All hail Saint Iker of Móstoles — the devourer of titles; the keeper of records. One of only a handful of players to have won every major trophy on the planet with club and country. A man with reflexes out of this world, but who remains the most grounded Galáctico ever to have donned the white of Real Madrid. Casillas is an impregnable force, a generational icon and a leader of men. And he’s marching on Brazil this summer….

By Dermot Corrigan
Photography by Rory van Millingen

This article first appeared in Issue Seven of The Green Soccer Journal, Summer 2014

We sit down with Iker Casillas the morning after Real Madrid’s Champions League semi-final second-leg at Bayern Munich. Hours earlier, Madrid had travelled to Bavaria and comprehensively steamrollered the German champions 4-0, thanks to two goals each from Cristiano Ronaldo and Sergio Ramos.

It was the Spanish giants’ first ever win in Munich, a result hailed by the local press as their best ever in the competition. Victory tasted even sweeter given that this was former Barcelona coach Josep Guardiola’s first season in charge at the Allianz Arena.

In goal had been the club’s dependable captain and all-round Madrileño icon Iker Casillas, soon to turn 33, who kept yet another clean sheet on a night which surpassed the expectations of even the most fanatical of Blancos supporters.

“The truth is it went well, because we have made it through to the final of the Champions League,” Casillas says with a wry smile. “We knew it was going to be a very tough game, but certainly in the first half things went phenomenally well. The European Cup – not just for me, but for Real Madrid as a club – is something special.”

Casillas’ career to date has, in many ways, been defined by his relationship with European football’s biggest club competition. In November 1997 he was sitting in a classroom at the Instituto Cañaveral, a secondary school in the Madrid dormitory town of Móstoles, when the principal burst in and announced that the school had received a phone call – the 16-year-old was to pack up his books at once. A taxi was coming. Real Madrid’s senior goalkeepers, Bodo Illgner and Pedro Contreras, were both injured, and the youth-teamer had been booked on the first team’s flight to Norway for a Champions League group game against Rosenberg.

The fresh-faced youngster watched the game from the bench, an unused substitute for Spanish international Santi Cañizares. He was soon back playing for the youth team, and studying for exams alongside his schoolmates. But the wheels had been set in motion.

Aged just 18 years and 115 days, Casillas made his first team debut in September 1999 at Athletic Bilbao’s San Mames stadium, a game which ended in a 2-2 draw. Three days later, he made his first Champions League appearance in a group match away at Greek side Olympiakos.

At the end of a whirlwind eight months, he had become the youngest goalkeeper ever to play in a European Cup or Champions League final, crowning the evening with a clean sheet as fellow La Liga club Valencia were beaten 3-0 and Madrid claimed an eighth tournament victory.

The homegrown ’keeper ‘had arrived to stay’, as they say in Spain. The following year saw Casillas claim his first La Liga winner’s medal, but it was not all plain sailing; a handful of costly mistakes during the 2001-02 campaign culminated in Cesar Sánchez replacing him as first choice at the
Bernabéu.

That season’s story was far from over, however. With 20 minutes remaining in the last game of the year, Sánchez picked up an injury. It just so happened that Madrid’s last game of the season was the Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen in Glasgow. It is a night remembered above all for Zinedine Zidane’s impossibly graceful left-foot volley that won the game for Madrid, but a string of brilliant late saves from the substitute goalkeeper would prove just as decisive. For many, it marked a maturation point in his career.

At just 21, Casillas was already a two-time European Cup winner, standing shoulder to shoulder with some of the best players in the world. By contrast, his friends from the Instituto in Móstoles were still studying or had just begun their working lives. How does anyone deal with such a change in circumstances?

“I started very young,” Casillas says, “and balanced secondary school with Real Madrid. It was a great time [for the club] – the era of the Galácticos, when we won European Cups, Intercontinental Cups, Ligas … Spending every day with players of immense stature like David Beckham, Ronaldo, Zidane, Roberto Carlos, [Luis] Figo… it was a privilege for me. I felt like a competition winner. It was a wonderful period for the club, and it’s unfortunate that we didn’t win more trophies. But I am still immensely proud to have been a part of it.”

