France Football, the magazine that first created the Ballon d’Or award, wrote an article in July 2012 arguing that Iker Casillas ought to win it this year. “For all his work, for permanently remaining at the peak that Spain arrived at in 2008, but also for his calming presence, his personality, his influence and his skills – all in all, Casillas deserves the Ballon d’Or,” they wrote.
Not since 1963 has a goalkeeper won the prestigious prize, with tradition holding that in honouring football greats, those who create and finish captivate the hearts whilst those who defend are generally considered mere labourers. However, as the world of football evolves, shedding its simplistic past to indulge in greed and fame, those known for their loyalty and humanity have become a rare breed who, in addition to their skills, can be cherished by the romantics.
When it comes to compassion and simplicity, there is no better leader than Casillas. Resurrecting the notion of sacrifice and teamwork, his quiet authority has helped unite a group of players representing the different factions of a country long famed for its political divisions.
Once Luis Aragones took over Spain and eventually dispensed with the old guard in order to initiate a fresh start void of all inferior complexes and past suffering, he chose to give the captain’s armband to Casillas. Considering him to be the symbol of unity, he would ultimately become the player to inspire a golden generation to begin a winning cycle that would dominate world football. “If he had not abandoned his ego and given the maximum importance to the group ahead of individual concerns, the same as the rest, nothing would have worked the same,” Aragones recently explained of the goalkeeper’s transition.
Defined by his sensibleness, when Barcelona and Real Madrid began to achieve new heights of glory, their rivalry threatened to turn toxic. Fearing for the welfare of his national team, Casillas risked the wrath of Jose Mourinho and put his own ego aside to contact both Carles Puyol and Xavi Hernandez. He made it clear that he wanted to discuss and resolve the events and fallout from the particularly tense Supercopa clasico in 2011. Despite the players’ fervent support of their respective clubs, no club loyalty was worth the potential disharmony such a heated rivalry would create within the Spanish squad.
Disaster averted, Spain went on to win their third consecutive international trophy that the boy from Mostoles once again lifted as captain. Everyone including the beaten Italians applauded the player not only because this Spanish side had just broken another set of records, but for the respect he had shown his opponents. Defeated 4-0, Italy spent the latter part of the game avoiding further humiliation before Casillas demanded the referee blow his whistle ‘out of respect to the opponent’ who did not deserve to continue to fight a lost battle. Consoling each member of the Azzurri before celebrating the win with his teammates, the captain’s compassion won him worldwide praise and the Italians hailed him as a perfect example of sportsmanship.
Leadership and humility aside, Casillas is hardly short of talent. Famed for his agility, quick reflexes and aerial interceptions, the Spaniard, who in 2006-07 conceded only 40 goals despite being the most shot at goalkeeper in La Liga, continues to break records. This year becoming the first player to reach 100 international wins with his country, Casillas’ exceptional saves such as the one against Ivan Rakitic in Euro 2012 not only proved his lightening quick reactions but they were saves that rescued Spain and consolidated the result. The next day, over 13 newspapers around the world dedicated their headlines to Casillas’ miraculous performance against Croatia.
Despite his consistent performances for club and country, his odd calamities at the back have attracted unnecessary criticism with several calling him overrated. However, the statistics do not lie. Having gone 509 minutes without conceding a goal in this year’s European Championship, he has surpassed the great Dino Zoff and seems to improve with every tournament. In Euro 2008, Spain conceded three goals (not including penalties), in the World Cup 2010, they conceded two and in this year’s Euro 2012, Casillas conceded one solitary goal. Constantly pitted against Barcelona’s Victor Valdes, Catalan based Mundo Deportivo published statistics in April 2012 that proved that when comparing the two, Casillas is better at stopping shots inside as well as outside the box, at catching the ball, at delivering long balls and is incredibly just as accurate when it comes to short passes as the Barcelona ‘keeper.
A proven talent, a great man and a leader who has won it all, isn’t it about time we start recognising the work of defensive players with Casillas first? Without their safeguarding, how else would we appreciate what the attack has to offer?