Iker Casillas’ Champions League love story

Words By Euan McTear Illustration by Philippe Fenner
March 13, 2018

From Athens to Anfield, Iker Casillas has made 167 appearances in the Champions League, more than any other player. Aged just 18 years and 177 days when he made his debut against Olympiakos in 1999, he became the youngest goalkeeper to play in the competition. 18 years and 170 days later, almost exactly half his lifetime, he visited Liverpool last week in the second leg of Porto’s last 16 tie, surely his last appearance in the competition given that a summer move to a mid-table Spanish club is likely.

These 18 and a half years have been wonderful, for Casillas and for the world of football. Many football fans won’t ever have known a Casillas-less Champions League. He’s always been there, though the various stages of his career.

You can put Casillas’ relationship with the top-tier European tournament up there with the best love stories of all time. It’s a Romeo and Juliet. A Rose and Jack. A Sandy and Danny. A Ross and Rachel. A Shrek and Fiona. And like all good love stories, Casillas’ relationship with the competition isn’t linear. There have been highs and lows, setbacks to overcome and, ultimately, a happy ending.

It all started in that 1999/2000 season when the teenage goalkeeping prospect made his debut in the competition. He’d already featured in a Champions League squad in 1997, aged just 16, but in 1999 John Toshack gave the Spaniard his chance to catch that star-covered ball, coming in for the injured Bodo Illgner and the not-fully-fit Albano Bizzarri. “There’s nothing I can do about his age,” Toshack said in explaining the decision. “Besides, he has already played against AC Milan, Perugia and Athletic,” he added, referring to his pre-season outings and his LaLiga debut, made just days before.

Although Bizzarri soon returned to play four times, Casillas was the starter during the knockout rounds, as Vicente del Bosque’s Los Blancos surprised everyone and made it to the final in Paris, knocking out Bayern Munich in the semi-finals just weeks after losing 4-1 and 4-2 to the Germans in the second group stage. A 3-0 win over Valencia in the final of Halloween colours just four days after his 19th birthday saw Casillas pick up his first Champions League medal.

Two years later he was celebrating again as Real Madrid won their ninth European Cup, La Novena. Stuttering performances meant Casillas had lost his place to César Sánchez, but Sánchez suffered an injury in the final against Bayern Leverkusen at Hampden Park and the future Spain captain came on. He made several key saves against the Germans to maintain the Spanish side’s Zidane-inspired lead. A second medal in three years was soon hanging round Casillas’ neck.

But there’d be a 12-year wait for the next one. Casilla would take over the Real Madrid and Spain captaincies, win two European Championships and a World Cup, collect four more league titles and survive a messy falling-out with Jose Mourinho before lifting ‘Old Big Ears’ again. The shock quarter-final elimination at the hands of Monaco in 2004 was followed by six consecutive last 16 exits. Peculiarly, this European drought probably coincided with the best individual years of Casillas’ career. It was just that the Galácticos project had failed and the rebuilding took some time.

Jose Mourinho’s arrival changed all that, aided of course by the signings of Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Kaká, Xabi Alonso, Mesut Özil and Ángel Di María. It was interesting that Mourinho made Real Madrid perennial contenders again, taking them to the semi-final stages in each of his years there, at the same time as the Portuguese coach rattled Casillas’ confidence enough for the goalkeeper to never really be the same again. By dropping him in favour of the plainly average Diego López in the 2012/13 season, a mini war broke out at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu and Mourinho was soon out the door. But Casillas was left permanently scarred and even the incoming Carlo Ancelotti couldn’t bring the Spaniard back to his best, starting López in LaLiga and Casillas only in cup competitions.

Amazingly, though, this was when Casillas tasted Champions League glory again. He’d won the tournament twice as a rookie, had never returned to the final during his peak years, and then ended up collecting La Décima in Lisbon as club captain in 2014, even after he’d made a major error to allow Diego Godín the chance to give Atlético Madrid the lead that so nearly saw them over the finish line. Casillas’ days in the capital were still numbered, though. Almost all the sand in the hourglass had hit the bottom. And so, in the summer of 2015, he found himself sitting in a lonely press conference ahead of a switch to Porto. His time there has been similarly hot and cold. There have been further gaffes, ones which are quickly uploaded and shared across the Spanish media, but he quietly set records in Portugal too and was the main reason they managed to get out of their group in the 2016/17 edition of the tournament.

And then came the final act. Having shared Porto’s minutes with José Sá all throughout the year, the three-time winner was on the bench as Liverpool hammered Porto in the first leg of this season’s last 16 tie. With a meaningless second leg at Anfield up next, Casillas was given the chance to go out on a high and he turned back the years, putting in a superb performance to earn his side a 0-0 draw and finished his Champions League career with a clean sheet. “If this was my last game in the tournament then it wasn’t a bad way to go out,” he said afterwards, while thanking the Liverpool fans for their special send-off.

He’s right. If this inevitably turns out to be his final Champions League outing then it is only fitting that it finished with a clean sheet. Like all good love stories, there have been highs and lows, but it was only right that Miss Champions League gave Casillas a Hollywood smooch as the credits rolled.

From Greece to Spain to Germany to Norway to England to France to Portugal to Belgium to Turkey to Italy to the Czech Republic to Scotland to Russia to Serbia to Poland to Ukraine to Romania to Belarus to Switzerland to Holland to Croatia to Cyprus to Denmark to Bulgaria to Israel and back to England, this has been one unique journey through Champions League football. Casillas spent half his lifetime playing in this tournament. And we all spent half his lifetime in awe.

Iker Casillas Real Madrid
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