is 200 too much to hope for?
In honor of Iker’s record-breaking 127th appearance – he’s made it look so easy, no? – with the Spanish national team, here are an interview in which Iker takes us through the 11 years he has spent defending the shirt of Spain; a look back at some key dates in his career; and a video where José Luis Casillas discusses the career of his son and shares a few precious memories (and photos).
Are you aware that you’re already part of the museum of the national team?
Well, this entire generation is part of the museum. I had the fortune of winning what many players with a lot of quality tried to win, but was unable to. They also deserve to enjoy this moment. Anyone who has ever worn the shirt of the national team forms part of the history, in addition to all the people behind the scenes.
Ricardo Zamora even wrote a novel. Will you write one, in which the nice guy will finish first?
No, no. I have enough to do. There won’t be any novels…
You can’t deny that there is a before and after for you in Spanish football and world football: Zubi’s record, two wins away from Thuram’s 94 wins and two from Van der Sar’s 72 goalless games…
Perhaps I’ll understand these things more when I stop playing. To tell you the truth, I don’t fixate on records no matter how much attention is put on them or how much is written about them. It may sound like a cliché, but my way of viewing things has always been to think about and enjoy the next game. When you play so much with the national team, it’s normal that you’re going to break records. They’re nice, but I believe I will appreciate them more with the passing of time.
What does it mean foe you to surpass Zubizarreta?
I’m proud to do that, because we’re talking about a goalkeeper that marked an era in Spanish football. Not everyone plays for the Spanish national team for a decade. It’s a responsibility for me. I’ve experienced more bad moments than good with Spain. I’ve overcome many things. If there’s anything that I can guarantee, it’s that this coach and those who will come after him won’t have to worry very much about the goal, because there are incredible goalkeepers. And there are more that are coming up. Spain has the privilege of having at least five of the 10 best goalkeepers in the world.
Coincidences in life, your debut with Spain was in Wembley, and in this stadium, you equaled the 126 games of Zubizarreta. What do you remember about that day?
It was an amazing experience. For 14- to 15-year-old boys who were accustomed to playing on dirt fields in front of no one, being in this stadium, with a field unlike any I had seen before, and playing in front of 20,000 people was something that we will never forget.
Teodoro Nieto had to calm all of you down and he almost had to take away your cameras.
Normal. It was Wembley! We were all amazed, and with everything: the stadium, the shirts, the anthems before the games…
And you say that you always remember a scolding he gave you, although he says he doesn’t remember that.
Of course I remember! It was because he said I took the goal kicks too soon without giving my teammates time to position themselves. The truth is we were attacked quite a lot because of this.
And what do you remember about your debut with the senior team?
I also remember that day well. In the training session before the game, Camacho told Gerard and me that we were going to play. I was nervous. Eight months before, I was playing in the playoffs for promotion from the third division to the second B division. From night to morning, I had become a starter in Madrid, I had won the Champions League in Paris and I was on the list for the Eurocopa next to Hierro, Raúl, Mendieta and Guardiola. The “tops” of Spanish football.
You adapted so quickly that you were the first to turn up for the aperitifs that Camacho mandated before each dinner.
It’s true. Gerard and I hit it off with the veterans from the start. We had a childish side, and because of that, and since I like to eat, I would come down before everyone else with Arbizu to try the tripe, the cuttlefish, the grilled shrimp…
In your debut, you committed a penalty that you wouldn’t commit nowadays.
Yes, it’s true. It was due to nerves. I came out a little early, but that doesn’t take away the fact that on June 3, 2000, I took the first step on my path with the senior team.
Did seeing the senior team from the inside during the final phase of a tournament impact you?
Seeing everything that the team had around it impacted me. I’ve always supported the national team. I was so disappointed with the penalties in the 1996 Eurocopa, with the 1998 World Cup, and don’t even get me started on 1994 and the elbow to Luis Enrique. I felt so much helplessness! It took some time for me to assimilate where I was and what it meant to be there.
