Casillas: the man with the golden gloves
Goalkeeper Casillas tells Guillem Balague that without hard work and humility, Real Madrid's new galacticos will achieve nothing The eyes of the footballing world are on Spain. And this summer, at the centre of it all, sit Real Madrid. The return of Florentino Perez to the Real presidency has ushered in a new era of big-money signings. There are, however, a select band of players who have seen it all before.
In the 2000-01 season, at just 19 years of age, Iker Casillas cem- ented his place in the Real first team and found himself playing alongside arguably the most glamorous collection of footballers ever assembled in one place: the galacticos. "It was an amazing time," recalls the Real goalkeeper. "To look around the dressing room and find yourself among all these world-class players, it was quite a shock. I was just 21, 22, 23 years and one of the youngest in a Real Madrid first team that included the likes of Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo. It was an incredible experience for someone who had just arrived to the elite."
Yet if the young goalkeeper learned anything from playing alongside such illustrious names, it was that "nothing can be achieved without humility". "It was a very positive experience playing alongside those guys, and of course a young player could only learn from working with players who had seen and done it all. "Zidane had just won a World Cup, Luis Figo had been a hero at Barcelona and came with a wealth of experience, David Beckham was a name known by almost everyone on the planet; yet playing alongside these guys - it wasn't so much about being surrounded by stars - despite their names and reputation, you learned that they are just people, exceptionally talented, but regular guys.
"They taught me that while they were all capable of great things, you achieved nothing without hard work." Now, at the dawn of a new galactico era following a lavish summer spending spree on the likes of Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Xabi Alonso, the roles have been reversed and the 28-year-old Casillas - with four Primera Liga titles, two Champions League winners medals and a European Championship under his belt - is one of the biggest names in the game and a role model to the Bernabeu newcomers.
As a senior figure in the Real team and first choice for the captain's armband in the increasingly frequent absence of the talismanic Raul, the new wave of galacticos will be looking to Casillas for guidance. "It's a role I have to fulfil now. It's a shared responsibility, it's your job as captain to transmit values on to the other players, all of us Guti, Raul who have been here for over 10 years are passing on lessons handed down to us by Fernando Hierro, Manuel Sanchis and Fernando Redondo."
With his typical modesty, Casillas tries to suggest that the only reason he has been made captain at both club and international level is because "it is one of the unwritten rules of football; the person who has made the most appearances or been at the club the longest usually gets the armband". However, the man who nominated Casillas as the successor to Raul and handed him the responsibility of captaining the Spanish national team, Luis Aragones, believes that there is no better man for the job.
The former Spanish national coach, who led Spain to victory at Euro 2008, is a man known for his reluctance to hand out praise, but he said: "Iker Casillas is the perfect captain. He gets a 10 out of 10 in everything he does: in goal, in his captaincy and in the way he carries himself. He has it all, that's for sure. The entire Spanish team gets a 10, but Casillas stands out above all of them when it comes to choosing a captain. He is a phenomenon."
We have all witnessed Casillas the goalkeeper in action, making outstanding reflex saves for both club and country, but how does Casillas the captain transmit those values he speaks of to the players? "It is my job to make a newcomer, like Benzema, feel welcome. To make sure he gets a good reception and to show him that he is joining a bunch of regular guys here, to make him feel at home and not fazed by the experience. Make him feel part of the unit, part of the team.
"That is the most important thing. What is important is that no matter how big the names or the reputations that join us here, no matter how great the individual, we can only achieve great things as a group." It is a group of players that Casillas is convinced can go on to achieve great things. He does not hide the fact that he has been impressed by what he has seen already during pre-season. "Benzema is very young, just 21, but he has tremendous quality. All the talk in the summer surrounding David Villa, sure, but the club moved quickly to sign Karim and it was a very wise move because he can bring an awful lot to Real Madrid."
The comparisons with the first galactico era provide easy headlines for the worlds press and the Madrid newspapers are already drawing parallels between Zinedine Zidane and one newcomer in particular: Kaka. The Brazilian's decision to turn down the mega riches on offer at Manchester City for the opportunity to play for Real instead, means he has already earned the respect of Casillas. "He's joined a bigger club and that is an important career move for him on a sporting level. He now has an opportunity to really shine and achieve great things alongside a fantastic group of players. I've heard the comparisons with Zidane, but comparisons are never fair.
"Zidane is the best player I have ever seen in the flesh. I never played with Maradona and obviously never saw Di Stefano play with my own eyes. These were great players of their own eras and now we are seeing players like Leo Messi perform exceptionally well at Barcelona for example. "Who knows, at Real Madrid, Kaka could go on to achieve great things and be remembered as one of the all time greats as well."
