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.
On November 29, 2010, Barcelona and Real Madrid met in one of the most highly-anticipated Clasicos in recent times. The match was the first of its kind to be played since Spain’s 2010 World Cup win. 13 players from Spain’s championship squad — including 10 of Spain’s starting XI in the final — made appearances in the match. Before kick-off, this specific Clasico was being touted as a celebration of the very best that Spain had to offer.
But what was supposed to be a symbolic commemoration of Spain’s success turned out to be the start of a butchery that nearly stained the greatest accomplishment in the country’s football history.
Barcelona, the game’s hosts, ran out 5-0 winners on the day. Four of those goals came from Spanish World Cup winners, including two from tournament joint-top scorer David Villa. Barcelona completely overwhelmed their Madrid-based opponents, and Real Madrid never came close to mustering any sort of an attack.
At least, not on the scoreboard.
As time winded down at the Camp Nou, Sergio Ramos started to take exception to the result. He kicked out at Lionel Messi during the second minute of added time, his intent to injure evident for all to see. The referee immediately took out his red card, but Ramos paid him no attention. He shoved Barcelona’s captain, Carles Puyol, to the ground before exchanging words with Gerard Pique. He then pushed his finger into the face of Xavi Hernández as he walked off of the pitch.
It was only months ago that Ramos had shared a World Cup championship with the very same Puyol, Pique, and Xavi.
This wouldn’t be the last time Spain’s core came to a violent disagreement. Less than a year later, on August 17, 2011, Barcelona and Real Madrid met in the second leg of the Supercopa de España. The score was much closer this time — Barcelona won 3-2 in that particular match and 5-4 on aggregate — but the ending was still very much the same.
Barcelona’s touchline swarmed the Brazilian Marcelo after he scissor-kicked Cesc Fàbregas late in the match. Their reaction prompted Real Madrid’s touchline to respond in a similar matter. Both XIs also got involved, including the two goalkeepers. Pushing and shoving among the players ensued, and after a few minutes of heated exchanges, three red cards were handed out, including one to Marcelo. Barcelona finished the tie as champions, but as it did the season before, El Clasico was characterized by violent hostility.
It seemed as though this intensity was exactly what José Mourinho, Real Madrid’s manager, had wanted from his players. Having joined the club from Inter Milan in 2010, the Portuguese coach seemed to believe that the only way Real Madrid could overcome Barcelona was by beating them, literally. It’s a message Mourinho himself lived out; he poked the eye of the late Tito Villanova during the 2011 Supercopa de España fight.
Of course, Mourinho never admitted this to the media. But whether or not he truly preached it to the players behind closed doors, it was clear that Real Madrid had adopted a ferocious style under him that wasn’t there before. Mourinho’s involvement was rubbing some people the wrong way, including Barcelona players, some of whom accused Mourinho of “destroying Spanish football.”
It was a belief seemingly held by one of Real Madrid’s most influential stars too.
“There are other players and coaches that are a lot more arrogant and even thrive in a nasty environment,” Mazariegos said. “But it seems like Iker Casillas rejected all of that.”
Following that violent second leg, Casillas called some of Barcelona’s veteran players to talk to them about their recent meeting. He phoned Xavi and Puyol — two of Barcelona and Spain’s most respected leaders — and discussed the recent fights in the Clasicos.
Per El Pais, Casillas felt that, because he “represents a country and supports an ideal”, he had a “responsibility as captain of the side” to discuss these matters with his Barcelona counterparts and patch things up. This earned him praise from Xavi, who said that Casillas “deserves a lot of credit” for “looking out for the interests of Spanish football.”
“They say that if it wasn’t for Casillas and Xavi having a friendly relationship and a lot of influence within their camps, the national team might’ve split completely apart,” Mazariegos said.
Casillas insists that he “didn’t do anything special” by calling Xavi and Puyol, but anyone familiar with the history of El Clasico would tell you how difficult it is for a Real Madrid player to discuss such a matter with a club rival.
This call would ultimately damage Casillas’ reputation with Mourinho. But by putting the national team ahead of his own pride, Casillas earned the respect of the broader football world.
“In those ugly Clasicos, he was a calming presence,” said Joaquin Delmar, EiF’s resident Atletico Madrid fan. “In such an intense rivalry setting – obviously he wants to win and be competitive – he’s there to turn things down a notch.”
“In the peak of the bad blood between Madrid and Barcelona in the Mourinho-Pep period, Iker conducted himself admirably and constantly tried to ensure bridges weren’t burnt,” said Astorre Cerebrone, a Valencia fan and football content creator. “Not just because he was the national team captain, but because that’s just the kind of person Iker seems to be.”
Casillas’ actions also earned him the appreciation of Barcelona fans.
“Matches of giants and champions don’t happen if there’s not a good opponent on the other side, and Casillas was always a terrific opponent on the other side of things.”
Unfortunately for the goalkeeper, while Casillas was close with Barcelona’s Spanish core off of the pitch, that didn’t prevent him from being on the receiving end of some of their greatest beatdowns on the pitch.