The slight air of disappointment that permeates Casillas’ reflections on the club’s trophy haul offers a window on to the more serious, analytical side of his personality. The memories of early successes are irrevocably tainted by the events of June 2003: the day after the team had secured yet another La Liga title, and just a week on from Madrid’s signing of David Beckham from Manchester United for £25m.

Club president Florentino Perez decided that genial, moustachioed coach Vicente Del Bosque was not ‘Hollywood’ enough to lead his team of Galácticos and terminated his contract. The divorce from Del Bosque was particularly difficult for Casillas, who had known the elder statesman ever since joining Madrid’s youth system as a nine-year-old. The obviously talented – and clearly determined – youngster had progressed quickly through the ranks under the watchful eye of Del Bosque, at that time the head of academy operations.

A few years down the line, as senior coach, Del Bosque would oversee Casillas’ first steps into the senior team as a teenager. He would also be the man at the helm on the greatest night of Casillas’ career. But that is a story for later.

“We have a very good relationship,” Casillas says now. “I have known Vicente since I was a kid, since I first started out as a nine-year-old at Real Madrid. I have known him throughout my professional career. He is a simple, very good person. I can’t think of a negative adjective to describe him, because there are none. And I believe that he is the man to lead the national team – everyone likes him and Spain is happy to have him.”

 

Iker Casillas

“Spending every day with players of immense stature […] was a privilege for me. I felt like a competition winner.”

International recognition soon followed: Casillas became a European under-16 champion with Spain in 1997. Two years later – still aged just 17 – he was a member of the under-20 side which travelled to the 1999 Youth World Cup, making two decisive saves in the penalty shoot-out which decided the quarter-final against Ghana, in a tournament Spain went on to win.

This smooth upwards trajectory continued as he went on to make his senior debut in a pre-Euro 2000 friendly against Sweden in Gothenburg, and later that year appeared in his first competitive international – a 2-1 win over Bosnia in a World Cup qualifier.

Initially, however, international football proved a source of frustration. Casillas was Spain’s first-choice goalkeeper for the 2002 World Cup in Japan and South Korea, the hero of a last-16 penalty shoot-out against the Republic of Ireland. But Jose Antonio Camacho’s team were sickeningly jettisoned by South Korea in the quarter-finals following two offside calls that were an affront to professional sport. Then, the 2004 European Championships in Portugal saw a team managed by Iñaki Sáez bow out meekly in the group stages. And it was Casillas’ club-mate Zidane who netted the winner as France eliminated Spain in the last-16 of the 2006 World Cup in Germany. For a while, La Roja were everyone’s dark horses – capable of impressing early on, but likely to succumb when the going got tough. And it was a hard tag to shake.

“For some time, Spanish football had been searching for joy at the finals of a major competition – a Euros or a World Cup,” Casillas says. “Not since 1984 had we reached a final, and not since 1964 had we actually won one. Things hadn’t gone so well for us over the previous decade – just look at the referee at the World Cup in Japan and Korea. In Portugal in 2004, the team didn’t fulfil expectations, and in Germany the same thing happened.”

Then came Euro 2008. After a wretched 3-2 defeat in Belfast during qualifying, veteran manager Luis Aragonés put all his eggs in one basket, risking everything on a ‘tiki-taka’ style of relentless passing and pressing which favoured small, skilful young midfielders such as Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, David Silva and Cesc Fàbregas. The team showed signs of progress. Casillas [who had by now replaced Raúl as national captain] shone during the goalless semi-final with Italy, saving penalties from Daniele De Rossi and Antonio Di Natale in yet another shoot-out.

Four decades of hurt and underachievement for the Spanish national side were finally brought to an end when they went on to beat Germany 1-0 in the final, courtesy of a 33rd minute winner from Fernando Torres.

“In the end, a mix of luck, the good work of the coaches and the quality of the players came together for the national team in 2008,” Casillas says. “A lot of work went into [that victory], including from the youth team coaches, which meant that all the players had come together in the youth teams before progressing to the senior side. We also had a coach [Aragonés] who liked to show his face, who was strong, stubborn and gambled on a different style of play.”

