Almost five years to the minute after his save from Arjen Robben helped Spain on their way to their first World Cup final win in 2010, Iker Casillas left Real Madrid, alone and in tears. He announced in a brief press conference, whilst his teammates were on their way to Australia for a pre-season tour, that he was moving to FC Porto.
How was it that a club legend, who was still the captain at the time, left in such circumstances after winning every trophy that was on offer and 725 appearances? Well, the tale is a familiar one: José Mourinho and one his star players saw their relationship break down after a series of events on, and mainly off, the pitch.
December 22, 2012: Real suffered a 3-2 defeat to Manuel Pellegrini’s Málaga at La Rosaleda, leaving the reigning La Liga champions in third place, 16 points behind leaders Barcelona. To the watching world’s surprise, he had dropped Casillas, Los Blancos’ revered goalkeeper, in favour of youngster Antonio Adán.
“It was a purely technical decision,” the Portuguese said after the game when asked why ‘San Iker’ was dropped, with now second-tier Málaga only two points behind them in fourth. It is not like Mourinho to asperse one of his own players, is it?
When Mourinho arrived at the Santiago Bernabéu in 2010 from Inter Milan, Casillas was at the peak of his powers. At 30, he went into the 2010/11 season after winning the World Cup and already had three league titles, two Champions League winner’s medals and a European Championship crown to his name.
Mourinho’s relationship with the Spaniard was, for a time, a match made in heaven. After the now Manchester United manager’s debut season, in which Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona won a league and European double, Los Blancos hit back to win the title at a canter in the 2011/12 season by beating their El Clásico rivals by nine points whilst losing only two league games in 38.
With a miserly defence marshalled by Casillas, and Cristiano Ronaldo’s obvious talents in attack, Mourinho’s Real earned 100 points but an innocuous peace treaty between the goalkeeper and Barcelona’s Xavi started an in-house feud that was the beginning of the end of both parties’ times in the Spanish capital.
In August 2011, the captains on both sides of the Clásico divide agreed that the two teams’ clashes were becoming increasingly bitter, angsty and violent and, for the sake of Spain’s national team – for which Casillas was captain – they looked for a solution. The problem for the ‘keeper was that Mourinho was often in the centre of the action, whilst revelling in the negative press that his Real side got for their boisterous approach.
In the Supercopa de España final, Mourinho had poked the late Tito Vilanova, Barcelona’s manager at the time, in the eye after a Marcelo challenge on Cesc Fàbregas sparked a touchline scuffle. He was later seen antagonising Lionel Messi and Dani Alves, and made derogatory comments about Vilanova and the Camp Nou’s ball boys after the game – as you can probably imagine, it was Barcelona that won the two-legged tie.
Xavi and Casillas were widely praised for their diplomacy, but Mourinho took exception to what, in his eyes, was a sign of weakness from his goalkeeper – in his view, the move undermined the hermetic atmosphere that he strived for.
Real’s results in the 2012/13 season failed to match the highs of the previous campaign, and Vilanova’s Barcelona regained the La Liga title. The previous season, Casillas’ card was marked by Mourinho, but results meant that he was indispensable – suddenly, his place in the team was in doubt in the build-up to the aforementioned tie against Malaga.
Losses against Getafe and Sevilla meant that Mourinho’s side had lost two games by mid-September, equalling their total for the 2011/12 season; a home draw against RCD Espanyol after a late equaliser from Juan Ángel Albín left his side fighting for a top-four spot.
When Real Sociedad travelled to the Spanish capital, Mourinho stuck to his guns and continued with Adán in goal. It was at this point that his feelings were made clear: he refused to reinstall Casillas in his side, even after Adán had shipped three goals in a crucial top-four clash last time out.
But, within six minutes, the youngster felled Carlos Vela in the penalty area and was sent off, allowing Xabi Prieto to score the first of his hat-trick of goals that night from the penalty spot to cancel out Karim Benzema’s early opener. Real went on to win 4-3 thanks to a rare goal from Sami Khedira and a Ronaldo brace, and Casillas was met with rapturous applause upon the final whistle.
When Adán returned from his suspension, Mourinho stuck with Casillas through the turn of 2013. However, in another twist, he broke a bone in his hand against Valencia in a Copa del Rey tie only a few weeks later and was out for two months. During that time, Florentino Pérez sanctioned the €3.5 million signing of Sevilla goalkeeper Diego López as the winter transfer window came to a close.
Soon after Casillas’ injury, MARCA ran a front-cover story claiming that the goalkeeper, Sergio Ramos and an unnamed player went to Pérez, demanding that Mourinho was sacked. In the report, the players were said to have told the club president that they would leave in the summer if Mourinho was still in charge.
A press conference was called to deny the allegations, but the rumours were enough to continue the unrest. Casillas’ girlfriend and journalist, Sara Carbonero, did little to help matters by stating: “The players do not get on with Mourinho; the atmosphere in the changing room is not good.”
He did not play another game that season, in any competition. He watched from the substitutes’ bench as López started the remaining La Liga fixtures, a humiliating exit from the Champions League semi-finals after a 4-1 loss at Signal Iduna Park to Robert Lewandowski-inspired Borussia Dortmund and the Copa del Rey final, in which Diego Simeone’s Atlético Madrid came from behind to win 2-1 after Ronaldo’s opener.
In June 2013, Mourinho was replaced by Carlo Ancelotti. The Italian chose López as his number one goalkeeper at the beginning of his tenure, which meant that Casillas played only two LaLiga games in the whole of the 2013/14 La Liga campaign whilst being trusted to play in cup competitions.
There was to be salvation for Casillas, however: after playing every minute leading up to the Copa del Rey final, he starred as his side overcame Barcelona 2-1. Then, a month later, he captained his boyhood club to La Décima in Lisbon: a tenth Champions League crown, following a 4-1 win after extra-time against city-rivals Atlético.
It was a defining moment in Casillas’ career: after winning the competition twice before the age of 20, he had to wait 12 years to reach another final. During that time, Real were eliminated from the first knockout phase for six successive years, before Mourinho took charge of three semi-final defeats.
The story could have been very different: his mistake, an untimely dash off his line that allowed Diego Godín to nod Simeone’s side ahead, looked to have sealed the title for Atlético until Ramos equalised in the third minute of injury-time with a trademark header.
Casillas remained with Real for the 2014/15 season as Barcelona dominated on all fronts, after a disappointing 2014 World Cup campaign, and played in 47 games in all competitions but the scars remained; the battle around his expulsion was a controversial one. It was not a happy ending, but, at least, there was a finish to the three-year nightmare. His last years at his boyhood club were divisive, after Mourinho made a martyr of a man that Real’s fans labelled a saint.
By Ryan Plant
Part of our Number Ones series