“Casillas is a living legend,” “He has led Spain to several titles,” “He is a symbol of Real Madrid…” Phrases like these are a recurring narrative among Spanish sports journals and a devastatingly large portion of soccer enthusiasts around the globe. Let me just start by saying that nobody can deny that Iker Casillas was once a great goalkeeper. However, this does not mean that he continues to be one today. All of Casillas’ ‘miraculous’ performances —continuously recalled by his supporters in an attempt to reinforce his legend— happened during or before 2010. His interventions in the 2002 Champions League Final vs. Bayer Leverkusen were indeed crucial. The penalty saves he had in the 2008 Eurocup vs. Italy were also prominent. His two magnificent saves vs. Netherlands’ Arjen Robben in the 2010 World Cup Final undoubtedly gave Spain the title. Once again, there is no doubting Casillas’ notable record for club and country over the first decade of the current century. However, the story is remarkably different ever since. After the 2010 World Cup, his performance has been mediocre, with many more costly mistakes than praiseworthy interventions.
Table 1 provides an accurate summary of Casillas’ decline in recent years. The Spaniard’s percentage of saves (Saves/Shots on Target) has gone from remarkable to mediocre in a few years. On average, rivals currently only need to have between 3 and 4 shots on target to score; in previous years, it took more than 6 to beat the goalie.
What Casillas’ supporters have not come to realize is that a very gradual drop in performance is still a drop in performance. Not because Casillas has slowly eased into this new and much lower standard of play does it mean that he should remain immune to coaching decisions. Two years into his Real Madrid managerial career, after half a season of poor performances, particularly when defending set pieces and high balls, Jose Mourinho, acknowledging the goalkeeper’s slump in performance, decided to bench him. The Portuguese coach’s decision triggered a campaign from fans and journalists, who immediately and adamantly demanded Iker’s return. The intense criticism of Spain’s unethical press, fed by Casillas’ lineup leaks and dressing room scoops, marked the beginning of two and a half years of a quiet dispute between captain and coach. Indeed, Casillas’ power among journalists got out of hand, to the point that many of his friends in the media ridiculed the goalie and themselves by failing to conceal Casillas’ involvement in the campaign. The deplorable persecution of both Mourinho and his backers eventually lead to the coach’s departure from the club in 2013.
Contrary to what Casillas’ supporters in the media and the world believed, Mourinho’s departure did not signify the return of the goalie to Real Madrid’s starting lineup. Incoming coach Carlo Ancelotti actually gave starting preference on goal to Diego López, who proved to be a more than capable competitor for the Real Madrid goal. After a season, however, the media’s pressure drove López out of the club and on his way to AC Milan. In the same summer transfer window, the club signed Costa Rican goalkeeper Keylor Navas. Navas had had staggering performances in both the 2013-2014 La Liga season (he won the award for best goalkeeper, with the most saves, 160, and the highest save percentage, 80.1%) and the 2014 World Cup (he led Costa Rica to the quarter-finals and was one of three goalies nominated for the Golden Glove). However, what appeared to be a new attempt to increase the level of competition on the Madrid goal ended up being a way for the club to sign a reliable back-up goalie for Casillas —an inexplicable move that bewilders many to this day. Somehow, and thanks to purely non-sporting factors, Casillas regained the starting condition at Real Madrid he had lost over a year before.
Perhaps the most disappointing part of this story is that a large share of Real Madrid fans and soccer enthusiasts around the world —probably the majority, in fact— have either allowed for the unfounded media campaign to permeate their better judgment or voluntarily joined the pro-Casillas movement out of fear to acknowledge the decline of their idol. Many great soccer legends have seamlessly transitioned from the elite to a secondary role —namely Alessandro Del Piero (Juventus), Ronaldinho (Barcelona), Didier Drogba (Chelsea), and more recently Xavi Hernández (Barcelona). Still, Iker Casillas’ case is exceptionally different. Admiring a player for his past achievement is respectable, but blindly defending Iker’s right to start in a Real Madrid lineup where he no longer fits is mistaken. This is fútbol, and in this game only the very best players in a team —in terms of their current form and not the length of their list of past triumphs —should deserve to start.
If we take a look at some of the saves that Neuer (Bayern Munich), De Gea (Manchester United), Courtois (Chelsea), Hart (Manchester City), Forster (Southampton), Diego Alves (Valencia), and so many other goalkeepers have every single weekend, it is impossible not to realize that Casillas’ glory days are long gone. Even other veteran goalkeepers of similar age and experience to Iker, such as Cech (Chelsea) and Buffon (Juventus), continue to perform at a top level. Even when compared to other current goalkeepers in the Spanish top division, Casillas has the lower hand. Table 2 shows a ranking of goalkeepers in La Liga in terms of saves % —Casillas does not even make the top 10.
Whereas it is very difficult to recall great or even notable performances from the Spanish goalie in the last few years, it is remarkably easy to mention devastatingly poor interventions. A mistake in the 2014 Champions League Final vs. Atlético Madrid almost cost Real Madrid the title, had it not been for a 93rd minute goal from Sergio Ramos to take the game to extra time. A few weeks later, Iker secured the unofficial label of worst goalie in the 2014 World Cup with two dreadful performances against Netherlands and Chile (the reigning champions did not make it past the group stage). Throughout the current season, he has had average performances, with very few good saves and multiple questionable interventions. In the three matches Real Madrid has faced Atlético Madrid, for example, he has put his poor aerial presence and footwork in full display. More recently, he allowed four goals —three of which where clearly savable— in the round of sixteen Champions League match vs. Schalke 04, almost costing the club a ticket to the quarter finals. To say that these occurrences are isolated events or mistakes that are more attributable to his defensive line, as many of his backers argue, would be shortsighted and blatantly false. It would be, as we say in Spanish, to try to cover the sun with your thumb.
It is time for Iker Casillas to stop relying on his friends in the press and his blinded fans to retain an underserved condition as starter at Real Madrid. It is time for the true lovers of the game to understand that having idols is acceptable, but using past achievements as arguments to defend those idols’ current form is simply wrong. It is the time for Iker Casillas to acknowledge that his time in the soccer elite is over and to accept an exit from Real Madrid that is long overdue.
Image courtesy of The Guardian
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