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IKER CASILLAS, REAL MADRID'S HUMAN BOOSTER ROCKET OF A GOALKEEPER, is one of those guys who's been around so long you think he's older than he really is. If goalkeepers are that unique species of player who can continue into his forties, it's likely that Casillas—who turned 30 on May 20—will make his mark on the world's game in four different decades. He has won every senior title that matters, from his first Champions League in 2000 (with Los Blancos) to the '08 European championship (with Spain) to the '10 World Cup. And because he has played for so long, at such a high level, for two of the most respected teams on the planet, Casillas looms like a colossus over the goalkeeping profession. Let's face it: Iker is as global as Ikea—and a fair bit sturdier, too.
Two of Casillas's transcendent moments stand out like marvelous bookends to his career thus far. In the 2002 Champions League final he came on for the injured César Sánchez and made a series of brilliant saves in the last minutes to preserve Real's victory over Bayer Leverkusen. And while Andrés Iniesta got the accolades for scoring the winning goal in extra time of the '10 World Cup final, it was Casillas who made sure that that goal was sufficient with his sprawling save on Arjen Robben's one-on-one breakaway midway through the second half.
"I remember a very fast play," says Casillas when asked to recall that moment. "Robben was dribbling toward my left, and I needed to hang on. Then he shot in the other direction, but I was able to stop it with my right foot." Advancing at full speed, Casillas somehow extended himself in two directions at once, stretching as wide as possible. His right-footed deflection—a kick save in all its beauty—sent Robben to his knees in despair and the announcers on Spain's Canal+ into paroxysms of joy and relief: "¡Casillas vuelve a iluminar el día!" (Casillas brightens the day again!) In such decisive moments, with an audience in the hundreds of millions, history is made.
For all the recent domination of the Spanish national team by players from FC Barcelona, the captaincy has been held by a succession of Real Madrid players, from Fernando Hierro to Raúl to Casillas, who raised the World Cup trophy with pride on that special day in Johannesburg. "A marvelous feeling," Casillas says of the moment. "It's completing the dream you have when you're a child, because you never think that you'll win the World Cup."
From the day he joined Real Madrid's youth ranks in 1990 as a promising nine-year-old from Móstoles, a suburb of the Spanish capital, Casillas set out to become the best goalkeeper in the world. And so he studied the men who held that title, none more so than a Premier League legend who was known for his ability to cut down angles and make his outstretched frame appear larger than anybody imagined. "I liked Peter Schmeichel very much, the goalkeeper of Denmark and Manchester United," says Casillas. "In 1992 I watched him win the European championship with Denmark."
When you join Real Madrid at age nine and spend the next 21 years with the club, as Casillas has, your ties with the team, to say nothing of its fans, are the blood bonds of a close family. "Real Madrid has been my life," says Casillas, who adds that he has never considered playing for another club, despite interest over the years from many others, including Manchester United and Manchester City. "I like living in Madrid. My family is here. I don't know the future, but I think it's in Madrid."
Yet the fact remains that these days Spain's national team is dominated by Barcelona players such as Xavi, Iniesta, David Villa, Carles Puyol, Gerard Piqué and Sergio Busquets. Only Casillas, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos carry the banner for Real Madrid in Spain's starting lineup. But while the animus between the country's two biggest clubs is greater than ever—Real Madrid and Barça dominate La Liga and the daily media discussion—Casillas has found a way to suspend hostilities when Real and Barcelona players are together on the national team. It's a delicate balance, but finding it has been crucial to Spain's success after so many decades of division.
"Xavi is a guy I have played with on the national team since the early days in the youth categories," says Casillas. "We were Under-20 world champions together [in 1999], and we get along well. But we also forget the national team when we're with our clubs."
Truth be told, Casillas might want to forget the results that Real Madrid has had against Barcelona the last three seasons, in which Los Blancos have won only one of their nine matches and the Blaugrana has won all three La Liga titles. (Real's lone victory was in the Copa del Rey final on April 20.) But it's worth noting that at a time when he would have been welcomed by any of the top clubs in Europe, Casillas has stayed in the Spanish capital to try to turn the tide. The addition of manager José Mourinho (page 64) in 2010 has changed the culture of Real Madrid, introducing the idea that a coach can be the biggest personality on the club. That's saying something, considering that Los Blancos have two former world players of the year (Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaká) and four World Cup champions (Casillas, Xabi Alonso, Ramos and Kaká).
Casillas has observed plenty of change over his past 11 years on Real's senior team. He has witnessed the era of the imported superstars called the Galácticos, the reign of Raúl and the arrivals of Ronaldo and Mourinho. The one constant through all those periods has been Casillas himself, who is as much a survivor as a standout, a running thread through the ups and downs of perhaps the world's greatest club. But this is an important time for the team—maybe even a crossroads—as Mourinho looks to put his stamp on club history. "He's a very demanding person, one who is committed to what he does and dedicated to his profession," Casillas says of his coach. "The job is everything for him."