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.
“Mourinho saw him as a grass, a mole, a traitor and an egoist.”
Those were the words of Diego Torres in his 2014 book The Special One: The Dark Side of José Mourinho. José Mourinho, not a stranger to controversy, is known for falling out with several of his players. The likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos, Samuel Eto’o, and most recently Paul Pogba have all, at some point or another, clashed with the Portuguese gaffer.
But Torres wasn’t talking about any of those players in his book, at least, not in the aforementioned line. No, the insults were left for a different player; one who boiled Mourinho’s blood so much that he split Real Madrid into its biggest civil war of the 21st century.
The “him” was one Iker Casillas.
The ragged relationship between Casillas and Mourinho is one that most football fans, even the most casual among us, are familiar with. Although their partnership was rather short-lived (Mourinho joined Real Madrid in 2010 and left in 2013), by the end of Mourinho’s tenure as head coach, he and Casillas could barely even speak to one another. They were more than willing to speak about each other though, and they continued to do so years later.
Mourinho and Casillas’ relationship started rocky right from the get-go. In 2010, just months after Mourinho’s official appointment, Real Madrid were getting ready to meet Barcelona in the gaffer’s first Clasico as Real Madrid boss. The game would ultimately end in a 5-0 defeat, but Mourinho was red-faced for a different reason.
Former Real Madrid goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek noted in his book that the pre-game press had figured out that the defender Pepe was going to play in the midfield for the match. Convinced there was a mole in the Blancos dressing room, Dudek claims that Mourinho started questioning the whereabouts of the team’s “rat”.
While Mourinho didn’t explicitly accuse Casillas of leaking the information, the club captain was insinuated as the prime suspect.
This is a criticism Casillas would hear all throughout his career under Mourinho. When Carbornero reported on the players’ unrest with Mourinho a year later, for example, Casillas again was again criticized for being a mole.
It’s an accusation he still denies.
“I was called a traitor and a mole,” Casillas said in 2014. “I have a close relationship with some journalists because I have known them for many years, but I can distinguish the relationship of a friend with that of a journalist.”
Casillas claims that despite the prevalence of the accusations, he doesn’t think Real Madrid’s hierarchy truly believed them to be true.
“I like to think that neither Mourinho nor the president Florentino Perez really believed this,” he said.
Others weren’t so convinced.
“There was a clear intent from José Mourinho to point out some players who weren’t with him,” Spanish football expert Guillem Balague said in 2015.
This was most evidenced at the start of the 2011-12 season. Real Madrid and Barcelona met in the Supercopa de España, and although Barcelona ran out 5-4 winners on aggregate, all anyone could talk about was the violent conclusion to the tie’s second leg. Three red cards were handed out, including two to Real Madrid players, and both benches engaged in a heated brawl. Even Mourinho got in on the action; he poked the eye of the late Tito Villanova during the carnage.
Casillas, embarrassed by how the final turned out, decided to phone Barcelona captain and vice-captain Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernández. It was an attempt by Casillas to smooth tensions over. But while he was praised by Xavi and the majority of the Spanish fanbase, Mourinho took it as a sign of weakness.
“For Mourinho it was treachery,” wrote Pete Jenson of MailOnline. “He had decided that the only way to beat Barcelona was to make war with them; Casillas had effectively raised the white flag.”
Luckily for Madridistas, those initial quarrels didn’t derail the club’s season. Real Madrid finished the 2011-12 season with 100 points — the first 100-point team in La Liga history. In doing so, they clinched their first Spanish league title since 2008. All of this was done while facing stark competition from Barcelona, who were riding off of Lionel Messi’s 50-league-goal campaign and Pep Guardiola’s farewell season.
Casillas and Mourinho even seemed to have put aside their initial differences.
“In the summer of 2012, our relationship was good,” Casillas said.
“To have a club legend like that dragged through the mud and made an example of so publicly, I think it was unwise by Mourinho.”
But as the year went on, José Mourinho and Iker Casillas’ business relationship deteriorated.