Aragonés stepped aside after the tournament, to be replaced by Casillas’ old mentor Del Bosque ahead of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Further success followed, with Casillas’ reflexes again playing a vital role in Spain’s charge, albeit characteristically patient and methodical, to the final. This time, the shot-stopping specialist performed heroics to keep out a penalty from Paraguay’s Oscar Cardozo in the last-16, before saving with his leg to deny Arjen Robben in the last minute of normal time in the final.

The one-on-one save against the Netherlands was no fluke. While Xavi, Iniesta and Xabi Alonso are often seen as the pivots around which Spain’s game plan revolves, it is just as vital to have someone with Casillas’s reflexes and concentration between the posts. By prioritising holding the ball over shooting at goal, Spain present their opponents with very few goalscoring chances during games.

It is an old adage that to win a game of football, you have only to score more goals than the opposition. Spain’s intense outfield pressing denies teams the chance to test Casillas; but it is a tactical approach which also means they tend not to score too many themselves. The scoreboard often remains locked at 0-0 until late in the game, when Del Bosque’s side can employ their superior speed of thought and quickness of foot to pick off tired opponents.

All of this, however, means additional pressure for their goalkeeper. Long spells of outfield possession have a tendency to reduce Casillas to the role of spectator. All the more important, then, for him to retain his concentration.

Luckily for Spain, focus is one of Casillas’ strengths; the team did not concede a goal during the knockout stages in the tournaments of 2008, 2010 or 2012. The last time the ball found its way into Casillas’ net in a competitive elimination match was eight years, four tournaments and 10 full games ago. He puts this remarkable record down to great mental fortitude, but also to the responsibility he feels towards his team-mates and millions of watching fans.

“The position of the goalkeeper is different from that of an outfield player,” he says. “An outfield player can miss ten chances to score, but if he scores and we win 1-0 then he becomes the hero of the game. With a ’keeper it is the complete opposite. I can make ten great saves in a game, but if I make a mistake at a key moment, then it is all on me. It is a position with a lot of responsibility which demands a huge amount of concentration. You must always be prepared, even more so for a World Cup, when you have to be focused at all times; for the occasion, the amount of people watching and for yourself. At that level of football, the repercussions are enormous.”

“An outfield player can miss ten chances to score, but if he scores and we win 1-0 then he becomes the hero of the game. With a ’keeper it is the complete opposite.”

Fortunately for Spain – and for Casillas – the repercussions after that final against Holland in Johannesburg were exclusively positive. Perhaps the most memorable moment was the kiss he shared with partner Sara Carbonero just moments after lifting the trophy, an image that was beamed around the world and which deeply moved millions of viewers both at home and abroad.

It was a completely organic expression of love and joy between the pair – all the more compelling since Carbonero was working as a pitch-side reporter for Spanish TV at the time – and completed Casillas’ transformation from local lad-turned-footballing hero to national treasure and global icon.

‘Saint Iker’ is the closest thing to an Iberian David Beckham – clean-cut, polite and respectful off the pitch, a determined leader and winner on it. And, like Beckham, Casillas is more than adept at fulfilling the ambassadorial duties that define him as a role model for millions of aspiring young goalkeepers the world over.

Our meeting takes place just over 12 hours after what, at the time of writing, was Madrid’s most important game of the season, and which produced one of the biggest results of Casillas’ entire career. Manager Carlo Ancelotti has granted the players a day off, so this is the ideal time to look at him in a different light.

The photography studio on the outskirts of Madrid is a flurry of activity, with stylists, photographers, technicians, assistants and Casillas’ representatives all orbiting the Spaniard. But there is no posing or posturing; none of the outlandish demands you might expect from some of the prima donnas at the top of the game. This is just another part of the job, to be approached with the same professionalism as any other. He remains remarkably unflustered throughout the shoot, calmly taking instructions and suggestions from the different crew members buzzing around him, even as he admits he never quite feels at ease under the glare of the photographer’s lamp.

“As a footballer you have certain privileges. You must keep in mind that if you weren’t a footballer, then you wouldn’t have the chance to take part in different adverts, or to do interviews, or to have your photo taken for a magazine,” he says. “I know where I have come from and what it has taken to get here. So you’re fortunate, you take advantage of it and enjoy the moments which offer something other than football. But you mustn’t forget that you are a footballer – you’re not a film star, or someone who must be always in front of the cameras.”

