It would be a mere matter of routine to write a fluff piece about Iker Casillas; discuss at length how he led Spain to glory in 2008, how his Zamora-winning season of 2007/08 helped Real Madrid regain a league title they hadn’t previously won in four years, discuss his character, his humbleness, and refer to the wonderful array of trophies he won in succeeding years after 2008. But that wouldn’t do.
Casillas’ case to being the greatest ‘C’ of his era is far from definitive. As a goalkeeper he is already at a disadvantage, his profession generally only making headlines through mistakes. He also played at Real Madrid, a club not short of renowned goalscorers and whose defensive players are generally seen only as passengers when it comes to the club’s successes; not to mention a large portion of Casillas’s Los Blancos’ career was a historically miserable era at the Spanish capital.
There are holes in Casillas’s resume and plenty of ammunition for his detractors to question why the goalkeeper commands such respect both among fans and his peers. Yet there is something special about his status in the footballing world, and if one can get a good grasp of how he earned it, it might just change how you define greatness.
Come the turn of the century, Iker Casillas had already established himself as a starter at Real Madrid. First breaking into the senior side in 1997, he made his European debut two years later. against Olympiacos, making him the youngest goalkeeper to start a Champions League match, aged just 18 – a record recently broken by Benfica’s Mile Svilar.
By June 2000, the Móstoles-born stopper became the youngest keeper to wear the Champions League crown, keeping a clean sheet during Real’s 3-0 triumph over domestic rivals Valencia. The Spaniard seemed set to take the footballing world by storm, as Madridistas, and so many football fans, expect every young star to do on the back of a good season. Reality, though, rarely works out in such a way.
After playing much of the 2000/01 campaign, in which Madrid secured the LaLiga title, Casillas began the following season on rocky ground. Perhaps comfortable in his position as starter, the Spaniard’s life away from the pitch began to get in the way of his football and he repeatedly showed up late for training. After a number of errors during the first half of the season, he was dropped to the bench in February 2002.
He didn’t feature in Real Madrid’s last 11 league games, nor their quarter-final and semi-final wins over Bayern Munich and Barcelona to reach the Champions League final in Glasgow. If it hadn’t been for two injuries, Casillas’ career might have never panned out as it did. The first was in the Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen in which César Sánchez was forced to go off in the 68th minute, allowing Casillas to steal the show as Real Madrid won a finely poised European final 2-1 and secured their ninth Champions League title.
Not long after, Spain’s first-choice goalkeeper, Santiago Cañizares, cut himself after dropping a bottle of aftershave, putting him out of commission for the World Cup. His young understudy stood up and reproduced his Glasgow final form on the international stage as his nation struggled overall.
The performances towards the end of the 2001/02 season secured Casillas’ spot as Real and Spain number one for the rest of the decade. It was a far from foolproof way to earn his reputation but, as often is the case with Casillas, there is simply something special about him that cannot be questioned. “That time on the bench really, really hurt,” he told Sid Lowe in a 2004 interview, “but I learnt more that season than ever.”
If 2002 was a turning point in the career of Casillas, it was also a turning point for the club he played for. After league victory in 2003, Real dispensed with several members of the old guard, including manager Vicente del Bosque. In their place, Los Blancos indulged in a foray of foreign stars. With names such as Zinedine Zidane, Ronaldo and David Beckham, it was clear from the getgo that Madrid’s board intended the team to score their way to silverware with a pantheon of marketable characters leading the way.
The plan backfired and the club found themselves often leaning on their old heroes, one of them being Casillas. There were some truly enormous names in Spanish goalkeeping history, playing for more successful clubs at that time, yet Casillas’ is the only one that persisted. Some cynics might argue that it was the trophies he’d win later that ensured his legacy, but failure isn’t an option at Real Madrid and, given enough reason, the goalkeeper would have been the first to go when things got sour.
The fact of the matter was that, though the numbers don’t reflect it, Casillas played brilliantly for much of the early 2000s, even though both he and Real had nothing to show for it at the end of many a season. Playing alongside a number of defenders during those dark years, Real’s defensive sequences often came down to a one-on-one duel between Casillas and the opposing attacker. More often than not, it would take three or four bites of the cherry before rivals got the better of the quick-wristed Spaniard.
In 2006, Real Madrid saw a change of management and Casillas finally began to enjoy the spoils of his toil. In 2007, Los Blancos won their first trophy in four years, by way of a dramatic final day league title victory. The following year they retained the trophy, with Casillas winning his first Zamora award that same season. Later that summer, Casillas lifted the European Championship with Spain after a predictably standout tournament which earned him a place on the UEFA Team of the Tournament.
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.
By Kristofer McCormack @K_mc06