In December 2012, Real Madrid were 10-3-3 (wins-draws-losses) in the 2012-13 Spanish Liga. They had accumulated just 33 points — only good enough for third in the league table — and they were seven points off of second-placed Atletico Madrid, who had played the day before.
With a tricky match away to Malaga awaiting his club on matchday 17, Mourinho, practically out of nowhere, made a drastic decision to the starting line-up.
He pulled Casillas to the bench.
It was a move that caught practically everyone off guard. Few, if any, media outlets had predicted Casillas to be on the bench, especially since he was Real Madrid’s captain and long-time goalkeeper. He was healthy and had previously started Real Madrid’s first 16 league matches of the season.
With all of this in mind, why shouldn’t Casillas be expected to start match no. 17?
What made the decision more interesting was by who Casillas was being replaced with. Antonio Adán, at the time just a 25-year-old backup, had been given the nod for the day. He had only played in four La Liga games up until that point, and he hadn’t looked too impressive in any of them.
That was good enough for Mourinho, though.
With their captain warming the bench, Real Madrid suffered defeat in Malaga — they lost to the hosts by a 3-2 scoreline. It was their fourth league loss of the season, double the number of losses they suffered in the league the season prior. It was also the third league game in a row that they had conceded two or more goals in, and the first time they had conceded three goals in a single match since the first leg of the 2012 Supercopa in August.
Following the match, Mourinho was peppered with press questions regarding his decision to bench Casillas.
“It is a purely technical decision,” he said in his post-game presser. “You can invent the stories you want, but it is a technical decision, nothing more.”
It’s hard to believe that this decision was purely technical, though. Given the stark contrast between the quality of Casillas, who was coming off of a second-straight European Championship with Spain that summer, and Adán, the logical decision would’ve been to start Casillas.
And as much as Casillas attempted to hide his feelings, it’s clear he also knew the bench was not supposed to be his abode.
“I’m not used to being a substitute,” he admitted. “But above Iker Casillas or any player is the team.”
Mourinho pulled the same trick again in Real Madrid’s subsequent match, a 4-3 victory over the visiting Real Sociedad. But while Adán got the start on the day, Casillas was the one who finished the match; Adán was sent off just five minutes in.
Adán’s dismissal seemed to wake Mourinho up from his trance. Casillas immediately returned to the starting XI, and when Adán returned from his suspension, he was relegated back to his spot on the bench.
Balance was restored.
For only a few weeks, that is.
On January 23, 2013, Casillas fractured his left hand during a Copa del Rey match against Valencia. The break came as a result of a kick from teammate Álvaro Arbeloa, who was trying to clear a corner that Casillas had missed. After a few minutes of medical attention, Casillas was forced to exit the game.
Remarkably, the injury was the first Casillas had sustained in his professional career; a career which stretched from 1999. It proved to be a serious one too; Casillas was kept out of action for just over two months. He was forced to miss 12 club matches, and in a crucial part of the season too.
With Casillas out and his trust in Antonio “better than Iker” Adán waning, Mourinho decided to bring in a reinforcement. Two days after Casillas’ injury, Real Madrid signed Sevilla goalkeeper Diego López. The native of Paradela had previously represented Los Blancos between 2005 and 2007, and although he had just moved to Sevilla a few months prior, he was happy to return to the capital-based club.
Fans initially viewed López’s signing as a temporary fix. Casillas’ injury came at a bad time, and the longevity of it meant that Adán would be bumped back into the goal for a good two months. With key matches in the league, Champions League, and Copa del Rey awaiting them, Adán was just not good enough to give Los Blancos a legitimate shot at challenging in those ties. As a result, bringing in a decent ‘keeper like López to make the recovery period easier to swallow was a logical decision.
But there was a certain aura which suggested the contrary. Mourinho was pretty indifferent regarding Casillas’ injury, and by the way he spoke of López, it seemed as though the Spanish reinforcement was expected to overstay his welcome.
Those concerns were confirmed when Casillas was cleared for action in early April. Casillas returned to the squad for their April 6 match against Levante, but only to the bench. He was then benched for Madrid’s next game.
