Iker Casillas discusses world and European champions Spain's recent success, the Italy shoot-out that changed everything and the drinks that started it all.
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The popular legend is that a light-hearted bet between Iker Casillas, Pepe Reina and Andrés Palop, with stakes no higher than a couple of beers and some tapas, was one of the biggest influences on Spain winning UEFA EURO 2008.
Football folk can let superstition gnaw away at reason even at the best of times. Luis Aragonés, a man famous for mistrusting the colour yellow, went as far as refusing to acknowledge that the shirts worn by his Spain side in their last-four win against Russia were anything other than 'mustard' – but many doubted his charges would even reach that far when their quarter-final with Italy went to penalties in Vienna on 22 June.
Why? Well, the Roja had failed to defeat Italy in a competitive match in 88 long years since 1920. Worse still, the cursed date of 22 June had marked Spanish exits at three previous tournaments, and all following a penalty shoot-out: against Belgium at the 1986 FIFA World Cup, at the hands of England at EURO '96 and then against South Korea at the 2002 World Cup. Enough to give anyone a complex; but not Casillas.
A couple of weeks before the championship in Austria and Switzerland, he, Reina and Palop were consistently the last to leave Spain's training pitch at Las Rozas near Madrid, the three goalkeepers finishing with a penalty competition among themselves. The loser was to buy the other two a couple of cañas (little glasses of beer) and tapas.
That sharpening-up exercise had evidently gone well enough for Casillas, hit by the heady mix of adrenaline and exhaustion which sets in after extra time at a major tournament, to reject the help of Spain's goalkeeping coach before the shoot-out with Italy. José Manuel Ochotorena had a folder full of information on Italy's penalty takers that he was bursting to share with the Spanish captain, but did he want it? No, he did not. Casillas felt alert, confident – at the absolute apogee of his form.
Superstition, be damned. And the fact that Spain had not reached a major semi-final since the UEFA European Championship in France nearly a quarter of a century before? Also a mere detail to the man now heading towards goal. History has the subsequent facts noted down – saves to either side denied Antonio Di Natale and Daniele De Rossi so that Cesc Fàbregas could score the winning penalty and send Spain through to meet Russia en route to their showpiece victory against Germany. But, in that moment, the watching world held its breath while the stadium reverberated with noise and tension.
Unsurprisingly, that shoot-out, a turning point in his country's football destiny, still evokes magical memories for Casillas. "That was the moment when everything Spain needed to end our run of not winning tournaments and going out at the same stage every time just clicked," says the Real Madrid CF stalwart. "I recall every single bit of it: Italy as the opposition, the game finishing 0-0, and the fact it was going to be penalties on 22 June – again!"
Above all, Casillas is a team man. When it comes to his work, he sets exacting personal standards and trains with such intensity that, occasionally, he can appear lost in his own private search for excellence. Make no mistake, though: if asked to lead, either for club or country, then this is a player who strives to unify, seek consensus and maximise the power to be gained when 23 top athletes and their coaching staff all hungrily pursue the same goal.
"Our training camp in Neustift had been a place of great happiness and exceptional times," he added. "There was this feeling that we were living through a wonderful period. We all got on excellently together and the squad was really happy with our coach. I think that the great success was Luis Aragonés himself. A month before the finals, the coach had everything sorted in his mind – how to manage the squad and precisely what he wanted from the tournament." And, after Fernando Torres's goal in the final against Germany, the old man got his wish.
As the celebrations raged, Casillas raised the trophy aloft with ghosts of previous failures swirling around his head. "It was historic for Spanish football, but it brought great personal happiness after many disappointments, injustices and sad times both as a player and fan. In that moment, my thoughts were with former team-mates who'd tried to win a title in front of our supporters but weren't able to."
Of course, Spain then went on to add the 2010 FIFA World Cup and UEFA EURO 2012 titles to their haul, with Vicente del Bosque now installed at the helm. About an hour after the final whistle in Soccer City in 2010, I spoke to Casillas and asked him to sum up the years of work that had gone into such a marvellous achievement. He immediately pinpointed UEFA EURO 2008, and the seasons leading up to it, as a revolutionary time in Spanish football.