In your first Eurocopa, you experienced the euphoria after Alfonso’s goal against Yugoslavia and the blow that was Raúl’s failed penalty against France.
The game against Yugoslavia was the game of the Eurocopa and Alfonso’s goal was a moment to always remember. Then came the disappointment over Raúl’s penalty, but only great players dare to take them in moments such as that one. It was a shame and my first disappointment with the national team.
The years passed and the 2002 World Cup came up. Cañizares, who was to be the starter, cut his foot and the legend of Iker began. Have you been blessed by the gods?
Many people tell me that I have a lot of luck. That was unfortunate. Something similar had already happened to me in the final of the Champions League, with the injury to César. I remember that I was at home and they called me to tell me that Cañizares had cut open his big toe and he wasn’t going to be able to play in the World Cup. I had spent almost three months without playing, but Camacho, who knew me well, put me down as a starter. For me, it was an inflection point. It allowed me to show that I could play at Real Madrid and also with the national team.
Did you have doubts?
Yes. Before the World Cup, I had spent three months without playing and no one had explained anything to me. Well, they didn’t have to, and I never asked. But that makes you mature. You try to accept it even though you don’t share the sentiments. The tough moments help to make you stronger mentally.
Against Ireland, in the quarterfinals, your love affair with penalties began. Do you have a gift?
No, I’ve always said it’s about intuition and luck, although now with all the games that are played, perhaps you know the penalty takers better. That day, I stopped one in the game and two in the penalty shootout, but against South Korea, they scored five on me. I was on the verge of stopping the first one, but it slipped between my hands and my body. I told myself, “it’s done, you’re not going to stop even one.” Against Ireland, it was the opposite, I felt that it was my day.
South Korea, Al Ghandour, the annulled goals… do you remember it, and what do you feel?
I felt a lot, a lot, a lot of rage. Spain deserved more and the referee prevented us from achieving that. If we look at the images now, or in 10, 15, or 50 years’ time, you still can’t explain the decisions they made. The Koreans used underhanded means in that World Cup. Al Ghandour robbed us. I also learned from that.
Can you tell us what was said in the locker room?
Everything that could be said was said. We felt cheated. We wanted to speak with everyone FIFA had there. The good thing is that the entire world saw it and even the officials understood that this could not happen again in a World Cup.
After that came the Eurocopa in Portugal, which harmed the reputation of the team.
It’s true. We didn’t live up to expectations. We played poorly. But I want to say a word of support for Iñaki Sáez. He chose to use young people, players that he knew from the lower categories. It was a difficult step to take, and included possible failure, but with time, that has proven to be the correct path. In that Eurocopa, Spain saw the worst of us. For me, it was a tremendous, tremendous disappointment.
And then came Luis Aragonés.
There’s a before and an after with Luis for the national team and for me. He helped me a lot, although in the beginning we clashed over some things. He’s a direct person who doesn’t tiptoe around. When he stopped calling Raúl up, in a moment that was quite tough for everything, he called me and he told me that I had spent too much time in Raúl’s shadow and that it was my turn to be captain. I told him that I was up to this task.
Did you becoming captain change everything?
I’m not going to praise myself. I think with the help of Xavi and Puyol, who were the ones who had been with the team for the longest, we managed things well. It’s due to the merits of my teammates. We’ve grown up together and people have come into the fold, such as Torres or Xabi, who have played almost 100 games. We’ve been a group of friends and we tried to convey this spirit to the rest of the group. It’s a privilege to be the captain of the national team.
You were captain in one of the toughest moments, the transition from the World Cup in Germany to this triumphant era.
They were very hard times. I will never forget that after losing to Sweden, we were on the verge of not qualifying for the Eurocopa. The next day, we went to train on a field near Murcia, a horrible field, and the only thing they didn’t do was throw rocks at us. I’ve never heard such insults or experienced anything like that before. I’ve asked myself many times what those people did on the night of June 29, 2008. And it’s not out of spite.
How did you handle that?