And the one after that.
And the one after that.
And the one after that.
Soon, the 2012-13 season was about to come to a conclusion and Casillas hadn’t seen a minute of action post-injury. Diego López was playing so well — he starred in famous wins over Barcelona and Manchester United — that Mourinho decided that he deserved to continue as the starting goalkeeper.
For the second time that season, Casillas had been caught in a game of musical chairs that he didn’t want to be a part of.
“The only thing I wanted was for my hand to recover to get back,” he said in 2016. “But my place had been occupied…”
“Lots of people bought that crap Mourinho sold and it haunted Iker.”
By this time, there had been rumblings that José Mourinho was not going to be brought in for a fourth season. His involvement in consistent controversy had annoyed the Real Madrid higher-ups, and his managerial decisions — particularly those involving Iker Casillas — were making him a contentious figure among traditional Madridistas.
Mourinho, likely aware of his imminent dismissal, wasn’t going to leave without fanning the flames.
“We should have brought in Diego López [at the end of my first season],” he said. “I asked but he didn’t come. I didn’t do enough to bring him in and that’s a pity.”
This did not sit well with Casillas.
“The boss thought that [López] should play & I couldn’t say anything,” he said years later. “But then there were gestures in press conferences & things he did. I saw I was being talked about non-stop.”
Casillas decided not to make his annoyance public at the time, though. He thought that staying quiet would be the best course of action for a team that had already failed to meet season expectations. He also thought that, as a player, it was best he respected Mourinho’s decisions.
“I have the utmost respect for my coaches,” he said in 2014. “But when something goes on you should not discuss it, you should respect your boss.”
Just because he was going to stay quiet doesn’t mean his teammates were going to do the same.
“There needs to be a little more respect to Iker,” said Real Madrid defender Pepe. “There’s no need to undervalue anybody and even less Iker, who is a symbol here in Madrid. We have to respect everything he’s done. He’s important for the club, for us and for the fans as well.”
“From the outside, it is difficult to understand [Casillas’] situation, especially when you consider what he represents and has done for Madrid,” said Barcelona’s Andrés Iniesta, Casillas’ national team teammate. “It is a difficult situation for him. Not only because he is not playing, but also because of everything else.”
Mourinho was not amused by the reaction of other players. He called out Iniesta and Pepe for their comments, suggesting that they both have other problems to worry about.
“Iniesta is free to say what he thinks and what he wants,” Mourinho said. “But I think he should worry more about his club and his teammates, and when his team do not have Messi how different they are, as has been shown in the Champions League semi-finals.
“Pepe’s problem has a name – Raphaël Varane,” he added. “Any normal person in this room will know that we are talking about frustration. It is not easy for a man of 31, with status and a past, being replaced by a 19-year-old boy. But it is the law of life.”
Like he did with Adán, Mourinho also defended López by suggesting that he’s a better goalkeeper than Casillas.
“For me, I like Diego López as a goalkeeper more so than Iker Casillas,” he said. “People can say what they want, that Mourinho knows nothing about football, that Casillas is better than Diego López 20 times. But respect that the Coach says he will play Diego López.”
Mourinho’s consistent humiliation of Casillas was not sitting well with La Liga fans. Casillas was the one that captained their national team’s greatest generation of all time, and it was Casillas that many of their own players respected and wished well. To see him dragged through the mud by Mourinho was like insulting an extended family member.
“I still think Mourinho benching him and acting like Diego López had become better than him, was nonsense,” said Valencia fan and content creator Astorre Cerebrone.
During Real Madrid’s final away games, hosting fans voiced their distaste of Mourinho. From the Vicente Calderón to the Cornellà-El Prat to the Anoeta, La Liga fans of rival clubs booed and jeered when stadium announcers mentioned Mourinho’s name.
And when Casillas’ name was announced among the substitutes, they welcomed him with rapturous applause.
“To have a club legend like that dragged through the mud and made an example of so publicly, I think it was unwise by Mourinho,” said Michael, an Atletico Madrid fan and La Liga enthusiast.
