Johannesburg, 11th July 2010. Spain versus the Netherlands in the World Cup final. The clock reads 61 minutes, and it is still a stalemate between the two sides. Suddenly, Wesley Sneijder slips a ball through to Arjen Robben on the halfway line, who dashes past the Spanish defenders and into the penalty area. Robben looks up to see the onrushing Iker Casillas, and time stands still as he decides whether to go round the keeper or shoot first time. He picks his spot, and shoots low with his left foot. Casillas goes the wrong way, but deflects the ball wide with an outstretched boot. The danger is averted.
That save was the defining moment of Iker Casillas’ career. There may well have been better stops, but none have been as significant as that one he made to deny Robben in the World Cup final. In Spain, the save is talked about in almost the same glowing terms as Andrés Iniesta’s late winner in added extra time, and rightly so. Casillas’ intervention was crucial in ensuring that Vicente Del Bosque’s side went on to win the World Cup, and his performance in the final meant he would go down in goalkeeping history.
Four years later, Spain faced the Netherlands again, this time in their opening group game of the World Cup in Brazil. Spain lost 5-1 and Casillas was awful, later admitting that it had been the worst performance of his career. It was none other than Robben who stuck the final nail in the coffin, turning past the Spain captain and leaving him scrabbling frantically in his tracks as he slotted home the fifth and final goal. Casillas was just as useless against Chile, as Spain lost 2-0 and were dumped out unceremoniously. In both matches he seemed uninterested, a shadow of his former self.
Fortune has played an important part in Iker Casillas’ career. When Real Madrid’s first choice keeper César Sánchez was injured in the 2002 Champions League final, it was Casillas who came on to make a string of fine saves to rescue his side. Then it was Santiago Cañizares’ misfortune that meant that Casillas was made Spain’s No. 1 in the World Cup later that year, after Cañizares dropped an aftershave bottle on his foot, severing a tendon and ruling himself out of the tournament. In the round of sixteen tie against Ireland, Casillas saved two penalties in the shootout and instantly became a hero, with the Spanish press dubbing him ‘San Iker’- Saint Iker. He has not looked back since, captaining Spain to victory at Euro 2008, Euro 2012, and of course in South Africa. “Luck?” he said, in an interview with Sid Lowe during Euro 2004. “Maybe. But if you let in three, what’s the point? You have to take advantage.”
But Casillas has also fallen prey to his own misfortune. In the 2012/13 season he was dropped by José Mourinho after trying to negotiate peace between Madrid and Barça, along with his friend and Spain teammate Xavi. “I called Xavi because it was my duty to do so, as the captain, it’s my responsibility. I knew what I had to do because the group was becoming divided, because I represent my country and I have to defend an idea,” Casillas said in an interview with El País’ Luis Martín.
Mourinho was outraged, and decided instead to play the hugely inexperienced Antonio Adán. Things seemed to settle down when the Portuguese coach finally saw sense and decided to restore Casillas to the No.1 spot, but in a desperately unlucky turn of events he broke his hand during a Copa del Rey tie against Valencia, after a collision with Álvaro Arbeloa (ironically, one of Mourinho’s favourite players at Madrid). Casillas was sidelined for the rest of the season, and Diego López was bought from Sevilla to cover for his absence.
López barely put a foot (or hand) wrong while Casillas was out injured, making save after brilliant save without getting anywhere near the same kind of recognition from the Madrid press. Mourinho soon departed, with his tenure turning increasingly sour, but López remained, leaving new coach Carlo Ancelotti with the dilemma of how to keep the two keepers happy. In the end he settled on playing López in La Liga, and Casillas in the Champions League and the Copa del Rey. Ancelotti’s plan worked to a certain extent. Casillas was able to lift the fabled Décima and the Copa del Rey, but he lacked playing time. His decision making suffered, and his error in the Champions League final was a sign of how he wasn’t in the best form coming into the World Cup.
Now Casillas finds himself at a crossroads. Keylor Navas was poached from Levante this summer, fresh from an impressive World Cup for Costa Rica, and Diego López has been sold to Milan. While Ancelotti may have been able to juggle two good custodians last season, three would have been impossible, and López was simply too good to be benched.
Keylor Navas will provide stiff competition for Casillas. He emerged as one of the best keepers in La Liga last season, making 141 saves, more than anyone else in the Spanish top flight. His training methods are intense and he is an excellent shot-stopper, boasting a fine set of reflexes. Despite this, he only has one year of experience in Spain’s top division, having previously played second fiddle to Gustavo Munúa at Levante. A year of assimilation into the Real Madrid setup would come in handy for Navas, instead of instantly being put in the spotlight. It is clear that he will become first choice at some point, but there is no need to rush the process. This transfer window has shown how keen top clubs are to have two top level keepers between the sticks, and, given the number of trophies Madrid will have to contest this year, the likelihood is that Ancelotti will use a similar policy to last season, rotating Casillas and Navas between competitions.
Casillas deserves the chance to prove himself again to Ancelotti. At 33, he has plenty of experience and could take some of the pressure off Navas, while trying to go out on a high note. Provided Casillas can start regularly, there is a chance he could recover some of his form and confidence.
Casillas is not the keeper he once was, that much is true. But in the small window of an international tournament, things can be blown out of proportion, especially with goalkeepers. Time will tell if Casillas’ terrible World Cup was merely down to bad form, but we shouldn’t be too quick to write him off. Whatever happens this season, he doesn’t deserve to be remembered for his performances in Brazil. In time, Navas will replace Casillas, and Navas will be replaced by someone else. But Casillas will always be one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time, if not the greatest.