SAN IKER CASILLAS

In the heart of Madrid lies the iconic Plaza de Cibeles. Its opulent surroundings are furnished by a lavish fountain at the centre of which stands a statue of the Greek Goddess, Cybele. Many years ago, Real Madrid unofficially adopted the fountain, using the plaza as a vehicle to parade the fruits of their victories.

Football romanticists often blur the lines between sport and sanctity. It’s commonplace for the beautiful game to become their creed, transcending the normality of human competition to enter a realm of divinity. For those who subscribe to the church of La Roja, 16 June 2002 marked the coronation of their messiah.

Pilgrims, adorning red, gold and blue apparel, flocked east from their Iberian communes to converge upon the city of Suwon. South Korea’s World Cup Stadium, masquerading as the Spaniards’ Mecca, was the venue for a last-16 fixture which pitted Spain against the Republic of Ireland. The match seemed a formality with Spain the overwhelming favourites, and they took the lead before half-time, Fernando Morientes stealing a march on Gary Breen to flick his near-post header past the helpless Shay Given.

The break provided respite and reinvigoration in equal measure for the boys in green. Manager Mick McCarthy showcased his tactical nous, calling upon veteran forward Niall Quinn, and reshuffled the midfield in a shake-up that gave his side a new lease of life. On came the Irish onslaught, each player to a man showing the kind of determination that so often characterises the tournament’s plucky underdog. They eventually saw their will rewarded in the form of a penalty. Alas, Ian Harte stepped up only to see his effort turned away by a fresh-faced Iker Casillas.

The 21-year-old goalkeeper was having a sublime game but was eventually beaten from the spot in the dying embers by Robbie Keane. It was an equaliser that forced the contest into extra-time, followed by a subsequent penalty shoot-out. Emboldened by his earlier heroics, Casillas rose to the challenge to thwart both David Connolly and Kevin Kilbane, crushing Ireland’s dreams and sending Spain triumphantly through to the last eight.

The outpouring of emotion in the aftermath of the result saw Casillas heralded as San Iker – Saint Iker – an appropriate title given his miraculous performance. Despite all the plaudits, though, the limelight to display such aptitude was only afforded to the youngster by way of another’s misfortune.

Thanks to a freak accident which involved Valencia goalkeeper Santiago Cañizares’ poor handling of an aftershave bottle – a slip unbecoming of such a talented artisan – a shard of glass severed the Spaniard’s right foot on the eve of the tournament. “It was a terrible piece of bad luck for Cañizares and I am certainly not happy,” remarked Casillas. “But football is like that. Now Ricardo, [Pedro] Contreras and myself will have to fight it out for the [starting] place and any of us could be chosen.”

In truth, Casillas was being overly humble. Ricardo and Contreras were both decent goalkeepers, coming off the back of modest seasons with Valladolid and Málaga respectively, but neither compared to the Madrid shot-stopper. He was now well established as Los Blancos’ number one and ready to make his mark on the international stage.

Casillas was a product of La Fábrica and took the traditional route into Real’s senior side via Castilla. As a native of Madrid, his progression was met with universal approval. Every fan loves to see a local come through the ranks, and those of a certain generation had fond memories of Madrid’s 1966 European Cup-winning side – an all-Spanish line-up with numerous players birthed at AD Plus Ultra – a local Madrid team that acted as Real’s academy until 1972.

Ironically, it was another Cañizares injury, five years before Iker’s World Cup bow, that gave him his first opportunity with the seniors. Speaking to Spanish football expert Sid Lowe, Casillas reminisced about Real’s last-minute decision to call him up for a Champions League tie against Rosenborg: “Bodo Illgner was injured and Cañizares had a knock, so they needed me as a third keeper. They literally pulled me out of a technical design class. You can imagine the teacher saying: ‘Well he’s supposed to be working in my class.’

“The headmaster, who was a big Madrid fan, called me. He knew I was in the youth system and every time I saw him he’d talk about Madrid. He told me that I had to get to the team hotel near Barajas, ready to fly to Norway.”

He was only 16 at the time and, injury crisis or not, his inclusion in the matchday squad was a sign of just how highly the club rated him. Boarding the plane and sitting beside Morientes, the schoolboy felt as though he’d “won the lottery” – a feeling his father José knew all too well.

Every weekend José would attempt to predict the national football scores, entrusting a young Iker to register his betting slip at the local bookies. One fateful evening as the scores rolled in, he couldn’t believe his eyes – all 14 results were bang on the money. The only problem was his son’s red face. Iker awkwardly confessed to his dad that he’d forgotten to place his bet earlier that day, costing the Casillas family the estimated £1.2m jackpot.

Childhood misdemeanours aside, his parents were delighted at the news of their son’s call-up and had done everything in their power to help him along the way to stardom. Even they, however, couldn’t have envisaged that he’d be a two-time European champion by the age of 20.

Becoming the youngest goalkeeper ever to take the field in Champions League history – a record that stood until Benfica’s Mile Svilar broke it in 2017 – Casillas played as if he’d been between the Bernabéu’s sticks his whole life. He combined spectacular athleticism with intrinsic positional awareness, his reflexes were lightning-quick, agility cat-like and concentration impeccable.

Los Blancos finished the 2000 Champions League group stage as runners-up, meaning they faced the daunting prospect of a tie against holders and treble winners, Manchester United. After an impenetrable display from Casillas in the first leg, Madrid headed to Old Trafford with the tie still scoreless. The second leg got off to a cagey start but soon came alive as a Roy Keane own-goal and Raúl brace proved enough to send Real through.

