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Farewell Iker Casillas, the Saint Who Brought Us Saves, Tears, and Clashes

Farewell Iker Casillas, the Saint Who Brought Us Saves, Tears, and Clashes

Monday, 10 August, 2020 - 09:30
Iker Casillas kisses the trophy after Spain’s 2010 World Cup final victory over the Netherlands. Photograph: Roberto Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images

Put it down to the luck of the Irish. Specifically, the bad luck. Pitted against Spain in the second round of the 2002 World Cup finals in South Korea, with their best player, Roy Keane, walking his dog on a Cheshire golf course thousands of miles away, nobody gave Mick McCarthy’s side a prayer. Despite this, God appeared to be smiling on the boys in green, the sides level at one goal apiece at full-time and an uncharacteristically out-of-sorts Spain reduced to 10 men for the additional half-hour through injury. Ireland pressed and probed, smelling blood, with Robbie Keane, Damien Duff and Niall Quinn wreaking havoc up front. They failed to score, a visibly exhausted Spanish rearguard somehow keeping them at bay.

A thoroughbred surrounded by donkeys that day, Iker Casillas had kept his team in the game with a series of fine saves including a penalty from Ian Harte and one particularly eye-catching block at the feet of Robbie Keane. Spot-kicks from Kevin Kilbane and David Connolly in the shootout didn’t take much stopping but he repelled them anyway and at just 21 years of age his canonization was complete: “Saint Iker” was among us. “He isn’t human,” wrote one excitable Spanish columnist in AS. “The day he came to earth, light shone down upon his house like it did at the gate of Bethlehem when Jesus Christ arrived in the world. He’s immune to pain, mistakes and bad luck.”

Immune? Not entirely. As a child he either forgot or didn’t bother to submit a quiniela coupon for Spain’s equivalent of the football pools, only for all 14 of his father’s predictions to come in. His mistake having cost somewhere in the region of £1m, it is not difficult to imagine that particularly large slice of bad luck resulting in some sort of physical or emotional pain.

His fortune changed dramatically as a 16-year-old when he was summoned from the classroom to sit on the bench for Real Madrid, improved further when he replaced the injured César Sánchez during a Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen and began bordering on the outrageous when he earned his place in Spain’s 2002 World Cup side when the first-choice goalkeeper Santiago Cañizares severed a tendon while “trapping” a bottle of aftershave with a foot. “Luck?” Casillas mused in a 2004 interview with the Guardian. “Maybe. But if you let in three, what’s the point? You have to take advantage.”

And how. After more than 1,000 senior appearances for Real Madrid, Porto and Spain, Casillas announced his retirement this week, his trophy cabinet a bulging treasure trove. One World Cup. Two European Championships. Three Champions Leagues. Five Spanish league titles. Two Copa del Reys. Two Uefa Super Cups. One Club World Cup. One Portuguese title.

Of course not every day was a good one and like many saints, Casillas became a victim of persecution. Although renowned for his modesty, generally mild off-field manner and mantra of “never, ever forgetting where you came from”, he has a touchy, spiky side and his patience was tested to its limits by the pernicious dressing-room influence of José Mourinho. The pair clashed repeatedly and matters came to a head when Casillas was left out of the first team amid rumours of his involvement in dressing-room leaks, which he denied, and a particularly bitter player revolt.

“There needs to be a little more respect to Iker, he’s well loved,” said his teammate Pepe, following a stinging public assessment of the goalkeeper by their manager. “What the coach said was not the most appropriate. Iker is a player who is part of Madrid. He’s an institution, both in this club and in Spain.” The Portuguese defender was dropped for his insubordination. “His intelligence and maturity have made us always respect each other and years later we have even been able to cultivate an honest friendship,” said the fabled authority on maturity that is Mourinho upon hearing of Casillas’s decision to hang up his gloves.

Five years ago, sitting alone and visibly distressed in the media room at the Santiago Bernabéu, the player tearfully announced he was leaving Real for Porto after 25 years at the club. At a press conference so excruciating the Spanish club invited him back to do it again the next day in a futile attempt at damage limitation, he thanked the fans for “unconditional support” that had been anything but in a preceding season often soundtracked by jeers and whistles. Tellingly, he failed to thank the club president, Florentino Pérez, with whom his relationship had disintegrated.

“He has suffered psychological pressure and they treated him differently to other players,” said his mother, Mari Carmen, who accused Pérez of drumming her pride and joy out of the club. “I have watched him suffer for many years. It is Florentino who is pushing him out because he wanted to end his career at Real Madrid.” Pérez denied that.

Casillas has not played since a heart attack in 2019 and in February announced his intention to run for president of the Spanish Football Federation before withdrawing his candidacy because of the coronavirus. Apparently determined to swap his uniform of garish short-sleeved shirt for a blazer, in a comical and slightly sad development he is reported to be in advanced talks regarding a return to Madrid to work as a special adviser to the president widely considered responsible for his ignominious exit.

“The important thing is the path you travel and the people who accompany you, not the destination to which it takes you,” he wrote in the statement announcing his retirement. One suspects that for Saint Iker, a much-loved icon who has had his fair share of good and bad luck, there will be plenty more twists and turns in the road.

(The Guardian)

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