Why it’s time for De Gea to take king Casillas’s crown

The Rio Report

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The King of Spain recently announced his abdication in favour of a younger man better suited to the job. Iker Casillas is the captain of Real Madrid and Spain, football royalty respected by friend and foe. His longstanding friendship with Barcelona's Xavi was a vital nexus of unity for the previously disunited Spanish national side. They've conquered all, but their stars have dimmed with father time.

Casillas' case is surprising. At 33, the decline of outfield players can be marked, but seldom goalkeepers. Yet in December 2012, Jose Mourinho did the unthinkable and dropped him in favour of Diego Lopez at Real Madrid. Mourinho felt vindicated and Lopez has remained Madrid's number one - though Casillas features in cup games including the Champions League.


He's also remained in goal for Spain, in spite of competition from Pepe Reina, Victor Valdes and David de Gea. Valdes was begining to encroach on the national team when he ruptured his cruciate ligament, while De Gea, 23, who no longer plays for Spain's all-conquering Under-21 side, has respectfully bided his time and recently made his Spain debut.

Now is his time. Casillas wasn't the only player at fault in Spain's disastrous 5-1 opening defeat to vengeful Netherlands, but he was at fault. At least twice. Though he stood tall to prevent Sneijder giving the Dutch the lead in an early one-on-one, he missed Wesley Sneijder's free-kick cross allowing Stefan de Vrij to head Holland's third. They went onto inflict Spain's worst World Cup defeat in 64 years. The goalkeeper's touch from a 74th minute back pass was too heavy and allowed Robin van Persie to add a fourth.


As the newspapers sharpened their knives and front pages carried headlines like 'Ridiculous' and 'Humiliation', Casillas apologised.

"The first thing I have to do is offer a mea culpa," he said after the capitulation at the Arena Fonte Nova. "This is the worst performance of my career. We have to say sorry. Holland were very good: we were the complete opposite. Sometimes it's good for things like this to happen to that you can react but we have to react now."

Casillas is unlikely to abdicate - coaches, not players, make those decisions in football - but just as the Spanish public fell out of love with King Juan Carlos, fans and the media haven't been slow to criticise the Madrid goalkeeper as a bygone relic. It's harsh and perhaps fickle, but Spain have better suited stoppers for their current task of becoming the first team since Brazil in 1962 to retain the World Cup.

Spain have been slow starters in tournaments where they've gone onto triumph before. They lost their opening game of the 2010 World Cup finals and drew in Euro 2012 before finding their spellbinding rhythm, but the hammering in a Salvador - a city which has found itself with a pick of great group games - was altogether different.


Spain were destroyed in a legendary match, their style of football unlocked by the savvy Dutch coach Louis van Gaal. Alongside watching Manchester United fans, the Dutch coach will have been mesmerised by Robin van Persie's performance and two goals, his first a diving header which saw him crash to earth with a belly flop. Though there was heavy rain in north east Brazil on Friday, there's wasn't enough water to cushion his landing. Arjen Robben was also superb for the jubilant Dutch and got a brace of his own.

The world champions only conceded three goals in eight qualifying matches. In Salvador they conceded five - more than they have done in the last two tournaments combined.

Spain face a highly competent Chile on Wednesday in a game Xavi describes as a "life or death". He was among the Spain players to accept blame for the hammering, suggesting that Spain had to be self-critical to improve. Coach Vicente Del Bosque admitted "We're really up against it", adding "this is not the time to look for guilty parties." At least not publicly.

Spain are not finished. Their side is still stocked with brilliance and Del Bosque is a wily operator who knows how to return from defeat. If they were to lose a game to give them a shock, then this was the game to lose - and perhaps it's better to bested by four to make that shock count.

La Roja's players are not being spared criticism, but they can gather strength from that adversity and find a common ground in proving critics wrong. The champions have been knocked down and out in the first round, but unlike in boxing, the World Cup group stages give teams a second chance to get up and start again.

Spain must take theirs; Del Bosque must take the difficult decisions which confront him. He's fortunate to have so many options and could replace Koke for the slowing Xavi, De Gea for Casillas. In Salvador, he took two controversial ones, starting Chelsea's Cesar Azpilicueta ahead of Juanfran. He also used Chelsea-bound Diego Costa, chosing him ahead of mainstays David Villa and Fernando Torres.

The Brazilian was booed by the crowd his homeland for switching countries, he also saw protests by the Dutch players who claimed he'd dived for Xabi Alonso's penalty which gave Spain the lead. It seemed to matter at the time, but it didn't by the end.

Andy Mitten is reporting on Spain for us as he travels Brazil for the World Cup finals - @AndyMitten

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