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.
“That’s enough, for fuck’s sake!”
Iker Casillas was livid. The Real Madrid goalkeeper raised his right arm disapprovingly, his mouth clenched and his eyes fixated on the ground beneath him. Unable to contain himself, Casillas continued his tirade. He shouted obscenities loud and clear. He did not care whose precious ears his words fell upon. He was furious.
It’s not often the usually-respectful ‘keeper lets his emotions get the better of him. Casillas is well-known for being a deferential opponent who shies away from public conflict. Seeing him visibly annoyed to the point of vulgarity is a rare sight.
But in this moment, the Spaniard couldn’t control himself. He felt betrayed, double-crossed, and backstabbed, all by people who had supported him for the two-and-a-half decades he had spent in the Real Madrid system.
“Stop booing me,” he continued to gesture to the Real Madrid fans.
Casillas’ cries fell on deaf ears. Los Blancos fans — at least, a very vocal portion of them — continued to jeer him. It didn’t matter that Casillas was a club captain and legend. For all they cared, Casillas was a waste of a roster spot and undeserving of the honour of donning Real Madrid’s iconic colours.
Fortunately for Casillas, he didn’t have to bear them any longer. The full-time whistle had been blown moments earlier. Real Madrid and Valencia had tied 2-2, and Casillas was in the process of exiting the field during his rant.
“Where did it go wrong?” he asked himself as he walked off of the pitch.
“I felt the club betrayed one of the most important symbols in their history.”
Following his triumph in the 2014 Copa del Rey and UEFA Champions League finals, Iker Casillas was selected to start for Spain in their 2014 World Cup opener. He was given the number one jersey — a number he had worn for over a decade — and the captain’s armband.
There had initially been calls for Manchester United’s David de Gea to start. The then-23-year-old was coming off of a 52-game season with the Red Devils. Despite his club’s poor season under David Moyes, De Gea had shown consistent brilliance in a break-out season. By the end of the campaign, he was recognized by Manchester United as both the Players’ Player of the Year and the Fans Player of the Year.
Given that Casillas was coming off of the lowest single-season appearance total of his career (24), De Gea seemed to have a greater right at starting. Nonetheless, Casillas was given nod in goal.
It looked like the wrong move. Spain suffered a crushing 5-1 loss to the Netherlands in their opener. La Furia Roja conceded four goals in the second half alone, including two each to Robin van Persie and Arjen Robben.
“The Dutch were steamrolling, and the Spanish were just completely shellshocked,” said James Rowe, a Dutch football expert.
Casillas, in particular, did not have a good night. Questions were asked of him on Holland’s third goal when he missed a Wesley Sneijder cross. Then, when he mishandled a backpass from Sergio Ramos moments later, he could only look on as Van Persie tapped in the Netherland’s fourth.
Four years after crying tears of joy at the expense of Holland, Casillas was left pained and humiliated by the Dutch.
“This is the worst performance of my career,” he said following the match.
Things didn’t get better for the Spanish captain in La Roja’s next game vs. Chile. This was a do-or-die match; “life or death,” as Xavi Hernández described it. But despite their undefeated record against the Chileans, Casillas and Spain laid another egg. Spain lost 2-0, and Casillas was again blamed for the defeat. His punch on a Chilean free kick in the first half led to the game’s opening (and winning) goal.
Spain were out of the World Cup, and Casillas, four years after conceding a record-low two goals in seven World Cup matches, had allowed seven goals in two appearances.
This was Casillas’ last major tournament appearance for Spain. He was subsequently benched for La Furia Roja’s final group game against Australia, and although he played in the 2016 European Championship qualifiers, Spain coach Vicente del Bosque decided to sit Casillas out for the tournament in favour of De Gea.
It was a move that ultimately ruined their relationship.
“With the coaching staff, his behaviour wasn’t good. His anger was directed at us.” Del Bosque said of Casillas in 2016. “That’s why he’s the only player I didn’t write to.”
As his international career went up in flames, his 2014-15 club season actually started fairly well. Diego López, Casillas’ rival in the past one-and-a-half seasons, was sold to AC Milan, effectively making Casillas Real Madrid’s number one again.