“Casillas was part of this generation of Madrid players that were second to Barcelona and Messi,” Hilton said.
In 37 Clasicos across all competitions, Casillas managed just 12 wins. This might seem like an OK number, but given that he only won five of his last 19 Clasicos, it’s clear that, since the meteoric rise of Messi, Casillas has struggled to contain the Catalans. Casillas has also conceded a total of 64 Clasico goals; nearly two goals conceded every Clasico. These include 11 goals conceded across Barcelona’s 6-2 and 5-0 wins in 2009 and 2010. To top it off, Casillas has kept just six clean sheets, including just one since 2007.
Why the weak numbers? This is likely due to the amount of firepower Casillas had to deal with every Clasico.
“Casillas faced a lot of stars in Clasicos,” Mazariegos said. “About half of his Real Madrid career was spent with Messi as a force, so that completely changes things as a goalkeeper. Also Xavi, Iniesta, Dani Alves, Eto’o, David Villa, and more.”
El Clasico is a generally anti-goalkeeper fixture anyways. Barcelona goalkeepers — the likes of Víctor Valdés, José Manuel Pinto, Claudio Bravo, and Marc-André ter Stegen — have also had some difficulty keeping Real Madrid off of the scoreboard.
“There hasn’t been a 0-0 Clasico in 17 years,” Mazariegos said. “Those games are just so high intensity with so much attack.”
Nonetheless, Casillas’ presence as Real Madrid’s all-time greatest goalkeeper — the “big, bad wolf”, as Hilton puts it — is a great narrative piece in the tale of many Clasico legends, including that of Messi.
“It takes a legend to create other legends, and – through no fault of his own – Casillas really did help drive the narrative of what Messi has become,” Hilton said.
This is a point that even Casillas himself admits to be true. The Spanish goalkeeper believes that Messi pushed him to become a better goalkeeper, and while most goalkeepers are grateful over the fact that they didn’t have to deal with the Argentine on such a consistent basis, Casillas believes he was “lucky enough” to be able to compete against Messi so often.
And it’s not the first time Casillas has publicly displayed his admiration for Messi either.
“When Messi beat his record for most wins in La Liga history, Casillas said that he obviously hoped it would’ve been a Real Madrid player, but that Messi deserved that record,” Hilton said.
But while Barcelona fans can speak in great lengths about how their club and players have bested Casillas, fans of other La Liga clubs were forced to deal with the near-consistent heartbreak of seeing their players fail to solve the puzzle that was San Iker.
Take Atletico Madrid, for example.
“We can outmuscle [Real Madrid’s] midfield, we can get some good chances to shoot, etc.,” Michael, a long-time fan of Atletico Madrid, said. “[But] you feel like no matter what we do right, there’s always this guy at the back who, no matter what kind of effort you give, is always going to be there to stop everything.”
Indeed, based on Casillas’ record against Atletico, he seemed impossible to solve for Los Colchoneros. 33 games played between Casillas and Atleti, and the goalkeeper has come out on top in 22 of them. It’s the second most wins he’s ever achieved against a single opponent. On top of that, Casillas has kept 14 clean sheets against Atleti (also his second-most against a team) and conceded just 27 goals in derby games; less than a goal per derby.
“It’s already so intimidating [playing Real Madrid] and you already feel like the odds are so stacked against you,” Michael said. “To finally get a good chance on goal and have it stopped, it’s like, damn it! What more do we have to do?”
That’s a pain other La Liga fans also felt when their sides played Casillas.
“He could save almost anything sometimes,” Kevin, a Sevilla fan, said.
“He had so many standout qualities, especially his reflexes,” Cerebrone said.
Nonetheless, all La Liga fans maintain a level of respect for Casillas, both as a goalkeeper and as a professional.
“As far as I can remember, he’s always been a model professional,” Mazariegos said. “He’s never come across as arrogant.”
“What he’s achieved speaks for itself,” Kevin said. “He’s probably the best Spanish ‘keeper of the modern age and a Real Madrid icon.”
“Matches of giants and champions don’t happen if there’s not a good opponent on the other side,” Hilton said. “And Casillas was always a terrific opponent on the other side of things.”
“Iker is a classy guy and it has always been obvious. He really just comes across as a really good guy, like Andres Iniesta,” Cerebrone said. “Naturally, football fans root for guys like him.”
“Even though he was a Real Madrid player, he’s truly one of my favourite players ever,” Delmar said.
“It’s simply very hard not to respect someone who has been at the top for as long as Casillas has and has the list of accomplishments he does.”
But Casillas’ myth is not limited to Spain. Actually, it could be argued that Casillas is more admired outside of his home country than within it.
Despite being a Liverpool fan for over a decade, Rajendran feels a deep connection to Casillas. He was attracted to Casillas’ attitude, despite the club he represented. Rajendran respected Casillas as a sportsman, and as a FIFA gamer, he would always sign Casillas to his Career Mode team.
