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.
If you’re a young football fan, you’d be forgiven for thinking of Spain as a perennial football powerhouse. After all, the past 11 years has seen La Roja reach a Confederations Cup final, win back-to-back European Championships, and clinch a famous FIFA World Cup victory.
But success and Spain weren’t always synonymous with one another.
“Spain was known for just having a weak mentality and always kind of bottling in clutch moments,” said Michael, a long-time Atletico Madrid fan and La Liga enthusiasts. “They had been known as perennial bottlers at worst and a team with bad luck at best,”
Indeed, Spain were international football’s most famous chokers. You only had to take a look at their tournament records to prove it.
In the World Cup’s first 10 editions, Spain only qualified to the tournament four times. It’s the worst qualification record from any current World Cup winner during that time period.
Spain’s European qualification record was equally abysmal; just one European Championship appearance in the tournament’s first five editions, and none as a non-host. Granted, Spain did finish as champions in its only Euros appearance in that era, but given that only four teams (including Spain) participated in that edition, how much weight does that victory really carry?
“[They] just [had] a long history of mistakes, mental slips, and underwhelming play,” Michael said.
It’s not as though Spain never had any talented footballers either. La Roja always boasted a plethora of world-class talents, from Amancio Amaro, Francesco Gento, Luis Suárez, and Alfredo Di Stéfano in the 1950s and 1960s, to Pep Guardiola, Luis Enrique, Fernando Hierro, and Raúl in the 1990s and early 2000s.
Aside from the aforementioned 1964 championship though, Spain’s various icons had nothing to show for their legacy.
“Spain has had good sides in the past,” Michael said. “But they consistently seemed to struggle on the big stage.”
But while Spanish legends used to just carry on the failures of previous Spanish legends, there was something different about the new century Spain. Within a few years, younger replacements were found almost immediately for all of La Roja’s departing icons.
When Guardiola internationally retired in 2001, 21-year-old Xavi Hernández took over for him. When Hierro and Enrique internationally retired in 2002, 24-year-old Carles Puyol and 22-year-old Xabi Alonso started seeing more minutes. When Raúl closed the book on his international career in 2006, 22-year-old Fernando Torres and 24-year-old David Villa became the faces of Spain’s attack.
And of course, there was the young Iker Casillas in goal.
The native of Móstoles had been Spain’s number one goalkeeper since he filled in for the injured Santiago Cañizares during the 2002 World Cup. He performed exceptionally well at that tournament despite being 21-years-old, and although he didn’t have nearly as much success in the 2004 Euros and the 2006 World Cup, Casillas’ presence was vital to the Spanish national team set-up.
“Casillas became one of the first players from that successful era that you felt like could become a fundamental piece of a winning side,” Michael said.
Despite experiencing familiar international failures in 2004 (Euros group stage exit) and 2006 (World Cup round of 16 loss to France), Spain would taste the fruits of their labour in 2008. Guided by the late Luis Aragonés and featuring added talent in 24-year-old Andrés Iniesta, 22-year-old Sergio Ramos, and 21-year-old Cesc Fàbregas, Spain were European champions again. After going 5-0-0 in their first five games, La Roja defeated Germany in the 2008 European Championship finale off of a single goal from Fernando Torres.
“I always give a lot of credit to the Atleti man himself, Luis Aragonés,” EiF’s Joaquin Delmar said. “He did an amazing job building the foundation for what this Spanish team is today. He brought in a lot of egos from Barcelona, Real Madrid, and a couple of other teams, and made them an incredible team.”
But the gaffer couldn’t do it alone. Given the various players that represented proud, warring clubs such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, and Atletico Madrid, it would’ve been easy for sub-cultures to develop within the Spanish team. That’s why Aragonés needed a right-hand man among the players; a peace-keeper of sorts.
That’s also why, with the captaincy vacant following Raúl’s 2006 departure, Aragonés handed the armband to Casillas ahead of the Euros.
“Aragonés let Casillas be the leader and voice of the locker room,” Delmar said.