It’s no wonder that by the time Real Madrid announced that Mourinho would be departing the club by “mutual agreement” (despite signing a contract extension until 2016 the season prior), the Portuguese had already called the 2012-13 seasons the “worst of my career.”
“It just seemed like such an unnecessary way to treat Casillas.”
If Iker Casillas (and his supporters) were hoping for a change in fortune when Carlo Ancelotti stepped in for the departing José Mourinho, they were sadly mistaken. Although the successful Italian believed that Casillas deserved more playing time, he decided to split games between him and Diego López rather than reinstituting Casillas as the regular starter.
López, who wasn’t too familiar with European football, would start in La Liga. Casillas, a Champions League hero who was still chasing his third title, would get the UCL (along with the domestic Copa del Rey).
“The decision has been made,” Ancelotti said.
Was it what Casillas had hoped for? Obviously not. But given the performances of López since his January arrival, it did seem unfair to completely strip him of all duties. By playing Casillas in cup competitions, Ancelotti was attempting to “calm down” both sides, as well as keep Casillas match fit after roughly half a year without competitive club football.
Casillas’ return came on September 17 in a 1-0 win over Turkish outfit Galatasaray. Unfortunately, he only lasted 14 minutes; a collision with teammate Sergio Ramos hurt his shoulder enough to warrant a substitution.
The injury would only keep Casillas out for less than a week, though. So, on October 2, the Spaniard was fit enough to start in a home match vs. Copenhagen. It was Casillas’ first start at the Santiago Bernabéu Stadium since January 15, and the hometown faithful welcomed him back with open arms. Casillas made five saves to preserve a clean sheet and the W, and each of his stops was met with supportive applause.
Despite the lack of league appearances, Casillas was doing stupendously well in the cup matches he was getting. Between November 27, 2013, and February 26, 2014, Casillas kept a clean sheet streak of 952 minutes, including nine clean sheets. It was a new personal best for Casillas, and it included multiple clean sheets against Espanyol and Atletico Madrid.
Casillas also captained Real Madrid to the finals of both that season’s Copa del Rey and Champions League. In the former competition, he became the first goalkeeper in tournament history to not concede a goal in all pre-final matches, despite playing in all of them. And in the latter competition, Casillas kept clean sheets in knockout round wins over Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich to send Los Blancos to their first Champions League final in 12 years.
While his counter-part López was facing some difficulty in La Liga (Real Madrid finished outside of the top two for the first time since 2004), Casillas was gathering silverware. Despite conceding in both finals, Casillas got his hands on both the Copa del Rey and the Champions League via dramatic work from his teammates.
Through his wins, Casillas became the first starting goalkeeper since Barcelona’s Víctor Valdés to lift both trophies in the same season, a feat which has only been matched once since.
The Copa del Rey was only Casillas’ second-ever victory in that competition and his first since 2011. It came courtesy of a 2-1 win over Clasico rivals Barcelona, who had beaten them in La Liga months earlier.
As for the Champions League, Real Madrid won it over local rivals Atletico Madrid. It was the first derby in Champions League final history, and Casillas’ Blancos came out victorious. It was Casillas’ third UCL championship; the joint-most by a single goalkeeper in the modern UCL era. The glorious occasion was also marked by the historic achievement of 10 Champions League wins, making Real Madrid the first club to ever achieve La Decima.
What a moment for a club icon like Casillas to take part in.
“Objectively, if I’m putting my [Atleti] colours aside, if there’s anyone who should’ve lifted La Decima for Real Madrid, it’s Casillas,” Delmar said. “I think it’s very fitting that an all-time Real Madrid legend got to lift their most important Champions League trophy.”
So, was Mourinho wrong about Casillas? At the time, it sure looked like it.
“Lots of people bought that crap Mourinho sold,” Cerebrone said. “Everything he did came under a microscope and people picked on them and maximized them to try to prove that Mourinho was right. It’s funny how these things work in the end.”
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.