“I used to play EA Sports FIFA a lot; FIFA 08, FIFA 10, etc.,” Rajendran said. “So I’d pick Liverpool a lot [in Career Mode] and always bring Casillas into my team.
“I’d have Pepe Reina and Iker Casillas in my team, so I’d play Casillas and put Pepe Reina on the bench.”
But Rajendran isn’t unique in his admiration for the former Real Madrid captain. As Anfield showed multiple times through their consistent standing ovations and cheers, Casillas is a welcomed figure in Liverpool.
“One thing about the Anfield faithful is that if you’re a true legend of the game, they’ll definitely give you a standing ovation,” Rajendran said.
And the feeling is mutual for Casillas.
“I’m very grateful for the warm reception,” he said following his most recent Anfield visit. “To be honest, every time I’ve played here I’ve been treated impeccably.”
A cynical person might suggest that Liverpool’s regard for Casillas is made easier by the fact that they hold such an admirable record against him. After all, it’s easier for fans to like a player if they play so well against him.
Despite only facing off seven times in Casillas’ career, Liverpool has often come out on top against the Spanish goalkeeper; four times to be exact. Granted, Casillas has kept three clean sheets against the Scousers, but that was what it took for his side to get a positive result against Liverpool. Every time Casillas conceded, his club went on to lose to Liverpool.
This included one of the most humiliating losses in Real Madrid history; a 4-0 defeat at Anfield during the 2008-09 Champions League knockout stage
“For me, [that game] was a very happy moment,” Rajendran said. “But Casillas looked so helpless.”
That match has often been cited as one of Casillas’ best ever performances. He constantly frustrated Steven Gerrard and fellow Spaniard Fernando Torres with his awe-inspiring stops, and had it not been for two or three miraculous saves, Los Blancos likely would’ve left England with even redder bottoms.
This is why Rajendran asserts that the scoreline was down Liverpool’s brutal strength, not anything to do with Casillas.
“We were on top of our game,” he said. “[In 2009], I always thought Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres could beat every single team that we’d face.”
Despite the scoreline, there was always a general aura of respect for the Spanish goalkeeper since that Anfield performance. And over time, the connection between the Scouse club and the Spanish ‘keeper has only grown stronger, mainly due to his relationship with former Liverpool goalkeeper Pepe Reina and his support of Loris Karius.
“After Loris Karius had that misfortune in Kyiv in 2018, Casillas was the first player to compile a video with all of his mistakes in support of Karius,” Rajendran said. “That really speaks for Casillas. That was the kind of attitude the guy had.”
Casillas’ relationship with an opposing team’s goalkeeper is also the reason behind why fans of another club — Italy’s Juventus — respect the Spaniard.
Casillas and Buffon’s friendship has been well-documented in the past. The two ‘keepers, who have met multiple times on the club and international stage, have often been seen hugging and talking after games.
Their support of one another is also very vocal. When Buffon speaks of Casillas, he always describes him to be of “extraordinary quality“. And when Casillas speaks of Buffon, he refers to him as the “benchmark” for his generation of goalkeepers and for “generations to come.”
Why do Buffon and Casillas respect each other so much? To Guzzo, it’s because the goalkeepers are spiritual brothers, with Buffon being the older brother who supports his younger sibling by paving the path for him and Casillas being the younger brother who takes the teachings of his older sibling and applies them to his own life.
“Casillas states he watched Buffon and loved his way of playing and his way of being,” Guzzo said. “So I think the brotherhood between Casillas and Buffon has a lot to do with Casillas watching Buffon and respecting his game and then being able to go through his own career at the same time as Gigi.”
This brotherhood was most evident during 2018 World Cup qualifiers. When Sweden eliminated Italy from contention, Buffon, who was then likely playing in his last World Cup qualifier, cried on live television.
Casillas, hurt by the state that his companion was in, went onto Twitter to support Buffon.
“I don’t like to see you like this,” he tweeted. “I see you how many others still see you: a legend. I’m proud to know you and proud to have faced you many times. You can still delight us in friendly football!”
This sympathy between the two goalkeepers stems out of that brotherhood, as well as the shared experiences the two have, according to Guzzo.
“The two of them facing each other throughout both of their storied careers adds to this [brotherhood],” he said. “[In] playing the same position and facing the same battles, you develop an extra sense of understanding in how hard it is to do what each of them was doing, which is staying atop of the ladder for so long.”
Brotherhood aside, Guzzo insists that Juventus fans respect Casillas as a generally successful footballer and opponent too.
“It’s simply very hard not to respect someone who has been at the top for as long as Casillas has and has the list of accomplishments he does,” Alberto Guzzo said.
This is ultimately why Guzzo believes that despite the pain Casillas’ greatness has caused to clubs and fans worldwide, rival fans just can’t disregard Casillas’ eminence and sportsmanship.
“Even though it hurt the club and nation I support at times, I’m grateful for being able to witness his greatness,” he said.
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.