This piece is part of a larger, seven-part series on the career of Iker Casillas, as told by rival fans. Chapters will be revealed every few days. To be redirected to a page where you can access all seven chapters, click here.
Every 16-year-old wishes they could be pulled out of class because of an emergency. We’ve all dreamed of it at some point. You imagine yourself sitting in class, bored out of your mind, your surroundings become as incomprehensible as the adults in Peanuts cartoons.
Suddenly, a CIA agent bursts into your classroom, points at you and tells you to come with them. The next thing you know, you’re on some wacky adventure where you have to bring down a terrorist organization to save the President, far, far away from your school.
Although this scenario rarely ever plays out in the real world, it did happen to a young Iker Casillas…in a sense.
On November 27, 1997, a teenage Casillas was minding his own business in design class when his principal asked to speak with him outside of the room. There, he informed the young Spaniard that he wasn’t being disciplined for a bad test score (standard principal stuff). Rather, Casillas needed to get into a taxi as soon as possible; he was going to Norway.
The next thing Casillas knew, he was warming the bench for Real Madrid in a UEFA Champions League match against Rosenborg.
“[It felt] like winning the lottery,” he told UEFA’s website earlier this year. “I remember that moment very well. I was 16 years old. I left school, went home, changed my clothes, got in a taxi to Barajas [airport], and I met all the stars – everything you thought impossible when you were a kid.”
It was a moment that was being built up to for quite some time. When he was 9-years-old, Casillas was registered into Real Madrid’s La Fábrica academy. He showed great promise early on, and he was considered to be one of the academy’s top prospects before his call-up.
But Casillas’ story started even before his birth. When his pregnant mother, Maria del Carmen, approached a begging shoemaker near their Bilbao-based apartment, she was told that the unborn Casillas would become “a great goalkeeper” and that “he would play for an all-conquering Athletic [Bilbao] side, taking his place in the great pantheon of Basque keepers.”
Although hindsight tells us that he never played for Athletic Bilbao, a call-up to Real Madrid’s first squad seemed inevitable for the native of Móstoles.
Casillas ultimately wouldn’t feature in the game; one which Real Madrid lost 2-0. He would also be demoted back to the youth team and his regular classroom setting when Santiago Cañizares and Bodo Illgner returned from their injuries. But the teenager had gotten his first taste of the big leagues.
In 1998, a year after his first call-up, Casillas was promoted to Real Madrid’s C team, who were playing in Spain’s fourth division at the time. The 18-year-old guided the reserve squad to the top of their regional group by the season’s end, and after a brief four-game spell with Real Madrid B, Casillas was called up to the first team again in 1999. This time, it would be for good.
On September 15, 1999, Casillas was named to the starting XI in Real Madrid’s Champions League match vs. Olympiakos; two years after his first call-up to the senior team and just three days after his professional La Liga debut. At just 18 years and 177 days old, Casillas became the youngest goalkeeper to feature in the competition; a record he’d hold until October 2017.
Although the match ended in a 3-3 draw, Casillas impressed his teammates through his confidence. On matchday, the teenager said that he was “not scared by the sparklers or the famous ‘Greek Hell’,” much to the annoyance of the proud Olympiakos faithful.
As the appearances piled on during the 1999-2000 season, so too did the attention. Casillas’ young age, mixed with his coolheadedness in such a pressure-filled role, was starting to catch on with football fans.
“Casillas [was that] young kid who played with maturity and broke into the Real Madrid first team at a young age,” said Kevin, a Sevilla fan.
“When you’re at the age of 18 and you’re guarding the goalposts for Real Madrid – one of the biggest clubs in the world with such a tremendous history – obviously at the time I thought that he’s definitely on the way up,” said Sivan John, a football writer and blogger.
“Early on there was a sense of frustration because damn it, another Real Madrid kid who could become a superstar.”
Casillas was also catching the attention of fellow football personalities, including that of the great Sir Alex Ferguson. When Casillas’ Real Madrid eliminated Manchester United in the quarter-finals of that season’s Champions League, the Manchester United gaffer only had praise for Real Madrid’s teenage ‘keeper.
“[Casillas’] maturity is peculiar for a young lad of 18 years,” he said post-game.
But not all of the attention Casillas was receiving was positive. Bayern Munich goalkeeper Oliver Kahn — known for not holding back when something bothered him — was seemingly annoyed by the spotlight being shown on the young Casillas. Awaiting Casillas’ Madrid in the semi-finals, the Bayern titan had this to say about the opposing ‘keeper.
“Real Madrid is taking a risk by leaving the goal in the hands of an 18-year-old boy in such an important competition, and against a strong team like Bayern,” he said.
Kahn was far from someone who would keep his mouth shut; former Bayern teammate Andi Herzog can attest to that. But for Kahn to take aim at a teenager like that? It certainly gave another topic for pundits to discuss in the buildup.
