You’re not supposed to make it as a professional footballer. The immense number of children whose busy feet fidget under football-covered duvets each night, as they dream vividly of making winning contributions to cup finals, pales into paltry insignificance compared to the minuscule number of those who go on to turn that dream into a living reality.
According to Michael Calvin, author of esteemed football academy exposé No Hunger In Paradise, “Of all the boys who enter a football academy at the age of nine, less than half of 1% are able to make a living from the game. Furthermore, only 180 of the 1.5 million players who are playing organised youth football in England at any one time will make it as a Premier League professional. That’s a success rate of 0.012%.” Regardless of whether you play your football in England, El Salvador, Ethiopia, or anywhere in between, the numbers remain much the same. You’re not supposed to make it as a professional footballer.
One of those fortunate few who was able to achieve that eternal dream is recently retired goalkeeper Iker Casillas, a serial trophy-lifting, era-defining custodian. But the now-legendary Spaniard didn’t stop defying the odds the moment he became a professional. No, he made a career out of it.
Goalkeepers aren’t supposed to make their debuts in the Champions League at the age of 18, but that was precisely what Iker did; only three days after first showing his cherubic face in LaLiga. He’d almost made his European bow as early as two years before, away to Rosenborg – quite literally dragged out of a school class at the behest of a Real Madrid official in desperate need of a reserve goalkeeper, having seen both Bodo Illgner and Santiago Cañizares succumb to injury – but it was against Olympiacos, in 1999, that he’d first take to the pitch in Europe’s most prestigious club competition.
Little more than a year later and Iker’s gloves were gripping tightly the famous trophy’s big old ears – and not for the last time – thrusting it into the sky with tears still glistening in his eyes as his side bested their compatriots Valencia in order to become champions of Europe. If, as he’d blown the 19 candles out atop his birthday cake, he’d spent his wish on longing to win the Champions League, incredibly, it had taken just four days to come true.
Two seasons later, Casillas was king of the continent again. Though the campaign had seen him drop behind veteran teammate César Sánchez in the running for the position as Madrid’s numero uno, an injury to Sánchez, 20 or so minutes from the end of the showpiece final against Bayer Leverkusen, saw Casillas step up once more – and it was his heroics that kept his side’s 2-1 triumph intact. From that day, Casillas never looked back.
Casillas made more than his fair share of admirers with both his play-style and his play style. On the rare occasion his abundant skillset wasn’t enough to catch the eye – his exceptional agility and athleticism, his impressive level of speed, his acute sense of awareness, and his iron wrists deemed insufficient – his succession of goalkeeping innovations were there to ensure he remained one worth watching, even when fans might’ve been tempted to look further up the field for idols.
One of the first goalkeepers to don short sleeves, and known to go as far as to cut the sleeves off his long-sleeve shirts when short-sleeve alternatives weren’t available – part fashion statement, part superstition – Casillas never failed to beckon the limelight, long before he was cleared to wear a colourful Storelli goalkeeper jersey under his New Balance-sponsored Porto training kit.
On his way to unrivalled acclaim in the Spanish capital, spread thick across 16 seasons and over 700 club appearances for Real Madrid, from La Fábrica to La Decima, Casillas aided Los Blancos in dominating Spain to the tune of five LaLiga titles, two Copa del Rey, four Supercopa de España, not to mention the vast and glittering array of continental silverware swiped en route. Though his time with Real had to end – ultimately against his wishes – his untimely departure did at least allow for fans of a new club – in this case, Portugal’s Porto – to witness his genius and treasure the custodian just as Real Madrid once had.
To the delight of those whose hearts beat to the flamenco tempo of La Roja’s fortunes, Casillas routinely brought his fine form and idiosyncratic goalkeeping heroics to the national team, as he helped form the spine of one of the greatest teams the football-obsessed world has ever had the pleasure of watching.
As had been the case with his start to life at Real Madrid, Casillas’ fate with the national team was not without its fair share of luck. An unused substitute at Euro 2000, he began preparation for the 2002 World Cup eager to play but understanding of his role as understudy to the aforementioned Cañizares. Yet, on the eve of the tournament, a clumsily dropped aftershave bottle would fall from the hand of Cañizares and shatter, injuring his right foot and ruling him out of contention. Who else but Casillas would come to fill his space in the team?
Deputising for his crocked compatriot, he made full use of the tournament. He put on a stellar display against the Republic of Ireland in the round of 16, worthy of the nickname “San Iker” – Saint Iker – before turning in another superb showing in the quarter-finals against co-hosts South Korea. The 2002 World Cup became the perfect precursor for what was to come, foreshadowing even greater tales of unprecedented international success.
When Casillas proudly debuted for his nation, in June 2000 against Sweden, he kept goal for a team that had not tasted victory at a major tournament for the entirety of his lifetime. In fact, when his country squeezed past the Soviet Union at the Santiago Bernabéu to lift the trophy on home soil back in Euro 1964, his parents were youngsters themselves.
Subsequently, the idea of Casillas continuing his trophy-winning habits in the red of Spain wasn’t the most likely of prospects. That his collection of winners’ medals today includes two European Championships and a World Cup, then, should astound. Yet, such is the case for anybody who knows Casillas and what he proved himself to be capable of, it comes as little surprise. It is simply typical of a footballer who is no stranger to exceeding expectation and who remains unsettled by even the most unfavourable of odds.
In May 2019, Casillas’s club confirmed the player had suffered an “acute heart attack” during training and, in justifiable shock, the world of football feared the worst. Then, just five days after being admitted to the CUF Porto Hospital, the 38-year-old walked out, smiling, a picture of health, hand-in-hand with his wife, before addressing an applauding public: “I understand I have to be grateful because I was lucky,” he reflected. “I do not know what the future will be, but the most important thing is to be here, to be able to speak and tell everyone how I am and how I feel. Thank you very much and see you soon.”
This particular battle, perhaps for the first time, was taken out of Casillas’ trusted hands and into those of the doctors and surgeons responsible for his care. But, as you might expect, the result remained much the same: he remained unbeaten. As we well know, Casillas has spent so much of his life defying the odds. It’d take a foolish man to assume he’ll spend the rest of his days doing anything to the contrary.
The next bold step on Casillas’ continuing, odds-defying career path appears to be an ambitious run at becoming the next president of the RFEF, the Royal Spanish Football Federation. Precisely what his plans are, should he be successfully elected as the leader of his country’s governing body for football, have yet to be elucidated in any detail to the public. What the legendary shot-stopper did say, though, in typically self-assured style, was this: “Together we will put our federation at the height of the best football in the world.”
One can’t resist thinking the future of Spanish football would find itself in rather safe hands should they be the hands of San Iker.
By Will Sharp @shillwarp