"And of course, we now have Cristiano Ronaldo here as well," adds Casillas. "He is another great player, but a different kind of player to Kaka. He has such tremendous speed and with very quick feet, yet he manages to retain unbelievable quality at a very high pace." However, Casillas is quick to point out that while it would be very easy to get carried away, it is important that people manage expectations and approach the season ahead with a degree of "calm and tranquillity".
It is certainly one thing to assemble such a dazzling array of individual talents, quite another to get the balance right and mould them into an effective unit - something that ultimately contributed to the downfall of the first galactico era. Expectations, nevertheless, remain exorbitant, among the supporters and local media despite the fact that many of these individual talents must overcome the challenge of adapting to a new league, manager, club and environment.
Ronaldo, for example, has shown in pre-season that after shining as a high-velocity counter-attacking forward at Manchester United he is now challenged by the task of re-defining himself in a Real side that relies on a more controlled, passing game that builds an attack from the back. Casillas, however, believes that all that is needed is time to adapt to a new life both on and off the pitch: "It's not easy to change your life entirely and it takes time. Ronaldo will have become used to life in Manchester and everything is different for him here. He seems much happier now as time goes on, he's closer to his family in Portugal, settling in to his new home. Bit by bit he is finding his place.
"On the pitch there is a bedding-in process as well - for all these players - things are different, but these are players of exceptional quality and it will take time; but it won't be long before we see them at their very best." The fans and media will play a big role in determining how much time the new manager, Manuel Pellegrini, and his players are given, and while there may be cash and quality in abundance at Real, patience is a much rarer commodity, particularly on the back of Barcelona's record-breaking season.
Does the nature of their bitter rival's recent spectacular success place added pressure upon the new breed of galacticos? "I have to be honest: watching Barcelona, our eternal rivals, win the treble last season... sincerely, that hurt. However, that was last season, they achieved what they achieved. Maybe that will inspire us." As always happens when talking football with Casillas, the emphasis is on the importance of the group, on the strength of the collective and he knows all about what can be achieved when a collection of individual talents is moulded into an effective unit after lifting the Euro 2008 trophy as captain of the national team, a success he attributes to a tremendous team spirit:
"Spain has some incredible players at the moment, every one of them has tremendous quality in fact, and we are going through an amazing period. But the atmosphere in the Spanish team is amazing and the sense of camaraderie is amazing. Many of us have progressed through the various international youth levels and some have literally grown up together. Even the younger guys who join up with the team integrate very quickly and feel as if they are a part of the group."
The mention of continuity unavoidably brings us back to Real and the lack of academy graduates in the first team, a subject that Casillas has commented upon many times before. However, Casillas defends the youth set up at Madrid, arguing: "I believe Real Madrid does pay attention to the youth system, but the benefits are perhaps more indirect than at, say, Barcelona." "Almost every club in the first division contains at least one player who came through the youth system at Real Madrid. But of course, I would like to see more of them in the Madrid first team."
Casillas has also frequently argued that he would like to see more Spanish players at Real Madrid and he comments that "at a time when the Spanish national team are enjoying such terrific success, when Spanish football is at such a high, it's funny that Spanish players are not more in demand. It's curious that after we won Euro 2008, only one Spanish player, Dani Guiza, switched clubs." If Villa failed to make the move to Real this summer, it was not, according to Casillas "because Madrid did not want it to happen, but because the people involved, could not make it happen".
But several others - Alonso, Alvaro Arbeloa and Raul Albiol - have arrived to swell the Spanish ranks at the Bernabeu. Alonso, in particular, has impressed Casillas. "He brings maturity and experience to the side and from the moment he arrived he has wanted the ball, taking responsibility in the centre of midfield. It wasn't an easy move, but a deal was agreed with Liverpool, eventually, and here in Madrid he's going to be very happy."
No doubt Alonso and his new teammates will be happier still if they can guide their team to the Champions League final due to be played at the Bernabeu next summer. Real have not got past the quarter- final stage of the competition since 2003 and Casillas believes that the Premier League clubs will provide the biggest obstacle to a date with destiny in front of their home fans this season. "Manchester United, even without Ronaldo, remain fearsome. Chelsea are always there. But I am hoping to draw Liverpool - not for revenge - but to set the record straight after the hammering they gave us last season."
Much of the talk at Real this season seems to be about putting the record straight and putting the club back where they belong. Casillas is aiming high. After the Champions League comes the World Cup. He thinks Spain have every chance of success, saying: "The Confederations Cup was great preparation for us. We know the hotels, the environment, atmosphere, training grounds and stadia. Expectations are high, but who knows?"
Updated: September 6, 2009 04:00 AM