his strong personality — but his return, along with the touching tributes, signal that the reconciliation with St. Iker is finally complete.
And not just with Real Madrid: