The Curious Case of Iker Casillas

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Hypnosis? Bad contact lenses maybe? Or perhaps a Freaky Friday-style mind swap with Massimo Taibi? These are all possible answers to the biggest question in goalkeeping: What has happened to Iker Casillas?

After winning the IFFHS World’s Best Goalkeeper Award an incredible five times, and generally being regarded as either THE best, or at least one of the best, goalkeepers in world soccer, Iker Casillas’ career has taken an unexpected nosedive. His World Cup 2014 performance is remembered only for a disastrous display against the Netherlands, which Robin van Persie and friends exploited to put five past Casillas in Spain’s goal.

I don’t have all the answers to what has gone wrong, but I can pinpoint a date: Jan. 23, 2013, Real Madrid vs. Valencia in the Copa del Rey.

A cross pulls Casillas out to the penalty spot, but he doesn’t make contact on the ball. A ricochet-fest follows and, somewhere in all the chaos, teammate Alvaro Arbeloa swings at the ball and fractures Casillas’ hand. The injury wasn’t extremely serious, and not unexpected for a keeper—Casillas sat out for only 12 weeks while his hand healed. But, looking back, this is where his elite career as the best of the best effectively ended.

The 2012-13 season ended without Casillas returning to the field, despite being on the bench for many matches, which seems to have been partly to do with disagreements between the goalkeeper and Jose Mourinho. But even when Carlo Ancelotti took over the following season, Casillas still had three times as many appearances for the national team as he did in La Liga in 2013-14. Fans were waiting for Casillas to return to the #1 spot but it didn’t happen until this most recent season. Sure, Casillas was getting appearances in essentially every other non-La Liga competition, which for Real Madrid is several, but the worry about him not being his club’s #1 choice remained.

Going into the World Cup, I placed him at the number five slot of top goalkeepers in the tournament … but with a caveat.

He looks like he’s stayed in shape physically and but has he had enough game scenarios going into the summer? Will he be able to handle an awkward cross, perhaps a bad pass from a defender, or a slight deflection?

The answer was no. Casillas’ confidence had evaporated. His explosiveness was now gone and he became increasingly more and more exposed, most notably in Spain’s opening game of the 2014 FIFA World Cup.

Placed into every unique, awkward situation, Casillas faltered again and again. While we should give him a pass on van Persie’s perfect header, Casillas then conceded four goals that no one expects to see at the World Cup. He dove out of the way on the next goal from Robin, misplayed a driven free kick for a third, took a poor touch that led to a fourth goal, and couldn’t stay on his feet for the fifth and final goal.

He wasn’t even a shadow of the premier goalkeeper that reigned supreme just 16 months ago, leaving viewers with many questions about his career. Why did Casillas struggle to regain his form? Was he really worthy of the five consecutive awards? And maybe most troubling, how do we hold Casillas’ career in the correct light?

At his best, Casillas had the athleticism and ability to get post-to-post in a way his peers could only dream of. His reflexes were so sharp that his form was usually irrelevant. He could read the play so fast that even with his poor body shape he would repeatedly make highlight reel saves every game.

But, after the injury, maybe because of it or not related to it, he stopped reacting and started anticipating. Oddly enough, for a goalkeeper who was so quick in his movement, most of his problems now are centered around his feet. Too often he’s caught leaning one way, moving his feet too much as the shot is being taken, or having the common wide-set stance.

Casillas’ fall from the elite class has come on the downslope of his career anyway, so it’s unfair to call him a wash out. His peak years glisten high and bright for all to see, so there is no question about his place in the history of goalkeeping.

But, for whatever reason, he hasn’t been the same every since an injury he should have easily rebounded from. Maybe the injury was just a convenient excuse for Mourinho to ostracize his big-name goalkeeper and the damage to Casillas’ confidence starts there?

Whatever the reason, the sainted goalkeeper whose athleticism meant he rarely had to rely on mechanics and technique is now reduced to being a mere mortal.

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