Casillas paid the club back immediately, keeping a clean sheet in the 2014 UEFA Super Cup and conceding just twice across the two-legged Supercopa de España. He also backstopped Real Madrid to a 21-0-2 record (wins-draws-losses) in the club’s first 23 games of the season (excluding Super Cups). This included a perfect 6-0-0 in the Champions League group stage and a 12-game winning streak in La Liga.
By the time 2014 had come to a close, Casillas had already kept 12 clean sheets, bested the likes of Sevilla, Liverpool, and Barcelona, and had even captained Los Blancos to a Club World Cup title. He even made the third team for the FIFPro World XI, ahead of Juventus’ Gianluigi Buffon and Barcelona’s Claudio Bravo.
If the first half of the season was anything to go by, prime Casillas had returned.
But for every party, there’s a party pooper, and for Casillas, it was Atletico Madrid. Los Colchoneros were coming off of their first league title since 1996, but their title defence had gone poorly. They had won just 15 of their first 21 league games, and there had already been a sizable gap built between them and La Liga’s top two. Atletico Madrid were finding it difficult to keep clean sheets, and they had already lost four times; as many losses as they had accumulated in their 2013-14 league-winning season.
But when Atletico Madrid played host to Casillas and Real Madrid in early February 2015, they smelled blood. Although Casillas had won 21 of his last 22 club appearances, he was displaying signs of unweariness. His stance was becoming a little too wide, his positioning was becoming a little too off-centre, and his handling was becoming a little too loose.
With that in mind, it shouldn’t come as too big of a surprise to know that Atletico Madrid ran out 4-0 winners that day. Los Colchoneros fired eight shots on target that day, from all angles and all areas. They scored twice in each half and through four different players.
Although none of Real Madrid’s outfielders had a great game, it was Casillas who struggled the most. He was caught off-guard by a shot through traffic on the opening goal, and his poor footwork put him in a bad position to deal with Atleti’s third.
It was the first time Casillas had given up four goals in a game since August 2014, and at times it looked like he was not trying to stop the demolition. His movement was sloppy, and he did nothing more than huff and puff following every Atleti goal.
This loss kickstarted Casillas’ dip in performances. Although he kept clean sheets in each of his next three matches, it was clear that the then-33-year-old was starting to lose his focus. His enthusiasm dropped, and so did his form.
More goals also started leaking through Casillas. Following that three-game unbeaten run, Casillas went five straight games without a clean sheet. He conceded nine goals between March 1 and April 5, including four in a Champions League loss to Schalke and two in a league loss to eventual champions Barcelona.
Casillas would bounce back with three clean sheets in six April matches, but that was ultimately shortlived. As the season bled into May, the goals started leaking through Casillas again. A three-game stretch between April 26 and May 5 saw Casillas concede six goals — two in each game. This included a 2-1 loss in the first leg of the Champions League semi-finals, in which a rebound from a Casillas save culminated in Juventus’ opening goal and several others led to decent scoring chances.
“A guy like that, with such a long, decorated career, deserved to have a proper send-off.”
This brings us back to Real Madrid’s draw with Valencia on May 9, 2015; the day Madridistas started booing Iker Casillas.
There had always been a minority of Real Madrid supporters post-José Mourinho who had taken a disliking to the club captain. His feud with the Portuguese gaffer had left a sour taste in their mouths, so they had taken it upon themselves to let Casillas know of their disapproval.
Normally, their jeers would be drowned out by chants of “Iker! Iker! Iker!” But today, those boos were amplified, not discouraged.
With the gap between them and La Liga leaders Barcelona widening, Casillas was unofficially chosen as the team’s scapegoat. Another subpar performance — capped with a soft parry on a difficult point-blank attempt from Valencia’s Paco Alcácer — convinced more Madridistas that Casillas deserved to be singled out.
These jeers frustrated Casillas, who expressed his annoyance with his fans after the final whistle through a series of vulgar pleas. He couldn’t stop the chorus though; on the contrary, he only intensified them.
The jeers dragged into Real Madrid’s next game, a date in the second leg of the Champions League semi-finals against Juventus. The club had entered the match down by a goal, but a Cristiano Ronaldo penalty put them ahead on away goals at the half-time break.
With just over 30 minutes separating them from the full-time whistle, Real Madrid looked certain to qualify for their second straight Champions League final. Awaiting them in the final would’ve been Barcelona, which would’ve set up the first Clasico in Champions League final history. Sure, beating city-based rivals Atletico Madrid in the final last season was something special. But beating an eternal rival like Barcelona? It would’ve been the Clasico to end all Clasicos.
Unfortunately, that date never happened. In the 57th minute, Álvaro Morata struck a bouncing shot near Madrid’s penalty spot. Casillas got two hands behind the attempt, but he could only deflect it into the top corner of his goal. Juventus had tied the game but had gone ahead on aggregate.
About half an hour later, with Real Madrid pressing for an equalizer in added time, Casillas left his box to take a quick throw-in. But the ball slipped from his hands as he threw it into play, and the ref ruled it an illegal throw-in attempt. Possession was given to Juventus, who killed the final seconds of the clock to eliminate Real Madrid.
15 years after he was cheered off of the field as a 19-year-old Champions League winner, Casillas was booed out of the competition for being the whipping boy.
With the jeers coming on such a continental scale, wide-scale attention and debate was being fueled. Fans of clubs in both Spain and abroad were becoming aware of the situation surrounding Casillas and the Real Madrid faithful, and they were not pleased.
“That was an example of Real Madrid and their values,” said Kevin, a Sevilla fan.
“I don’t really hate Real Madrid,” said Sivan John, a football writer and Huddersfield Town fan. “But when things like this happen, it doesn’t put the club in the best place in my heart.”
Some supporters pointed out that this was a normal case with Real Madrid, given that it wasn’t the first time a Real Madrid legend had been treated poorly towards the end of his club tenure.
“It’s Madrid,” said Astorre Cerebrone, a football content creator and fan of Valencia. “They just never seem to respect their homegrown talents enough, and it eventually became Iker’s turn to go through that.”
Granted, booing your team’s star player wasn’t something unique to Real Madrid; Guzzo and Hilton both conceded that Juventus and Barcelona fans have treated some of their best players like that before. But given Casillas’ status among not just the club’s all-time greatest players but also among football’s icons, the way he was being treated was deemed unacceptable.
To punish Casillas, head coach Carlo Ancelotti sat him out for Real Madrid’s next game, a 4-1 win over Espanyol. Casillas was back in goal for the club’s final game of the season, though. It was a match that ultimately didn’t mean much; Real Madrid ran over Getafe by a 7-3 scoreline, but they officially finished second behind Barcelona.
Nonetheless, Casillas was again jeered when he conceded. The boos had become a normality for the Spaniard, and while he was frustrated by how he was being treated, he no longer felt that he could fault the fans for their reactions. According to him, it was just their way of letting him know that they wanted more from him.
“Madrid demands the very best from you and every day those demands increase but you have to be up to it,” he said. “If your performance level is an 8, you cannot let it drop to a 7.5.”
Given how he was being treated towards the end of the season, it’s no surprise that rumours about his Real Madrid future began circulating almost immediately. Sources had told La Liga expert Guillem Balague that Casillas was being advised to leave the club, while newspapers were reporting that Manchester United’s David de Gea was seriously being considered as a replacement to the Spaniard.
Casillas didn’t buy the paper talk.
“I’m sure I’ll continue here next season,” he said. “I cannot imagine myself outside of the club when the new campaign starts. I want to end my career here.”
Despite his assertion that everything was fine, it was clear that the end of the 2014-15 season had hurt Casillas, and even he couldn’t fully close the door on a potential move away from the Santiago Bernabeu.
“There’s always the chance that I could go to a smaller league; if things don’t turn out and I have to leave,” he said. “But right now I see myself as being strong and up to the job in hand.”
“Despite the booing and Mourinho going against him, Casillas still had a lot of love for Real Madrid.”
Not long after the season had ended, MARCA polled Madridistas regarding the future of Iker Casillas. What do you want Casillas to do in the offseason? The question was posed to readers who were fans of Real Madrid.
Nearly half of Madridistas — 47% of them, to be exact — wanted him gone.
A month later, those fans got their wish. On July 11, in front of clicking press cameras, the club captain made his departure from Real Madrid official. He thanked the press for showing up, announced that he was joining Porto of the Portuguese Primeira Liga, and reminisced about the teammates, trainers, and club officials he had worked with as a professional.
Finally, he thanked Madridistas, including those that had booed him out of town, for their “unconditional support“.
It was unsettling to see Casillas in such a distressing state. The Spaniard had to take several breathers to compose himself, but even those short breaks couldn’t stop the tears from dripping off of his cheeks. He tried to maintain a professional tone, but his voice cracks revealed him to be the broken man that he was.