And with the hindsight of Spain’s 2008’s continental championship, it’s clear that Casillas’ promotion to captain was one of Aragonés’ finest managerial decisions.
“Casillas became one of the first players from that successful era that you felt like could become a fundamental piece of a winning side.”
Despite the silverware, Spanish fans knew not to overreact. A history of missed expectations and substandard shortcomings had left the fanbase expecting the worst, even as the team — now coached by Casillas’ old gaffer Vicente del Bosque — prepared to show their worth in South Africa.
“Even though the Euros happened a couple of years earlier, you always have in the back of your head that this is a team known for failing when it matters most and for not having the winning mentality,” Michael said.
And initially, Spanish doubts were correct. A stunning loss to the United States in the 2009 Confederations Cup semi-finals saw Spain’s 35-game unbeaten streak come to a confounding conclusion. A year later, Spain lost their World Cup opener to Switzerland, a team that had only won three previous World Cup games since 1962.
“I thought…here we go right back to Spain bottling,” Michael said. “That mentality as losers is going to stick around.”
But Casillas, showing the leadership he was trusted with two years earlier, knew better than to overreact. Despite the media’s best efforts to blame him (and his girlfriend), Casillas kept his composure, rallied his teammates, and backstopped them to two wins in their final two group stage games to clinch first in the group and a date against a familiar foe in Portugal.
Despite the prospect of facing a Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal that had just obliterated North Korea 7-0 a week earlier, Spain and Casillas were not intimidated. They blanked their border rivals via a 1-0 win off of a David Villa goal. Spain then repeated the scoreline against Paraguay in the quarter-finals (with big help from Casillas, who saved a penalty with the score tied at 0-0) and then again against Euro 2008 final opponents Germany in the semi-finals.
Before they knew it, Spain were in the World Cup final for the first time ever, and Casillas was riding a clean sheet streak that stretched over 310 minutes.
Awaiting them in the final was another team looking to erase the defeats of their past; the Netherlands.
The Dutch, maybe even more so than the Spanish, were known for never living up to their potential, at least from a success-based standpoint. In the first nine World Cups, the Netherlands qualified just twice to the tournament; in 1934 and 1938. And when they returned to the tournament in the 1970s, they finished as losing finalists in back-to-back editions. All of this, despite boasting Johan Neeskens, Ruud Krol, and the iconic Johan Cruyff at the time.
The Dutch players of 2010 — fueled by these early shortcomings and the failures of subsequent golden generations in the 1990s and early 2000s — were united under their common goal to finally bring to their country what they had been craving for decades.
“There was a real togetherness in that Dutch squad,” Dutch football expert James Rowe said. “Players wanted to fight for one another and wanted to work for one another. They took pride in keeping clean sheets, and there was a real spine in that team.”
That spine consisted of reliable players in goal (Maarten Stekelenburg), on defence (Giovanni van Bronckhorst & John Heitinga) and attack (Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, and Robin van Persie). These players guided the Netherlands to a 3-0-0 record in the group stage and famous knockout-round wins over former champions Brazil and Uruguay.
“The Netherlands had a great tournament,” Rowe said.
“If you put that same burden on the shoulders of Gerard Pique or Sergio Ramos, I don’t know if that same success happens.”
But big games call for big moments from big players, and Casillas, at the turn of the hour mark of the final, left one of the biggest marks in World Cup history.
Minute 61. The score reads 0-0. Falling backwards, Wesley Sneijder plays a slicing, 30-yard ball that cuts through Spain’s defence and lands at the feet of Arjen Robben.
Carles Puyol can not recover fast enough to catch up to the speeding Dutchman, who leaves him in the dust.
“I remember seeing Puyol chase [Robben],” Michael said. “I thought that if he doesn’t get that tackle, it’s in; Robben will score.”
With time and space on his side, Robben gallops towards the goal.
The only thing standing in his way? The 6 ft. 0 Casillas.
