The Real lucky charm

You know you’ve arrived when they name a street after you.

Iker Casillas, Real Madrid and Spain’s captain, had the honour conferred on him in January. And he’s only 30 years of age, which is a point somewhere in the middle years for a goalkeeper.

Avenida Iker Casillas is a street that runs through his hometown, Mostoles, which is one of the satellite cities that have been absorbed into greater Madrid. Its place in Spanish history was assured in 1808 when one of its mayors declared war on France, at a time when Mostoles was only a small village.

Mostoles is also the birthplace of Ruben de la Red, who was alongside Casillas on Spain’s triumphant squad in Euro 2008 but had to retire from the game at age 25 when, months after the tournament, a heart problem surfaced.

Mostoles is also home to Casillas’ younger brother by seven years, Unai, who turns out as a midfielder for local team, CD Mostoles, an outfit that plays its football in the lower reaches of Spain’s professional leagues.

Casillas comes from lower middle class stock. His mother worked as a hairdresser; his father as a civil servant. The family’s financial circumstances would have changed considerably had Casillas not forgotten as a seven or eight-year-old to post his father’s football pools’ entry one weekend. His father lost out on over €1 million winnings, having correctly predicted 14 results.

Casillas was born May 20, 1981, seven days before Real Madrid lost to Liverpool in that year’s European Cup final in Paris. Nineteen years later, he became the youngest goalkeeper in the competition to receive a winner’s medal when he returned to the city as part of the Real team which beat Valencia 3-0 in the 2000 Champions League final.

His precocity had been clearly signposted. Casillas joined Real Madrid’s cantera, its youth system, during the 1990-1991 season. While only 16, he was drafted into the club’s first team for a Champions League game against Rosenborg. He made his full senior debut in September 1999, during John Toshack’s short-lived, second management reign at the club.

A few months beforehand, in April 1999, he had been part of the Spanish team which won the FIFA U20 World Championship.

Barcelona’s current playmaker, Xavi Hernandez, was one of his team-mates. Casillas had earlier won European Championship winners’ medals with the nation’s U15 and U17 teams.

The number of accolades he has picked up while tending goal is impressive. He captained the country to glory in Euro 2008 and, of course, to World Cup victory in 2010. He also picked up the Golden Glove award in South Africa as best goalkeeper.

With 128 caps, he is the country’s most capped player in a land which boasts rivals for his position such as Liverpool’s Pepe Reina, Barcelona’s Víctor Valdés and lately Manchester United’s David de Gea. In February, when Spain thumped Venezuela 5-0 in a friendly in Malaga, he equalled former Dutch keeper Edwin van der Sar’s record of 72 clean sheets in international soccer.

The International Federation of Football History and Statistics, a FIFA-sanctioned body, has listed him as the world’s top goalkeeper for the last four seasons.

Giovanni Trapattoni will be wondering what his Irish team can do to get past him in June. Casillas thwarted Ireland’s progress in the 2002 World Cup stopping penalties from Matt Holland, David Connolly and Kevin Kilbane in the last 16 shoot-out.

The irony is that Casillas shouldn’t have been playing in the match. In another of the curious pieces of fortune that has streaked his life, Casillas only assumed the No. 1 jersey on the eve of the tournament. Santiago Cañizares, the incumbent, had a freak accident while the team was billeted at its training camp in Jerez, Spain — a shard of glass from a broken bottle of aftershave severed his foot badly enough to require surgery.

Two days before this accident, Casillas was reserve goalkeeper for Real Madrid in the Champions League final at Hampden Park, a poor run of form earlier in the season having cost him his starting place. Again fate — and an injured foot — intervened. Real led 2-1 at the break, the lead having come on the stroke of half-time when Zinedine Zidane rifled home a famous volley. With only 22 minutes left to run on the clock, Cesar, the team’s keeper, hobbled off with a foot injury. Casillas stepped in and redeemed his season with an enchanted display. He made four or five acrobatic saves in the space of a few minutes towards the end of the match as Bayer Leverkusen besieged his goal.

Casillas added a couple of La Liga medals in 2003, 2007 and 2008 to his trophy cabinet, but, with the exception of a Copa del Rey victory last season, he has endured a pretty barren decade by Real Madrid standards.

Barcelona stand in the way. Their preeminence has bedevilled Jose Mourinho since he took over as manager of Real Madrid in May 2010 and has led to a strained relationship with team captain, Casillas.

Mourinho’s belligerent behaviour is anathema to Casillas. Last August, Real Madrid lost 5-4 on aggregate to Barcelona in the final of Spain’s Super Cup. The second leg ended with a fracas by the dugouts between Mourinho and Tito Vilanova, Barcelona’s assistant coach. Before the match, Mourinho had told his players not to salute their opponents, even though many of them were World Cup winners together.

Spain’s squad convened a couple of weeks later. Casillas sought out his old friend, Xavi, for a breakfast meeting to try and smooth the tension between the two rival clubs. When Mourinho heard about the rapprochement, he flipped and accused Casillas of traitorous behaviour. During a Real Madrid squad meeting, Mourinho lectured his players, telling them they had to all pull in the same direction, while staring at Casillas. His captain exploded.

“Everybody in the same direction?” Casillas roared. “What does that mean? All of us go in the direction that you want to go? That’s the last time you make a shit of me in front of my compañeros!”

Casillas and Mourinho didn’t speak again for a month. In January, Sport, one of Barcelona’s sports newspapers, published a story in which it claimed Casillas might be “el topo”, the mole in the Real dressing room that has been leaking information to the Spanish press during Mourinho’s tenure.

His fiancee is Sara Carbonero, once voted the world’s sexiest journalist.

Carbonero hit the front page of the London Times during the World Cup in 2010. Spain lost its first game of the tournament to Switzerland 1-0. The paper regurgitated complaints that Spain’s goalkeeper might have been distracted by Carbonero’s pitch-side reporting for Tele-5.

In Spain, commentators decried the insinuation and in particular shoddy British media standards for giving it air. Spain’s current prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, then leader of the opposition People’s Party (PP), seized on the opportunity to make political hay: “Just as the PP is not to blame for what is happening in Spain, so Sara Carbonero will not be to blame if Spain are knocked out.”

There was a happy ending for Carbonero. When she interviewed Casillas live on TV minutes after he had been presented with the World Cup a few weeks later, he cut short the interview by landing a kiss on her lips.

Barcelona and Real Madrid meet each other in the league on Saturday, which may well be a dress rehearsal for this year’s Champions League final next month in Munich. The match is at the Camp Nou. The home team, Barcelona, trail Real by four points. The Catalan team is closing in, having shaved six points off Real Madrid’s 10-point lead a month ago.

It will be interesting to see how many times Casillas touches his crossbar during the match. It’s something he does every time his team scores. And Real have been scoring a lot this season — the club has banged in more than three goals a game since August, a post-war record for Europe’s premier leagues.

Barcelona, however, represent a unique challenge. During the Mourinho era, Los Blancos have only won one clasico in 10 matches. Knowing Casillas’ luck, that might be about to change.

Bloomsbury publish Richard Fitzpatrick’s El Clasico: Barcelona v. Real Madrid, Football’s Greatest Rivalry, in August.

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