Three matches where Iker Casillas single-handedly uplifted Spain to glory
Travelling to Korea and Japan for the 2002 World Cup, Iker Casillas was the second choice to Spain’s first pick custodian Santiago Canizares. However, let’s just say Gods wanted a successor to the Titan, Oliver Kahn. So they chose an incarnation in the Spanish ranks, an uncapped rookie by the name of Iker Casillas.
Starting his World Cup career against Slovenia, Casillas witnessed imperious dominance from his team against a pedestrian counterpart as they romped over Slovenia by three goals to one.
Post that opener, Spain went on to thump Paraguay and South Africa to advance to the knock-out stages where Casillas probably penned the writings on the wall of a hero about to appear in the Spanish ranks.
In the wake of Casillas' goodbye to the game that made him a hero of the folklore, we will look at three matches where he stood tall in the Spanish colours to stamp his authority over his opponents and validate his goal-keeping prowess.
#1 Spain versus Ireland: FIFA World Cup 2002 (pre-quarterfinals)
Casillas didn't start this game on a very positive note. His first enterprise to keep Spain afloat had all the signs of a rookie stamped over it when his surreal dive to thwart a Gary Kelly cross fell right at the feet of Robbie Keane, whose slice at the goal sailed wide off the post.
For a team that has surpassed an unbeatable Kahn in the group stages, Casillas's second big effort of the night seemed poorer than the first when he muffed a simple take from a cross and the rebound powered by Kilbane was a million miles adrift.
With confidence stooping at ground zero, Casillas turned out to be the saviour for Spain in the next ten minutes, when he went on to parry a Harte spot-kick unconvincingly, but the rebound was aimed at the stars.
With panache bubbling in a newly formed bubble, Casillas put in a full stretched dive to parry another Duff long ranger.
The save of the night though came just four minutes from regulation time when Casillas pulled off a Spider-Man save to deny Robbie Keane. With the entire goal gaping at his behest, Keane picked up a perfectly stitched cross and hammered it straight at Iker, who was a million miles out off his line to pare down the angle of Robbie Keane.
In the extra time that followed after Ireland converted their second spot-kick, Ireland came inches close to the goal when a thumping header from Duff was once again addressed by Casillas with tantamount superiority.
Ireland took over the reins of the game completely in the extra time when Breez blasted his shot at an unbeatable Casillas.
With every single second that the game loomed closer to its end, Ireland came closer menacingly as Keane's rasping header to win it for Ireland was parried away by Casillas again.
Casillas came to the deliverance of Spain for the umpteenth time when he flapped out at another Irish effort in the 105th minute.
After a battle that witnessed the defence of the highest order from Puyol and Hierro, Casillas blew a wave to the Gods, mumbling to himself, the world is watching. It all boiled down to the treacherous penalties, where after a smooth first round, Connolly slammed his penalty right at a soaring Iker, who had already propelled Spain to the next round virtually.
Much to the reprieve of Ireland, Juanfran slashed his penalty wide. Despite fortune giving Ireland chance after chance, Casillas was there to defy them. He saved the third penalty much to the woes of Kilbane, who saw his shot struck down the left not rolling into the net.
With Spain missing another spot-kick, Ireland hoped for another dramatic comeback but Mendieta's effort sealed the tie for Spain.
The man who defied fate for Spain in the lopsided encounter was their rookie goalie, Iker Casillas Fernandez.
#2 Spain versus Germany: FIFA World Cup 2010 (semi-final)
This game wasn't one where Casillas defied physics and gravity to hog the limelight. On the contrary, Casillas did very little in the game. Yet, I was compelled to choose this game as one of his heroic outings because of the clinical execution of the goalkeeping rudimentary.
In our lost notion and pursuit of greatness, we tend to tout only gravity-defying or time-defying saves as superhuman. However, it is not an easy task to pull off the basic saves and yet look absolutely untainted against the European mitochondria.
In the 2010 World Cup, Germany looked absolutely fearless and probably was the most dominant squad of the fray where they went on to thump England and Argentina. Two of the world's biggest football forces bowing out to blistering counter-attack was something to behold.
Loew's strategy was immaculate and probably with Spain's passing style of football, which was deemed as boring, it looked even ghastly for the Tiki-taka magicians.
If there was one hope that boosted Del Bosque's spectrum to reach the finals, that was Spain's skipper, Carlos Puyol.
After almost an hour of being stifled in his own half, Puyol started attempting a few sorties in the German box, especially from the set-pieces. This left the Spanish defence with a void that needed to be addressed against the German advancements, and this is where Casillas snuffed out the Teutonic hopes of reaching another World Cup final.
On the 10th minute, after bouts of haywire football, Germany launched its first positive offensive of the night, and Casillas came out of line to shimmy alongside Klose and then after some tantalising moves, he hacked the ball away to safety.
Within just six minutes of the first sortie, Germany followed it with another inswinging effort from Ozil, who whipped in a delectable delivery, only to be parried away by Iker Casillas for another corner.
On the half-hour mark, Schweinsteiger belted a long ball for an advancing Podolski and once again Casillas stepped out of his line to snuff out Germany's enterprise to break free.
Germany started growing slowly into the game, with their attacking chemistry finally manifesting itself. In a quick succession of the Podolski affair, Trochowski arrowed a sharp-shooter aimed at the top-left corner of the net, which was once again parried away by a full-stretched Casillas for another corner.