I think momentarily about reminding Casillas of his on-screen career, which has included cameo roles in Hollywood film ‘Goal 2’ and the third instalment of Spanish cop franchise ‘Torrente’. There have also been regular appearances in TV and print advertisements – most notoriously the campaign back in 2005 in which he boldly proclaimed: “I am not a Galáctico, I’m from Móstoles!”

Life in the public eye has its advantages; @casillasworld has already attracted 1.5 million followers on Twitter, and allows Casillas to share his professional and personal endeavours with a global audience. The intense media coverage that now accompanies his relationship with Carbonero has succeeded in turning them into something of a footballing power couple.

Official recognition has even been forthcoming from the powers-that-be in the Spanish government, who awarded Casillas the Gold Medal of Sporting Merit along with the prestigious Prince of Asturias Award for Sports.

Away from the pomp and ceremony that inevitably accompanies such awards, he continues to maintain a long-standing relationship with UNESCO, with whom he has worked on several malaria-prevention projects. At the beginning of May, he joined forces with compatriot and tennis star Rafael Nadal to host a charity event for their respective foundations at Madrid’s Caja Mágica.

But for the boy from Móstoles, there is nothing more gratifying than giving something back to the town which set him on the path to global stardom. Casillas personally oversaw the construction of Móstoles’ ultra-modern sports centre, which now provides the town’s youngsters with the kind of facilities Casillas could have only dreamed of when he was facing shots from his father in the local park.

But even after 15 years in the spotlight, Casillas is still getting used to seeing his face in the media.

“Yes, it is strange,” he says with a smile. “It is not necessarily my thing but, well, nowadays the footballing world turns in a very different way than it did a few years ago. You balance things out as best you can, never forgetting that, first and foremost, you are a footballer…”

Iker Casillas

“You mustn’t forget that you are a footballer – you’re not a film star, or someone who must be always in front of the cameras.”

This balance seems the key to understanding how Casillas has managed to achieve so much, while keeping his feet firmly on the ground. You get the feeling that the recognition from inside the game matters more to him than acclaim from outside.

And that has not been in short supply, either. Spain’s number one has now been named FIFA and FIFPro’s Goalkeeper of the Year five times, and has appeared six times in UEFA’s Team of the Season. He became the most capped player in Spanish history in November 2011, surpassing former Barcelona goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta’s total of 126 in a friendly against England at Wembley. It was a momentous occasion, and something of a homecoming for Casillas, in the stadium where he had made his debut for Spain’s under-15 side. He is the first player ever to win more than 100 international games, and holds the world record for both international victories and clean sheets.

This summer, he could also become the first captain ever to lift two consecutive World Cups.

The ever-tumbling figures and ever-mounting accolades lead inevitably to a questioning of how long one player – or one team – can remain at the top. At this summer’s World Cup in Brazil, Spain are venturing into uncharted territory; not only are they vying to become the first side to win four consecutive top-level international tournaments, but also the first European country to win the competition outside their own continent. Spain will line up in Group B, alongside Holland, Chile and Australia. When the draw was announced last December, Spanish pundits were quick to identify potential banana skins, in part because the runners-up from Group B are set to face the winners of Group A – a group which, ominously, includes Brazil. In their last meeting, in the 2013 Confederations Cup final, Spain went down 3-0 in a match which the hosts quite simply appeared more determined to win.

It is the prism through which fans and pundits are now anticipating events over the coming weeks. But the players will also be mindful of other factors. Should Spain make it to Rio de Janeiro for the final on 7th July, Casillas and his team-mates will have been away from home for well over a month.

On the back of a gruelling domestic and European season, which has seen some individuals play in excess of 50 matches, Del Bosque’s squad will meet in Madrid before flying to the US on 2nd June. Spain will then contest a friendly against El Salvador in Washington on 7th June, before travelling down to Brazil for the crucial opening game, and potential group-decider, against the Dutch.

It’s a hectic schedule, and one which can exact a personal and professional price.

