Andy Mitten

Casillas towers above his peers

Andy Mitten

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Most great football stadiums are not located in their city's grandest avenues. Old Trafford is on the edge of an industrial park, Anfield and Goodison in deprived inner city areas, San Siro and the new Juventus Stadium in distant suburbs. Camp Nou was on the edge of Barcelona in the 50s, but even then the location was unremarkable, while many new stadia are built in out-of-town locations close to motorways.

Real Madrid's Santiago Bernabeu is different. It stands amid the towering office blocks, banks, museums and expensive apartments of the Castellana (formerly the Avenida del Generalissimo Franco). One of the tallest office blocks close to the stadium is currently covered in an advert for a car company, except they've used the king of Spain to sell the car, a 10-storey image of a man who looks down on the nine-lane avenue. It's not the real King of Spain, however - but Iker Casillas, goalkeeper and captain of Real Madrid and the national team.

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Maybe a Barcelona star overlooking Madrid wouldn't be a great idea, but Casillas — like Andres Iniesta — is a player who transcends rivalries.

With over 600 Madrid games and 130 Spanish caps, Casillas, 31, is the most-capped player in Spain's history, the best shot-stopper in a country which produces great keepers. He goes to the Euros hoping to captain the first side to retain a major international trophy.

Casillas played in Spain's final friendly game before the tournament, a nervy 1-0 win over China on Sunday night in Seville in which he had an unexpectedly busy night.

Although he sometimes tries, not even Casillas can be in two places at once and so he missed out on seeing many of his former team-mates at the Bernabeu on Sunday for a game between Madrid and Manchester United veterans. There were no shortage of people willing to offer a few words about Casillas.

"Every team has one of two players that are the most important," explained former Madrid defender Ivan Helguera. "When I played for Madrid and Spain it was Raul and Fernando Hierro, for club and country. Iker played with us, but he was from a younger generation. Now the most important player is Iker. He is Madrid, he is Spain. He's one of the greatest players ever and is hugely respected, not just by everyone in Madrid, but the players of the other clubs too, the Barcelona players."

Casillas is adored, by both the sports fans who appreciate his skills and the gossip columnists who salivate over his relationship with the beautiful sports reporter Sara Carbonero. The pair recently got engaged and she'll be interviewing him at the Euros, just as she did at the World Cup finals — a series of pitchside interviews which finished with an on-air kiss to celebrate Spain being crowned world champions for the first time.

Image-wise it is a long way from a decade ago when he was the butt of jokes in the Madrid changing room.

I saw Steve McManaman before Madrid played Manchester United in 2003 and he said of Casillas: "He's naive, gullible and probably doesn't have the wages or earning power of the other lads because he's so young, so we wind him up about the type of car he drives."

Casillas was still the boy from Mostoles, a sprawling working class overspill south of Madrid where his parents had moved to from the country in search of a better life.

"He's sponsored by Reebok and every single day he wears nothing but Reebok gear and some of it is horrendous," added McManaman. "Oversized tracksuits and terrible trainers, he's the man for them. He knows we're only winding him up though and he's right to believe in himself because he's a very talented goalkeeper."

Other top goalkeepers agree.

"He's a fantastic goalkeeper, someone who unites the two factions in the Spanish camp, the Madrid and the Barcelona camps," said Edwin Van der Sar on Sunday. "He's a steadying influence and that's what I like in a goalkeeper, someone who does their job without a fuss and makes sure that the team works in front of them.

"He's got good reaction saves, he's brave and he makes the right saves at the right moments. He certainly has the trophies to say that he's the best goalkeeper in the world."

Casillas has won everything there is to win in football. He won the Champions League four days after his 19th birthday and the silverware has never stopped for football's most decorated goalkeeper.

He's also on target to become the most capped European player of all time and recently passed Peter Shilton (125) and legendary Basque goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta (126), while edging ahead of Peter Schmeichel (129) last week.

Casillas has the time to surpass retired greats like Fabio Cannavaro (136), Thomas Ravelli (143), Lilian Thuram (142) and the record holder Lothar Matthaus (150). With his own undiminished ability and the talent of the players in front of him, his impressive list of honours can only lengthen.

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