Even at that moment, Casillas could not accept that he wasn’t a Real Madrid player anymore.
The most upsetting part of this was the fact that Casillas was forced to come to this realization alone. There were no Real Madrid officials by his side, no teammates in the front row, and no fans in the Santiago Bernabeu bowl. There was no fanfare, no pictures with trophies, not even a minute-long video tribute.
All Casillas had to console him were his tears and the ghosts of a grim farewell.
“After all he had given to the club, it was sad to see him at that farewell press conference being pushed out in that manner,” Cerebrone said.
As word of the press conference got out, Real Madrid faced the wrath of the global football audience again. The club was criticized for their ill-treatment of Casillas, and the way they set up his departure was described as “disgraceful” and “brutal”.
“It was really disrespectful to say goodbye to a club legend like that,” Kevin said.
“I think it was a disgrace and a real shame that his Real Madrid career ended like that,” Cerebrone said.
“His send-off, or lack thereof, was brutal,” Guzzo said. “He was a youth product, he won everything, he was second in appearances only to Raúl and had a big issue with leaving. So to have it go down in an empty stadium with no officials with him seemed too disrespectful.”
What annoyed fans the most was the fact that it wasn’t just any player who was receiving this treatment. It was Casillas, a three-time Champions League winner and one of the most iconic goalkeepers and captains in Los Blancos history, that being shoved out of the back door.
“A guy like that, with such a long, decorated career, deserved to have a proper send-off,” said Michael, a La Liga enthusiast.
“I felt the club betrayed one of the most important symbols in their history,” John said. “As a reasonable football fan, when someone who has served your club tremendously with such distinct honour and has given everything he has for the club, it has to be a spiritual obligation that a football club must honour him in the right way before they send him off.”
Mazariegos wasn’t the only onlooker to compare the situation to Barcelona’s treatment of club legends. In May of that year, Barcelona said farewell to their own Spanish icon — midfielder Xavi Hernández — with a large celebration in the club’s final home game of the season. The celebration was complete with the league trophy presentation, a lap of honour, a career montage, a giant thank you banner, and a farewell speech in front of a sold-out crowd.
Casillas got none of that in his swan song.
“He could have gone wherever he wanted and I wouldn’t have minded if it were Barcelona because they are perfect gentlemen,” said Casillas’s mother, María del Carmen Fernández.
In fairness, the situations are slightly different in that Casillas’ announced his departure in the offseason, while Xavi had made his intention to leave Barcelona clear during the season.
Nonetheless, Real Madrid felt embarrassed, and they immediately scrambled to plan another farewell event a day later. This time, Real Madrid officials — including President Florentino Pérez — were in attendance, as well as 2,000 Madridistas.
But this event felt more like a PR stunt than an actual celebration of the goalkeeper. While Casillas took photos with all of the trophies he had won with the Real Madrid first team, the fans turned their attention towards Pérez and chanted “Sergio Ramos is not for sale!”
Later, when Pérez stood before the gathered press, he challenged criticisms that the club had forced Casillas to leave; “Iker is leaving us because that is his wish. Nobody at Real Madrid has asked him to leave the club,” Pérez said. He also stressed his belief that there was no strain in the relationship between club and former club captain.
But why the lonely press conference? Because “Iker wanted a simple and austere send-off.” It wasn’t Real Madrid’s decision, Pérez assured.
Whether that claim is sincere or not remains to be seen, but nevertheless, what had been done had been done and what had been said had been said. For the first time in his amateur and professional career, Casillas was going to represent a club outside of Real Madrid. Despite criticisms from his mother that Porto “is a second division team”, Casillas looked forward to the opportunity of playing at a new club.
“For the affection shown to me [by Porto]…they have won me over,” he said in his now-infamous farewell press conference. “I will do my all not to let them down and will fight as hard as I can to win as many titles as possible with my new team.”
But his words couldn’t hide his emotions, which disclosed the fact that his new club could never replace his first love.
“Real Madrid is his club and he’s always seen the club that way,” Rajendran said. “Despite the booing and Mourinho going against him, he still had a lot of love for Real Madrid.”
The divorce papers had been signed, though. After over two decades of happy memories and shared achievements, it was time for Casillas to move on.
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.