“Is Casillas going to get his arm up?” Michael asked. “Is he going to get big enough? Is the shot going to be at him? Is Robben going to chip it?”
Robben waits…waits…waits…and shoots to Casillas’ right.
But Casillas dives to his left.
“The goalkeeper, not only does he go the wrong way [because] he thinks Robben is going near-post with his finish, but Robben goes far-post,” Delmar said.
Game over? No!
“Somehow, the tip of Casillas’ boot gets to Robben’s shot,” Delmar said.
As the ball bounces wide of the goal, Robben drops to his knees with his hands on his head. He looks off into the distance, and the broadcast captures his astonishment. “How did he save that?” You can hear his eyes ask the viewers.
“For me, it was one of disbelief, for the tremendous save that it actually was,” Rowe said. “Even Robben couldn’t believe it.”
Neither could Casillas’s Spanish teammates and supporters.
“To see it go wide and all of the defenders running and looking at [Casillas] in awe of what he pulled off is incredible,” Delmar said.
“When you break it down it sounds like a five-minute thing, but it just happened in a few seconds,” Michael said. “As soon as Casillas saves the ball, you think, ‘Oh gosh! That could’ve been their biggest chance to win the match, and now there’s a real shot for Spain to come back.’ It’s like, ‘OK, OK. We’re still in this thing.'”
After a previous hour of ugliness unbefitting of a World Cup final, Casillas had breathed new life into the spectacle. And like his penalty stop vs. Paraguay, the Saint’s save had awoken his Spanish teammates.
For the next 30 minutes, Spain held the Dutch off of the regular time scoreboard. And in the second half of extra time, Iniesta, inspired by Casillas’ clutch stop, delivered his own clutch moment when he fired in the game’s only goal.
A few minutes later, Spain became the newest champions of the world.
“The Dutch came up against a tremendous Spanish side, and it was [Spain’s] time,” Rowe said.
The goal and occasion were undeniably massive. But despite their magnitude, little attention was being taken away from Casillas’ earlier save.
“That’s one of the most iconic saves in football history,” Delmar said. “That [goal] could’ve easily won Holland the World Cup.”
Even Dutch fans, despite the disappointment of losing yet another World Cup final, couldn’t help but praise the efforts of the opposite number one.
“Therein lies the difference of the small details in a World Cup final,” Rowe said. “You’ve got a tremendous, world-class goalkeeper who was able to keep the ball out of the net and give Spain that opportunity to keep pushing forward.”
And for Casillas to do it all as the national team captain just added to his legacy.
The World Cup was likely the peak of his international career, but Casillas wouldn’t stop gathering silverware after it. He was awarded the World Cup’s Golden Glove award thanks to his five clean sheets (a shared record in FIFA World Cups). Through it, Casillas became the first (and so far only) Spanish goalkeeper to win the accolade.
A few years later, Casillas backstopped Spain to another European championship in 2012. The victory came over his good friend Gianluigi Buffon, who was no match for Spain’s overpowered attack. The championship was Spain’s second-straight victory in the competition, and it made them the first team in tournament history to successfully defend their title.
The following summer, Casillas started in all of Spain’s matches en route to the 2013 Confederations Cup final. The final was the first of its kind in La Roja’s history.
Casillas captained all of those Spanish sides, and along the way, he captured several FIFA and UEFA Team of the Season and Best Goalkeeper honours. Casillas was nearly untouchable as an international icon, both as a goalkeeper and as a leader, and fans agree that without him, Spain’s golden generation might’ve failed in the same way their forefathers did previously.
“If you put that same burden on the shoulders of Gerard Pique or Sergio Ramos, I don’t know if that same success happens,” Hilton said.
Ultimately, no matter if they support Real Madrid or a rival, all Spanish national team fans agree that Casillas holds a special place in La Furia Roja’s lore.
“The happiness that my mom got from the three consecutive titles, he contributed to that,” Delmar said. “I love Iker so much, and what he did for the [Spanish] national team was amazing.”
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.