Besides being one of the all-time great footballers, Iker Casillas, like many goalkeepers, likes order and things done meticulously.
As such he could barely have planned any better the way to celebrate 12 years since his Spain debut. In Seville on Sunday he will play for Vicente del Bosque, the man who took charge of Real Madrid CF in 1999 and consistently promoted young Casillas' merits. But best of all, as the opponents are China, he will be facing the coach who awarded him his first cap on 3 June, 2000 in Gothenburg against Sweden: José Antonio Camacho.
Camacho had been impressed by the 19-year-old Casillas who had just helped Real Madrid win the UEFA Champions League, spotting some rare attributes in a goalkeeper so young. "We had followed his progress in the junior ranks with Spain and what stood out was that he was immune to pressure," the China coach explained. "Another thing we saw then which remains true today was his ability to pull off one-on-one saves. Goalkeepers for major teams who are almost constantly on the attack need that."
Since becoming the first Spanish captain to lift the UEFA European Championship trophy since 1964, four years ago in Vienna, Casillas has also claimed a world title – thanks in no small part to that precise skill which Camacho admired in 2000. Indeed, the 2010 FIFA World Cup final may have turned out very differently had the Real Madrid man not held his nerve, held his position and then somehow deflected Arjen Robben's one-on-one chance round the post with his outstretched boot.
The 31-year-old's international career is already full of such breathtaking moments. Little wonder he is universally known as San Iker (Saint Iker). Sometimes retrospect can provide a rose-tinted view yet there is no getting away from the fact that 12 years ago the future 'Saint Iker' gave away and conceded a penalty within 11 minutes of coming on against Sweden. But it was a stain he would quickly erase.
Penalties have played a significant part throughout his international career, which consists of a Spanish record 130 appearances and a world record 95 victories. En route to winning UEFA EURO 2008 Casillas smashed Spain's millstone of having lost three quarter-final penalty shootouts on 22 June by saving from Daniele De Rossi and Antonio Natale – and he produced more heroics in the World Cup quarter-final against Paraguay two years later.
However, beyond the physical evidence of an athlete in his absolute prime, the medals and the emotive photos of him lifting trophy after trophy, there is the far less visible contribution this remarkable man has given to his country. Only this week, Luis Aragonés, Spain's triumphant coach in 2008, explained that one of his own great feats had been "changing the mentality of the Spain squad".
Using a sports psychologist and then emphasising that La Roja had the ability to start winning trophies at once, Aragonés believes Spain took a major step forward in their ruthlessness when Xavi Hernández, Carles Puyol and particularly Casillas not only grasped but disseminated the positive message amongst fellow squad members. "Iker was my right hand man and the best possible captain," Aragones said.
Casillas will treat the occasion of his 12th anniversary as an international player with due respect, but his eyes are already fixed on another goal: lifting lifting the Henri Delaunay Cup again. Happy anniversary San Iker.
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