The ensuing corner once again failed to get its due address, as Casillas swung himself above every player in the box to palm it away.
It was quite sometime after the breather, that Germany started to hit back, but the response was as strong as ever, when around the 69th minute, Klose's looping delivery was met substantially well by Kroos whose stinging low drive was parried away with a tantamount incision by the Saint.
With a slender lead that came from the emphatic forehead of the heart of Spanish defence, Carlos Puyol, Spain started settling back to defend.
As the game inched closer to its end, Phillip Lahm swung in an effective long ranger in the Spanish box. Before Germany could have made anything out of it, Casillas punched it clear in the most effective way possible.
After an affair that lasted for five more minutes of this save, Spain hung around, and much to the surprise of the Germans started hitting back that put an end to the German dreams. Heroes weren't only made of great stuff, and Casillas was on a mission that night to validate this.
#3 Spain versus Holland: FIFA World Cup 2010 (Finals)
This stoush of 120 long minutes was not marked by the most classic football from two European heavyweights, but it culminated into a slugfest that was finally settled by momentary brilliance from the Spanish wizard, Andres Iniesta.
The Blaugrana midfield general made an acute run from the right following Torres's feeble swing but was disappointed when he saw the ball being intervened by a Dutch defender.
However, the rebound fell at the feet of Fabregas, who stitched a peach of delivery for an already-poised Iniesta, who trapped the ball, lofted it a wee bit and then hammered it into the coffins of countless Dutch dreams.
The entirety of Spanish crowd, staff and the players on the field erupted into a frenzied delirium of ecstasy. They all knew that Iniesta has won them their maiden World Cup.
However, all of these joys, celebration and exultant pumping of fists in the air was reflected in the tears that rolled down the Saint's cheeks. Iker Saint Casillas, the man who stood below the woodwork, didn't swing himself frenetically in the insane celebrations. On the contrary, he stood at his place, celebrating the goal with intense emotions that waited for 10 years in the making.
Despite, most of the praises were being heaped on Iniesta, if there was one man who kept Spain afloat throughout the game was Iker Casillas. Three crucial saves, followed by stellar rudimentary goalkeeping snuffed out the heroics of the Dutchmen along with their dreams.
The first feel of the Dutch sting came as early as in the seventh minute when Dirk Kuyt latched on to a suicidal back pass from Alonso to hammer a 25-yard belter. However, the brilliant positioning of Casillas made the save look like a cakewalk.
It wasn't much longer before the Dutchmen came prying into the Spanish defence for the second positive move of the night and Wesley Sneijder blasted another meaty piledriver from a free-kick. However, Casillas snaffled it up with consummate ease, thanks again to some phenomenal sense of positioning.
With the game evolving into a no-holds-barred gutter war, Holland's next incursion into the Spanish territory met an unfortunate demise when Casillas flew(read it jumped) to an incredulous height to catch the ball mid-air with Puyol clattering into him. This may sound like a goal-keeping drill but when the moment arrives, it isn't what you really exercise on the training pitch.
The respite for Spain was transient as the Dutch compelled Casillas to another low-diving effort in the very next minute.
With the game heading towards the breather, Holland lashed out at Spain for the umpteenth time, when Robben unleashed the magician in him, dropping a shoulder to fox the Spanish defence and drill the ball low towards the left. Casillas, being at his phenomenal best, put a perfectly-timed dive to palm the Dutch enterprise locked at an impasse when they head into the breather.
The Dutch maestro seemed relentless as Robben picked this match to validate his greatness. Within just seven minutes from the game resuming, Robben bundled another long ranger at the Spanish goal only to be gobbled up by the Saint.
With all of these said and done, the best save of the night arrived in the 62nd minute when hearts stopped, and the time came to a standstill for all those Spanish supporters out there. I was a 15-year-old lad then, screaming from the sets of my television to the Gods that Robben must not do it.
Though uncertain of the fact that what actually worked, my prayers or the silent wishes of a million fans, but Saint Iker Casillas remained unsullied as he thwarted the one-on-one effort with a foot stuck out.
Sneijder's fine goal kick split apart the Spanish defence and the ball rolled at the feet of Robben. He controlled it and scampered past the Spanish rearguard leaving at least a mile between him and Puyol, and waited for an advancing Casillas to choose sides. Casillas did choose the wrong side and when he saw Robben rolled the ball at the other end, he stuck his right foot out and the ball caught a sniff of that extended foot and went down in history as a corner.
Not only did the Spanish bench celebrated this save like a goal that won them the Cup, but a kid who prayed to whichever God answered to his words, he screamed like a lunatic who has found his sanity after a lifelong wait behind the invisible bars, pumping his fists, thumping on his chest, feeling the exact same emotions that surged through my idol, Iker Casillas.
Casillas came out as the hero again in the 82nd minute when he came out of the lines for the countless time to snuff out another one-on-one, very clinically timing his dive to avert a penalty that would have tipped the scales of history.
That was probably it for the Dutchmen vying for immortal glory. It was entirely Spain thereafter and on the 116th minute Andres Iniesta rattled the deadlock, gloriously etching Spain in the pages of history.
When wild celebrations sparked across the streets of Spain, the tears in the eyes of Casillas said it all.
Cover image credits: Transfer Market