Being a club icon is the dream of every young footballer who turns pro, you want the fans to scream your name, to relate to you, to dance to your moves and most of all love you as one of their own. But even time catches up with these icons and retirement is a daunting thought that crosses every footballer’s mind once they pass 30. Some are lucky to leave the game on their own terms, though with their life revolving around football since childhood I doubt it is easy to just walk away from it. But how do you go about it? Do you phase yourself out when your body can’t compete on a top level? Do you start by sitting on the bench then move on to lower level leagues like Del Piero? Or In the case that you are blessed like Maldini or Giggs and your standard never drops and your ability compensates for the decline in physical attributes. Then you leave when you know you’ve achieved it all? Or despite waning prowess you use your influence as a club icon to hang on to your starting spot and turn into a villain for the same fans who worshiped you at one point?
Iker Casillas or Saint Iker as he is known to his fans has been a contender in the latter category for me for at least two seasons now. With his glory days coming to an end in the start of the new decade, it’s been a slippery slope from that point on-wards for him. As a footballer it’s only natural that with age your performances and ability drops. No one holds that against him as time has certainly caught up with him, the problem arises when he becomes bigger than the club and regardless of his performances is started.
Despite my dislike for Sir Alex Ferguson, he was brilliant at player management. The club was always bigger than an individual, in the rare occasions it started feeling the other way around, the player was demoted to the bench followed by being thrown out/transferred during the next available window. David Beckham would be an obvious example here. Yes it did lead to a few difficult decisions and potential mistakes (Stam being one massive one) but it was obvious there one boss in Manchester and it was the damn manager.
Jose Mourinho tried to emulate Sir Alex when he started the Real Madrid job. It didn’t matter if you were a local legend or a guaranteed starter you had to earn a starting slot in the Portuguese manager’s team. Complacency meant that club captain, Casillas, was replaced by Diego Lopez, who was more than able between the sticks. What followed was an absolute farce, some of it was Casillas’s doing and the rest of was down to his fan following.
Casillas does not possess the professionalism of Javier Zanetti or Del Piero (not many men do), who sat on the bench if required but never argued or came in the media stating their unhappiness over bench warming. Alas this was not the case here. A lot of interviews followed, Casillas was in the media spotlight expressing his disappointment and naturally having a journalist girlfriend didn’t help at all. His popularity among squad members is understandable but for me, players taking a stand against the manager is absolutely ridiculous. As club captain he should have led by example and quashed the rebellion.
To be fair it never felt like the club captain was orchestrating anything but his silence allowed him to benefit from the fiasco. Evidently, the result was a broken squad and a trophy less season, The Special One soon departed and the pacifier Carlo Ancelotti was brought in to repair the damage.
Mister Ancelotti did unite the squad and curb ego problems but when the dust settled Casillas was still warming the bench. Even internationally things for St. Iker weren’t any better, despite being the national captain, a hero in 2010 and assured starter, his performance was drawing a lot of criticism. Ancelotti decided to rotate Casillas and Lopez, with the latter starting most of the league matches and Casillas playing in cup matches. The lack of regular play for the club captain brought out a lot of high profile mistakes, the worst of which came in the Champions League final. Casillas almost cost them the trophy by racing off his line into no-man’s land allowing Diego Godin to flick a header over him giving Atletico the lead. The La Decima was only saved by a last minute Sergio Ramos equaliser. The rest as we know is history.
This mistake was a platform for a series of high profile blunders, Casillas made blunder after blunder in the World Cup 2014 and saw his reigning champions knocked out in the group stages. The entire Spanish squad was off-color but arguably the worst player (and possibly of the tournament as well) was Casillas. He was completely shambolic and directly responsible for four goals (three against Holland and one against Chile). St. Iker had fallen – for years to come the highlight reels will repeat his mistakes and he will be mocked.
Even his greatest fans and supporters including teammates who had taken a stand for him previously under the Mourinho regime knew that there was no defence for him and surely had to be replaced internationally and at club level. But his legacy was too difficult to ignore and having been the hero on numerous occasions for club and country, he was still starting for Spain and Real Madrid at the start of the new season.
Oddly Diego Lopez, the regular starter in La Liga, was transferred in mysterious circumstances to AC Milan, the transfer reeked of political pull and nepotism. Even Lopez could not explain why he was not needed at Real anymore, Casillas’ influence as a club and national icon ruled supreme even in 2014-15.
More mistakes followed, an embarrassing 2-1 loss to Slovakia was down to Casillas failing to stop a free-kick straight at him. Then in the derby against Atletico Madrid a tame Thiago shot, something a Sunday League Keeper would have saved, trickled by him. The goal opened up the floodgates for a 4-0 thrashing.
In last week’s Champions League encounter with Schalke he again almost cost them progression, letting Christian Fuchs shot straight through him was the worst of his mistakes but he definitely could have done better on the other two goals he conceded. You couldn’t help but think Casillas of 2000’s would have not conceded any of those goals.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not calling for his head or for his retirement, though from the whistles heard in the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu, I think Madridistas have turned on their beloved club icon. I have fond memories of him dominating the box for a good 10 years culminating in the ultimate prize a ‘ World Cup Trophy.’ But his career is on a downward curve now and peace needs to be made with that fact.
Unfortunately, in his case I can’t show you statistics to back up the claims of a dip in his performances. In a keeper’s case, he is not solely responsible for the goals conceded but it’s the intangibles and the number of errors you have to focus on. It is a tough job where you are only remembered for your mistakes.
Casillas of present day does not inspire any confidence in his defence and neither does he marshal them as effectively as he used to. For someone who made his career as the mainstay of a leaky defence this is pretty depressing. The box was owned by Casillas, with him regularly flying out to punch the ball or dominating through balls. That command and control has been replaced with him flapping at crosses, dropping airballs and worse gifting possession to strikers.
At 33, his career is far from over and he does add a lot to the squad as a role model and a senior figure. This was witnessed against Schalke when an annoyed Ronaldo was summoned back by him to thank the fans for their support. But he needs to step down as a guaranteed starter and be judged on his performances. Right now his fans (myself included) still remember the good moments, his poor performances may reach a point where the errors outweigh the good moments. The assumption of nepotism in him receiving continued playing time leave a sorry mark on his legacy.
There have been a few pretenders who look to take over from him when he hangs up his gloves at Real Madrid and La Furia Roja: David De Gea is the prime candidate in the list of pretenders. The young Spaniard has been in great form for Manchester United and has been linked to Real Madrid repeatedly throughout this season. It wouldn’t harm to slowly phase Casillas out and phase De Gea in on the club (assuming he does get transferred) and country level.
Iker, I sincerely hope Ancelotti and Del Bosque have a talk with you and tell you that you have had a hell of a career but your form for the past 2-3 years’ does not merit a starting slot and you will be benched. You should graciously accept and respect the coach’s decision to be benched and then earn your place back (though I sense we’ve seen your best) and start dominating the box as you used to. I would even settle for you accepting a role as a squad player and aiming to impart your wisdom and ability to a newer generation. Till then I will keep my fingers crossed and clutch my prayer beads as I pray to the Lord higher than you in the hope that star does not fall any further.