Thankfully, the Spanish football association have plenty of experience in dealing with this situation. In 2010 the squad was based at the low-key but high-tech Potchefstroom university campus; this time, they have again opted for relatively peaceful surroundings, and a resort in the south-eastern city of Curitiba. Like Potchefstroom, Curitiba boasts state-of-the-art training facilities. But, just as importantly, it lacks the glamour or external distractions of sprawling metropolises such as Rio de Janeiro, Salvador or São Paulo.

Keeping a group of 23 players under wraps for weeks on end is not a tactic that has proved overly popular with national squads in the past. England manager Roy Hodgson, sensitive to complaints from players frustrated by the austere regime of predecessor Fabio Capello, has this time around chosen to base Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard and co at the beachside Royal Tulip Hotel in Rio.

Casillas, a more grounded figure than many at the top of the game, struggles to comprehend the suggestion that he or any top-class international footballer might get fed up with spending so long away from their friends and family.

“This is what the world of football is like,” he says. “Yes, you are away from home for 50 days, but you’re fortunate enough to be playing football, doing what you love. On top of that, you have the opportunity to make lots of people happy. You have thousands of people depending on you. There is always a balance there, even if it’s not always positive.”

It helps that Spain’s players seem to have an excellent working relationship. This is in part down to the work of Casillas and Xavi, who have taken a leading role in ensuring that national get-togethers are not polluted by potentially toxic club rivalries. Consequently, the backbone of the side that exploded onto the international stage in 2008 has remained largely intact. Casillas is still between the posts, while other ‘veterans’ such as Xavi, Iniesta, Silva, Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fàbregas and Sergio Ramos remain very much at the top of the game. Others who have joined along the way – Sergio Busquets, Javi Martínez, Gerard Piqué, Juan Mata and Jordi Alba – are still young but can now call on a wealth of big-match experience.

Spain head into this summer’s tournament armed with a treasure trove of world-beating talent; that they would was never in doubt. On paper, La Roja have a squad to trump that of any of the big names touted as potential tournament-winners. By far and away the most pressing question, therefore, is whether or not the holders, having won almost everything the game has to offer, can show the desire and motivation to do it all again.

Casillas’ response, direct and to the point, suggests it is not the first time he has been quizzed on his side’s appetite for further silverware in recent weeks. He refutes the idea that Brazil 2014 represents anything other than a “priceless” opportunity to give something back to Spain’s loyal supporters.

“We have many fans,” he says. “I believe that we have the opportunity to make lots of people happy. Just going on to the Internet and seeing the photos of how people reacted when we won the World Cup or the European Championships… that is priceless. Now we have another opportunity to inspire people and bring them that joy. We know it won’t be easy because our national team already contains a few veterans, but I believe we have enough left in us for this World Cup, and to tackle it in the best way possible by playing our football, and trying to do our things well.”

He plays it down, but it is nigh on impossible for this team to escape the suggestion that the Jules Rimet trophy could once again be sitting snugly between Casillas’ gloves come 7th July. If so, it would see this team of ‘veterans’ bow out on the world’s biggest stage.

When it comes up in conversation, Casillas concedes that he may soon be a veteran himself. All the same, he’s quick to assert that he has no intention of relinquishing his international jersey.

“I have been with the national team for 14 years,” he says. “It’s not easy to be with the Spanish senior side for so long. Even more so now, when there are very good goalkeepers and players. But you think about how long your body can [hold out]… And even more importantly, your head. The mentality of a player can be a determining factor [in the length of his career]. But you never get tired of enjoying these moments. There is no plan, other than to play and do well for your team so that the coach values you and includes you in the national squad.”

Time is almost up, and the crew is waiting to pack up and move on, so I move on to my final question. Is it really possible that you can do it? Do you really think that you can win another World Cup, and extend the country’s winning streak to four trophies?

“It is possible. Why would it not be possible?” he says. “I believe we have great players, and that we can go and defend the trophy we won in South Africa. We know it will be difficult, as every national team wants to win this trophy, but we are going to go there with the intention of winning it. At the end of it all, we’ll see if we can do it.”

The message is loud and clear. Iker Casillas is a seasoned campaigner who started young and has won everything there is to win in the game. But he’s far from finished yet.

This article first appeared in Issue Seven of The Green Soccer Journal, Summer 2014

Pre-Match Meal Gianluigi Buffon