It didn’t help that Casillas, in the second group stage prior to the knockout round, had struggled to prove otherwise. He conceded eight goals across two matches vs. Bayern Munich; one of which John remembers very well.
“It was a March 8, 2000, match between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich,” he said. “It also turned out to be Lothar Matthäus’ last official game for Bayern Munich, who won the game, 4-1.
“[Casillas] didn’t have a good game because the result was terrible for Real Madrid.”
Nonetheless, John was still impressed by the teenage Casillas.
“I kept thinking to myself, this kid is only a teenager and he’s already the number one goalkeeper for one of the biggest clubs in the world,” he said.
John believed that, despite his previous showings, Casillas had the potential to rebound against Bayern Munich in the semis.
To the disappointment of Kahn, Casillas did.
“I remember in the second leg in Munich, Real Madrid had to defend a two-goal deficit,” John said. “Bayern were attacking from all angles, but Casillas kept every single Munich attempt out. I’m not too sure if he was the Man of the Match, but I really believe that he played a huge role in denying Bayern Munich from scoring as many goals as possible.”
Real Madrid would walk out of Germany 3-2 winners on aggregate, and it set up a date with fellow Spanish club Valencia in the final. It was Real Madrid’s second Champions League final appearance in three years.
For the young Casillas, although he didn’t respond off of the pitch, he taught the veteran Kahn a valuable lesson in humility on it. Now, the world was definitely watching him.
Casillas didn’t have to be as spectacular as he was earlier in the competition. Real Madrid walked away as 3-0 winners on the day, and Casillas wasn’t forced to make many highlight-reel saves. But the Spaniard — who was donning an unconventional #27 jersey — impressed enough in such a tense setting.
“When you have a 19-year-old player come in and want to take responsibility to get their team over the line, it’s a very, very special quality,” said Arsenal fan and Dutch football expert James Rowe.
The fact that he was the youngest player to ever play in and win a Champions League final served as the icing on the cake in what was an already memorable debut campaign.
“It’s important for young players to get a taste of success, and triumph on a stage as big as that, early,” said football content creator and long-time Valencia fan Astorre Cerebrone. “It shapes how they handle pressure going forward and helps their composure. Overall, it boosts mentality and an understanding of a winning culture, especially when you’re at a club like Real Madrid – with its huge demands.”
Unsurprisingly, some Spanish rival fans weren’t completely pleased by the speedy growth of such a talented Real Madrid prospect.
“Early on there was a sense of frustration because damn it, another Real Madrid kid who could become a superstar,” said long-time Atletico Madrid fan and La Liga enthusiast Michael.
The 2000 Champions League was a good introduction for Casillas, and although it happened so long ago, the Spanish goalkeeper still views it as his favourite accomplishment.
“It was the first title in my professional career and that the first is a Champions League was incredible,” he said in 2013.
Casillas’ showings at the club level led to call-ups to the Spanish national team. On June 3, 2000 — not long after the Champions League final — he made his senior team debut as a 19-year-old against Sweden. He then travelled with La Furia Roja to the Netherlands and Belgium for that year’s Euros, although he didn’t appear in the tournament.
All of the pieces were falling in place for Casillas, who hadn’t even turned 20-years-old yet.
“I kept thinking to myself, this kid is only a teenager and he’s already the number one goalkeeper for one of the biggest clubs in the world.”
But nothing is guaranteed for a young player, not even for a Champions League winner like Iker Casillas. Despite winning the Bravo Award in 2000 and his first La Liga title in 2001, Casillas found himself on the bench midway through the 2001-02 season.
At the time, Real Madrid was still coached by Vincente del Bosque. He’s a man who played a significant role in the career of Casillas. After all, Del Bosque was the gaffer who gave Casillas the starting gig during the 1999-2000 season, and he had shown a lot of outspoken trust in the young ‘keeper’s abilities.
But as the shoddy performances piled up during the 2001-02 season, Del Bosque decided to demote Casillas to the bench.
It was far from an illogical decision to make. Although Casillas was phenomenal during his first two professional seasons, it seemed as though the pressure of the big leagues was starting to crack his confidence. And with Real Madrid building strong challenges in both the Copa Del Rey and the Champions League, Del Bosque decided that it would be best for the youngster to take some time off.
In place of Casillas came César Sánchez, a 30-year-old goalkeeper best known for his eight years with Real Valladolid between 1992 and 2000. The Spaniard had joined Los Blancos the season prior, but his playing time was severely limited by the exploits of the young Casillas.
So when Casillas was told by Del Bosque that he would be warming the bench for a while, Sánchez wasn’t complaining.
Casillas did, though. When Sánchez started the Copa Del Rey final, Casillas sulked on the bench. And when Sánchez excelled in Real Madrid’s UCL quarter-final and semi-finals ties against Bayern Munich and Barcelona, the 20-year-old Casillas threw a fit loud enough to prompt goalkeeper coach Manuel Amieiro to have a serious talk with him.
