Casillas is number one in every sense

Spain may have wowed the world over the last four years with their stylish passing football, but they would not be defending European, or World Cup, champions without [the interventions of keeper Iker Casillas.

They might not even be still at Euro 2012, if the Real Madrid and Spain captain had not pulled off an excellent flying stop from Croatia’s Ivan Rakitic on Monday when La Roja looked about to go 1-0 down to and close to an early exit.

“It was a good save, but not a great save,” said Casillas modestly afterwards. “It was just one more save to make sure we kept a clean sheet, which is what we always want to do.”

His teammates knew how important the save had been. “He is our captain, and he is always there, he always responds,” said Sergio Busquets. “Once again, he was immense,” said Andrés Iniesta. “What more can I say about such a great keeper,” said goalscorer Jesús Navas.

Croatian coach Slaven Bilic was less enthused: “When your opponent’s keeper is Casillas, everything becomes more difficult,” he said.

This was far from the first time Casillas has saved his teammates, but he can often be forgotten when fans and pundits (particularly outside Madrid) heap praise on creators like Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and David Silva. Given a tendency to win big games 1-0, even a small goalkeeping mistake could be disastrous, but instead Casillas has regularly come up with big saves at huge moments.

Against Italy in the opening game Thiago Motta’s point-blank header was somehow clawed away.

Previously there was the crucial denying of Arjen Robben when the Dutch winger ran clear an hour into the 2010 World Cup final, and almost as important a penalty save from Paraguay’s Óscar Cardoza at 0-0 late in the quarter-finals. At Euro 2008 there were stops from Italy’s Daniele de Rossi and Antonio Di Natale as Spain progressed in their quarter final penalty shoot-out.

Now 32, Casillas has been doing this for Madrid, and Spain, for over a decade. He was called into Real’s first team squad at just 15, and was still a teenager when he kept goal as Valencia were beaten in the 2000 Champions League final. He went to the 2002 World Cup as back-up, but an injury to Santiago Cañizares saw him face Ireland in the last-16. There were penalty saves from Ian Harte in normal time, and then from David Connolly and Kevin Kilbane in the shoot-out, as Mick McCarthy’s side was sent home.

Since then ‘San Iker’ has been an automatic pick for club and country, winning every available trophy at club level, and lifting the record for Spanish caps to 134. In a Spanish jersey he has conceded just 77 goals, or a measly one every 1.7 games. For many countries Barcelona’s Víctor Valdés or Liverpool’s José Reina would be clear first choices, but they do not get a sniff for Spain. Statistics group IFFHS named Casillas the best keeper in the world in 2011, his fourth consecutive year receiving the award.

Spain’s senior goalkeeping coach José Manuel Ochotorena praised such consistency. “Iker is very good in one-on-ones and also transmits calm to his team-mates in the defence,” said Ochotorena. “He has maintained his level since the World Cup, and this consistency is very difficult to achieve. He shows great sporting maturity.”

This maturity has come through in his influence on the current Spanish side and how it seen throughout Spain. As a Real Madrid icon he keeps blancos fans on board with La Roja’s very Barcelona-influenced tiki-taka style. He famously, and bravely, phoned Xavi at the height of the Barca/Madrid rivalry last summer to smooth things over, deliberately defying his club boss José Mourinho for the good of the national team.

Former Spanish coach Luís Aragones told Spanish newspaper AS recently he had no qualms about making Casillas captain ahead of other candidates such as Barca’s Carles Puyol before Euro 2008.

“He was my right hand and never let me down,” said Aragones. “He remains the best captain. If he had not forgotten his ego and given the maximum importance to the group ahead of individual concerns, the same as the rest, nothing would have worked the same.”

That is not to say that Casillas always gets on with everyone. A determined and prickly character, he makes Roy Keane-like demands on team-mates both on and off the field. A video of a row with Sergio Ramos during a club game was widely viewed in Spain last season, as was a clip of Casillas and Mourinho arguing during a training session in January. The keeper has a more harmonious relationship with Spanish TV reporter Sara Carbonero, who he memorably kissed live on air after the 2010 final, and who he is due to marry next month.

For this to be a completely happy occasion, Spain will need to retain their Euro crown. La Roja have actually never beaten their northern neighbours in a competitive game, and Casillas was playing in their last tournament meeting — when Zinedine Zidane inspired France to a 3-1 last-16 victory the 2006 World Cup. He characteristically told Spanish TV last night that history would not influence Sunday’s clash in Donetsk.

“Records are made to be broken,” he said. “France have a very good team, with a great coach. They have made a generational change, as all national sides must do sooner or later. Nobody should think that this will be an easy game, or we will score a lot of goals. We will have to suffer.”

La Roja’s fans have experience of such suffering. Should they progress 1-0 tonight, with the goal coming late after Casillas has previously denied clubmate Karim Benzema — and maybe also Franck Ribéry and Samir Nasri — nobody should be surprised, but Spain will continue to be grateful.

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