In May 2019 the footballing world was shocked by the news that legendary Spanish goalkeeper Iker Casillas had suffered a heart attack. Aged only 37 at the time, it was not supposed to be this way for a professional sportsman at the very peak of his physical prowess.
A worrying five days later, and Casillas was released from hospital to widespread relief throughout, and beyond, the worldwide footballing community.
As Casillas continues to make his recovery, he is currently still with his club side but is not expected to play again. In fact, an official announcement concerning his retirement from the game seems to be imminent as Casillas reportedly considers a run for the position of President of the Spanish Football Federation (RFEF).
A professional career that began with the Real Madrid B team in the equivalent of the third tier of Spanish football would, therefore, appear to be at a close. It is a career that has lasted two decades at the top level and has resulted in Casillas becoming one of the most decorated and revered players in the Spanish game.
For many years seemingly destined to become the very epitome of a one-club man with Real Madrid, Casillas has spent the twilight years of his career in Portugal with Porto.
However, it is his time between the sticks for Real Madrid and Spain that is going to form the basis of his legacy.
Recognised as the world’s greatest goalkeeper for much of that time, Casilla’s record and stats certainly stack up against anybody else’s in his era.
His first major medal came way back twenty years ago now, when his appearance in Real’s successful 2000 Champions League winning side against Valencia made him the youngest ever goalkeeper to play in the final at the age of 19 years and four days.
A solid season in 2001 resulted in La Liga being won with Casillas appearing as the established first choice. Unfortunately, a rocky start to the following season saw Casillas lose his starting position to understudy Cesar Sanchez.
Sanchez performed admirably in Casilla’s stead as Real once again made it through to the Champions League final where this time they met Bayer Leverkusen.
In the 68th minute, with the score finely poised at 2-1 to Madrid, Sanchez suffered an injury and had to be replaced by the 20-year-old Casillas. With Leverkusen now in the ascendency, Casillas was called upon to make three breathtaking saves to preserve Real’s slender lead and secure their ninth European title.
This performance was enough to ensure Casillas started the following season reinstated as Madrid’s first choice ‘keeper, and it was a position he was not to relinquish for over a further decade.
Further domestic successes were added in the coming years in the shape of four more La Liga titles, two Copa del Rey successes, and four Spanish Super Cups.
His record at national level with Spain is what has made him a true hero in the eyes of not just Madrid supporters, but of those of all of Spain.
Making his debut just ten days after his first Champions League success in 2000, Casillas then went on to win no less than 167 caps over the next decade and a half in what is widely acknowledged as Spain’s Golden Era.
Transcending club allegiances and loyalties, Casillas was able to bring Spain together with not only his dedication on the field, but hie humility off it, and Spain achieved as never before as a result.
On the bench for Euro 2000, Casillas made his breakthrough at the 2002 World Cup in Japan and Korea, and yet only featured due to his good fortune and Santiago Canizares’ misfortune.
Suffering a freak injury in the weeks before the competition, Canizares was unable to take his place when he dropped a glass bottle of aftershave on his foot and a shard of glass penetrated an artery.
Following the tournament, Casillas kept his place as the first-choice keeper in the national side and played throughout both Euro 2004 and the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
In 2008, whilst at his undisputed, impenetrable best, Casillas was named as captain for Euro 2008. The start of Spain’s dominance was marked as the nation won its first major tournament, beating Germany in the final. Casillas, therefore, became the first goalkeeper-captain to lift the European Championship trophy.
Two years later and it was the World Cup that Iker Casillas proudly held above his head as a result of the Spanish side’s single goal victory over Holland in South Africa.
At the competition, he was voted the tournament’s best goalkeeper and so was thus awarded the Golden Glove. This was largely due to his record of keeping five clean sheets in seven matches, and only conceding two goals in total.
It was in the run-up to the European Championships that Iker Casillas displayed his magnanimity and diplomacy in helping to defuse a situation that had been brewing behind the scenes in the Spain dressing room.
Tensions had been running high between certain Real Madrid and Barcelona players within the squad for some time now, and manager, Vicente del Bosque was moved to make a public statement that anybody with the wrong attitude would no longer be featured.
Working behind the scenes, Casillas together with other senior players in the squad, organised a summit meeting which enabled tensions to be eased and harmony restored. The proof of the pudding was in the eating as once again Spain triumphed, this time defeating Italy 4-0 in a one-sided final.
The next World Cup in 2014 went poorly, however, and Casillas found himself dropped after the first two group games as Spain amazingly crashed out of the competition at the group stage. This tournament was the final one in which Casillas played.
At club level, Casilla’s continued as Real Madrid’s undisputed number one ‘keeper until he fell out with Jose Mourinho at the end of 2012. As rumours of dressing-room discord abounded, Casillas found himself open to public criticism for the first time with some fans blaming him for the leaks to the press and taking Mourinho’s side in matters.
Mourinho moved on and was replaced by Carlo Ancelotti and once again Casillas struggled to maintain a starting league spot. He did, however, captain the side to his third Champions League success in 2014.
In July 2015, Casillas signed for Portuguese outfit Porto. Real Madrid, and in particular president Florentino Perez, were criticised by some for allegedly forcing Casillas out of the club against his will.
Until his untimely health problems in May 2019, he had played over 150 matches for Porto and had managed to win both the Primeira Liga and the Portuguese Super Cup. He had also set a new record for appearing in the Champions League for 20 consecutive seasons.
As the footballing fraternity continues to wish Iker Casillas well in his recovery, he can look back on two decades at the very top with pride.
Iker Casillas. One in a million.