Casillas, who had been lauded for his maturity as a teenager, seemed to finally be showing his age.
Although the talk resulted in Casillas changing his attitude in training, he was still very much disappointed with Del Bosque’s decision outside of practice. How could they start me in the final as a 19-year-old but not as a 21-year-old? That question continued to bother Casillas in the weeks and days leading up to the 2002 Champions League final, to the point where he told his mother not to travel to Glasgow for the final.
As far as Casillas was concerned, he would not be playing that night.
Faith works in funny ways though, and it seemed as though the gods of football took pity on the grumbling 21-year-old. Although Casillas started the game on the bench, in the 68th minute, Sánchez went down with an injury that forced him to be subbed off. Del Bosque, understanding the story that faith was forcing him to partake in, turned his focus to Casillas.
“Prove me wrong,” his eyes told the youngster.
“Having to step into the 2002 Champions league final [like that] after César got injured, that’s another early memory of him,” Guzzo said.
With Los Blancos up by a goal, Casillas knew that conceding was not an option. Given the tantrums he had thrown in prior training sessions, anything less than an excellent performance was also unacceptable.
And anything less than an excellent performance he did not deliver.
“I remember the saves he made point-blank,” Michael said. “It’s the biggest stage — a Champions League final — and he’s making these wild saves.”
As the minutes died out in Glasgow, Bayer Leverkusen pressed for an equalizer. Yıldıray Baştürk unleashed a long-distance attempt, but Casillas parried wide. On the ensuing corner, the ball found Dimitar Berbatov at the far post, but his cutting shot was stopped miraculously by the trailing foot of Casillas. Berbatov and Casillas met again moments later when the former connected on another corner with his head. Casillas collapsed on his goal-line and used his knee to parry the ball away.
Three golden Leverkusen opportunities were squashed by the 21-year-old, and for the second time in three years, Casillas proved that he could deliver on the biggest of club stages.
“For Casillas to come into the final at a very young age and perform exceptionally well against a very good Bayer Leverkusen team, you could tell how good he was going to be,” Rowe said.
For many football fans, this final was what convinced them that Casillas would be destined for great things.
“The final minutes of that 2002 CL final against Bayer Leverkusen when he came on to replace the injured Cesar and stole the show fully convinced me [of his potential],” Cerebrone said. “Iker showed great reflexes and kept his composure under immense pressure. From that point, I was certain he would be a blessing to the national team.”
With another UCL winner’s medal around his neck, Casillas began preparing for that summer’s World Cup. Like the 2000 Euros, the 21-year-old was expected to join the squad as a bench player. With the respected Santiago Cañizares still Spain’s starting goalkeeper, Casillas’ only hope was for an exceptional circumstance.
Would you believe it, just days after the Champions League final, Cañizares was ruled out of the World Cup due to an injury.
Call it the evil eye, football gods, bad luck or whatever you like, but for the second time in a week, Casillas had benefitted from a goalkeeper getting injured. It’s unlikely that Casillas had anything to do with the injuries (and it would be quite ridiculous of me to suggest that he did). But given the lunatical nature of Cañizares’ injury — he severed a tendon in his right foot after dropping a bottle of aftershave — there is something mystical about how things keep falling into place for the young Casillas.
Like the Champions League final though, Casillas took the opportunity and ran with it. He played in all five of Spain’s 2002 World Cup matches and conceded five goals. Under his watch, La Furia Roja made it to the quarter-finals for the first time since 1994.
Spain would eventually be eliminated by the co-hosts South Korea, who blanked the Spaniards before overcoming them in a shootout. But Casillas was hardly to blame; on the contrary, he was being praised as one of Spain’s best players throughout the tournament.
As a 21-year-old, Casillas was one of the youngest starting goalkeepers in the competition. But just like in previous editions of the Champions League, Casillas showed that age was just a number for him. He played an instrumental role in Spain’s progression, particularly in the quarter-finals. Against the Republic of Ireland in the round of 16, Casillas turned aside two penalties, including one during regular time, and earned his now-iconic nickname “The Saint”.
Although Cañizares’ injury would heal, he’d never recover the starting position. “The Saint” had risen to power in Cañizares’ absence, and given his age, Casillas was not going to give it up anytime soon.
“Once the aftershave incident happened and Iker took over, that was the end for [Cañizares] with Spain,” Cerebrone said. “Iker deserved his spot as national team number 1, he took his chance when events handed him an opportunity and earned it fully. He just could not be displaced.
“I was sad for Santi because he really deserved a better national team career, but Iker was just a colossus.”
By the time 2002 came to a close, Casillas had announced himself to the footballing world. He had conquered the most coveted goalkeeping positions in Spanish football, both at the club level with Los Blancos and at the international level with La Furia Roja.
And it all started with a talk with his principal in design class.
Special thanks to all of the fans, journalists, and podcasters who participated in the making of this series. To check out more of their works, click on the hyperlinks attached to their names.