For at least 10 years, I kept joking that Iker Casillas was challenging Julio Iglesias’ status as the greatest Spaniard ever.
Iglesias’ credentials are well-known, at least if you were born before 1980. Otherwise, let me explain: Julio is a billionaire singer who can’t actually sing – and yes, that deserves huge recognition—, which coupled with his global success and the fact that he managed to remain an irresistible sex-symbol for almost all of his adult life made him top the list. Ah! He also played on goal for Real Madrid until he broke his knee and changed careers… Nothing could go wrong for Julio. What else could you ask for in a Spaniard? Success, money, international recognition…
But then Iker showed up.
He entered the footballing stage like the greats do: a few days short of his 21st birthday, his handful of saves against Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions League final became an unbeatable business card. He had lost the starting spot a few weeks earlier after some disciplinary issues which Del Bosque punished, but those three saves gave Real Madrid their 9th Champions League title and brought him back to the line-up.
And then we witnessed those 10 amazing years. I know, I know, if you put together the classic analysis comparing Iker to other great keepers who played against him, he will always trail them – Buffon, Schmeichel, even perhaps Valdés? – in terms of aerial dominance within his box and ability to use his feet to start plays from the back.
However, Iker displayed two outstanding traits in his game, and we could see them so often that it became obvious that they were no fluke: the first one is that he could change the flow of a match with a save. Plenty of times I saw Real Madrid suffering mightily, right until the opposition had the perfect chance to score. Iker pulled an amazing stop and the team reacted immediately. Those saves gave the team wins not only because Real Madrid did not concede, but especially because the squad woke up when their captain had to work his magic.
The second trait is another characteristic he shared with the true greats: he came through when it mattered. Plenty of examples of this in tournament finals and penalty shootouts, both with Real Madrid and the national team. At some point the various squads Iker led during those 10 years made me think we were invincible. It was a glorious feeling of power.
Both traits are hard to measure, but allow me to walk away from the data-driven analysis for a second. I’ll simply use two examples I’ve referred to before, but sorry, they never get old.
First, there’s the 2010 World Cup. Similarly to other keepers’, Iker had complained publicly about that WC’s ball, the Jabulani, because it kept changing trajectory when hit hard more bizarrely than any other ball before. In the months before the tournament, Iker hadn’t looked his best, and his words about the ball really sounded like an additional element of justification that left us quite concerned.
When the WC started, I don’t think I exaggerate one iota when I say that Iker parried away every single shot that came his way, no matter how easy and soft they had been hit. He seemed unable to grab the ball, looked even more nervous than normal with every high cross and he indeed conveyed that feeling to his back four and whoever had been watching that team for a while.
[Graham Hunteresque bit here: I had enjoyed the luck of watching Euro08, Confed Cup 09 and that World Cup in loco, following the team and their training sessions, and surrounded by plenty of journos and sponsor personnel who knew the team like the back of their hands, and we all shared that feeling. Iker did not look himself].
And then the Paraguay match happened. With 0-0 and 59 minutes, the left-footed Cardozo took his penalty to Casillas’ left, and he not only saved a thunderous shot, but he also denied a rebound grabbing the freaking Jabulani for the first time in the whole tournament. Obviously, the team took two steps forward after seeing his captain born again, and won the match. Yes, his save to Robben in the final is indeed more important, but from my point of view and those of my colleagues that summer in South Africa, that was the save that told the squad “We can win this, Iker is here”.
The second example comes from a Real Madrid match at home vs Zaragoza, back in 2008. The team played like crap and won that match 2-0 thanks to an amazing performance by Iker, who saved everything Diego Milito, Ricardo Oliveira et al threw at him. There’s plenty of impressive saves in the video, and even the classic shot to the post that Saint Iker always provoked (or at least we believers think that way), but the double stop in extra time was the final straw. The way his team mates embraced him after a home win in a La Liga match says it all. And that is probably the point: unorthodox as he was, Iker could overwhelm the opposition playing as a keeper. I can recall very few like that.
Having won so much with both Real Madrid and the national team, his marriage with the adorable Sara Carbonero got him in Julio Iglesias’ territory. Not only he had earned a collection of accolades and prizes in his sport of choice, and had made a decent amount of money off it, but he had also married well. I used to joke that he needed to invest some of his money in a high-impact social project to dethrone Julio once and for all.
So far, that has not happened yet, and his mindboggling slump in form during the last few years of his career did hurt his case a lot. If that wasn’t enough, things coulda shoulda been better managed in his final years at Real Madrid and especially when he decided to leave for Porto. His quarrels with Mourinho and his close relationships with specific members of the media deserve its own piece, not in a positive light, and therefore Iker does not look bound to surpass Julio in the future.
However, I choose not to think about that. I prefer to remember the long list of nights in which I felt our goalie would make the difference.
It’s hard for me to believe that I’ll have that feeling again.