Casillas was fast making the Bernabéu a fortress, quelling any assault on his kingdom with consummate ease. Another home clean sheet in the semi-finals against Bayern Munich helped Real navigate their way past the Bavarians to set-up an all-Spanish final against Valencia. Los Che went into the final in confident manner – they had finished above Los Blancos in LaLiga and were buoyed by their league-closing victory over Zaragoza – in stark contrast to Real Madrid’s loss to Valladolid, ending their campaign miserably in fifth.

What ensued was a one-sided battle that swiftly re-established the historic power balance. Real drew first blood, with some nifty wing play from Steve McManaman culminating in Fernando Morientes’ back post header. A sensational scissor-kick from the Englishman then doubled their lead before Raúl provided the coup de grâce, rounding the keeper and driving a dagger through Valencianista hearts.

Casillas had conquered Europe and become a master of his craft under the umbrella of football’s most successful behemoth, all before leaving adolescence. The next two years brought his first league title, a second Champions League trophy, and that memorable performance in Suwon. For all his on-field achievements, it was the admiration of his character that meant the most to Casillas. “I don’t want to be remembered as a good goalkeeper,” he said, “I want to be remembered as a great person.” His aura was infectious and washed over Madrid like water on the banks of the Río Manzanares.

San Iker’s theology had pervaded the Spanish capital, and whilst his national status was also revered, it was Casillas’ captaincy of Spain’s greatest generation that really allowed him to cross the blurred borders of football and faith to cement his demigod legacy. With Raúl excluded from the squad, Casillas was handed the armband for Euro 2008 and never looked back. Spain topped their group before meeting Italy in the quarter-finals; a nation whose footballing religion is so ingrained in society, it makes up the very fabric of their cultural identity.

The Azzurri had their own cultic figurehead in Gianluigi Buffon. The keepers are great friends, but after 120 minutes of nail-biting play, it was the church bells of La Roja that rang proudly as silence befell Italy. Casillas – just as he had done six years earlier – saved two penalties in the shoot-out, first flying to his right, tipping Daniel De Rossi’s shot round the post, then getting down to his left, thwarting Antonio Di Natale.

It wasn’t quite the Bernabéu but Vienna’s Ernst-Happel-Stadion was starting to feel a lot like home. It was the site of his man of the match performance against the Italians and, four days later, saw him keep another clean sheet as Spain dispatched Russia 3-0. Austria’s largest stadium was also the venue for the final, where Spain would do battle with Germany for the title of Europe’s best nation. Despite being without their leading scorer, David Villa, Fernando Torres stepped up in his absence to seal a historic victory. With yet another clean sheet to his name, Casillas became the first goalkeeping captain to lift the European Championship.

Two years later, Madrid’s Almudena Cathedral bells were ringing louder and prouder than ever before. Spain had beaten the Netherlands to become world champions for the first time in their history with San Iker leading La Roja to glory. His two one-on-one saves at the feet of Arjen Robben allowed Andrés Iniesta to strike deep into extra-time and etch his name into Spanish folklore. Casillas won the tournament’s golden glove and, as his holy hands caressed the trophy in Johannesburg, few could contest his status as Spain’s finest ever goalkeeper.

The image of Casillas, eyes shut and jaw agape in sheer adulation as he held the trophy aloft, was produced and sold into the public domain en masse. It became the centrepiece of shrines the length and breadth of the nation, adorning the walls of every child’s bedroom. “When you win the golden glove and it’s come on top of a team prize, it’s very special,” Casillas told FIFA. “Winning an individual award when your team hasn’t won leaves you with an empty feeling inside. But I was lucky in that we won the World Cup and I was named best goalkeeper of the tournament, so it doubled the happiness for me.”

Another European Championship followed, however it came amid the player’s toughest time in his illustrious career. A fractured relationship with Real manager José Mourinho meant Casillas was now just another spectator at the Bernabéu, watching Antonio Adán and Diego López take control of goalkeeping duties.

He was ostracised by Mourinho and even received abuse from some quarters of the club’s fans, who gave him the nickname ‘Topor’ (a portmanteau of ‘topo’ and ‘portero’ – Spanish for ‘mole’ and ‘goalkeeper’) after he allegedly leaked club information to the media. It was a troubling time for Iker, who saw his divinity questioned and had to watch painfully as arch-rivals Barcelona renovated their Cruyffarin chapel under Pep Guardiola to become Spain’s dominant force once more.

Casillas’ perceived petulance was tarnishing his legendary status and all signs pointed towards the exit door. It looked as though only a miracle could save him from a truly unworthy ending. Fortunately, miraculous saves are what San Iker dealt in almost exclusively, and redemption proved to be just around the corner.

Carlo Ancelotti was appointed as Mourinho’s successor and immediately reinstated Casillas for Copa del Rey and Champions League fixtures. The veteran repaid the favour by captaining Los Blancos to both trophies in 2014. He became the first goalkeeper not to concede a single goal until the final of the Copa – where they beat Barcelona 2-1 at the Mestalla – before creating an even greater piece of history in Europe.

Real’s 4-1 victory over city rivals Atlético meant Casillas lifted La Décima, becoming only the third man ever – after Franz Beckenbauer and Didier Deschamps – to lift the Euros, World Cup and Champions League as team captain. His accomplishments saw him firmly reinstated as the club’s number one, and once again in the hearts of Madridista’s. He had risen from the dead, a resurrection befitting of his sobriquet.

If there is a single image that defines Iker Casillas’ illustrious career, it is one taken of him in May 2014 at the Plaza de Cibeles. Celebrating La Décima, the goalkeeper stood on a platform behind the fountain of Cybele, holding the coveted trophy above his head. Thousands of onlooking fans could barely contain their jubilation – in their eyes it was an apt metaphor: Casillas was right where he belonged, standing tall amongst the gods.