Those are the types of moments where you have to control your emotions. It united all of us. Luis received a lot of criticism and we the players stood up for him, and he for us. I spoke with him a lot during those days. And look: we were almost dead and then we were the first in the group and look what happened later in the Eurocopa.
Can this national team survive without Xavi and Iker?
One day we’ll retire from the national team and it will become someone else’s team. And I’m sure we’ll all enjoy watching this team. Xavi is first a friend, and then a fantastic player. Barcelona’s success has always been born from Xavi’s boots. It’s easy to see that now, but it’s always been like that.
And Pepe Reina?
He’s first and foremost a friend. I only have good things to say about him. We’ve never had a single problem and I understand that it hasn’t been easy for him to play so little. I’ve learned a lot from him and he made it impossible for me to relax. He helped me to become a better goalkeeper.
I can’t imagine this national team without Iker.
Now it appears to be difficult, but that day will come. I’ve spent 11 years on the national team, no one has handed me anything on a silver platter and I worked hard to be where I am now. That day will come, but I’m not afraid of that moment. I’ve experienced fantastic things and I’m sure the team will survive. Not to brag, but I’m very proud of what I’ve done with Spain.
Did you believe at any moment that Luis would throw in the towel?
Yes, yes. He told us that if he were the problem, he would leave, but we were clear: no one was getting off the ship. We had started everything together and he was going to guide us to Austria and make us champions. Now I remember it and I laugh, but we had a pretty bad time of it.
The chats with Luis belong in the museum, no?
It’s a shame that the Federation doesn’t have a sound archive so people can listen to him. He’s a spectacle…
Did everything change with the 1-3 win in Denmark or against Italy?
In Denmark, we were in a life and death situation and we played the best game that I can remember, but for me the point of inflection came in the quarterfinals against Italy in the Eurocopa.
How do you remember Torres’ goal against Germany in the final?
For me, it was like watching in slow motion, because it took so long for it to enter the goal from the time he kicked it. I remember that in the stands behind me were the Spanish fans, and they started celebrating the goal before I saw it go in.
Your moment came in the trophy ceremony. Had you thought about how you wanted to celebrate?
I knew that I wanted everyone to be able to see the Cup clearly, above everything else. It was a moment for the entire country. I wanted to make clear that Spain no longer saw the Eurocopa in black and white. The joy I felt was immense. We had suffered so much.
Was that when La Roja became an object of adoration in this country?
It was incredible how they celebrated. It didn’t matter whether it was Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Málaga or Sevilla. We knew that we had made an entire country happy and brought all types of people, regardless of their economic or social status, out onto the streets to celebrate.
Almost everything that needs to be said about the World Cup has already been said. Where is the key to success for you?
In that this team is very stubborn and refused to change its ideas after losing against Switzerland. I’m still amazed with what was said about the game and the criticism. For me, it was the best game we played, along with the one against Germany.
Have you watched your penalty against Paraguay and the stops against Robben in the final many times?
Quite a few, to tell you the truth. I’ve already said that penalties are down to intuition, although that time Reina told me how he would take it and which side he preferred. As for Robben, it’s true that he really wanted to win, but luckily I had time to stick out my foot. As soon as I felt the contact with the ball, I knew that it wouldn’t be a goal.
Were you more frightened by Robben, or when Heitinga returned the ball and almost scored?
Ufff! I knew that Heitinga’s shot would go wide, but when it bounces, you have those moments of doubt. The real fright came with Robben’s attempts.
The photo of you receiving the Cup is hung up in houses, bars, offices…
It’s because it’s a great photo! Although we could do without Blatter (laughs). Seriously speaking, July 11 is the day of Spanish football.
Who do you love more, the Eurocopa or the World Cup?
(His hand moves to the Eurocopa). The World Cup is la leche, the one you’ve dreamed about and seen since you were a kid, the trophy you saw in the hands of the greatest players. But the Eurocopa has something special, it’s where everything started, what changed our history. Although it’s true that what Spain experienced after winning the World Cup surpassed that of the Eurocopa.
How much anger was there in the kiss you gave to Sara?
A lot, because they have been very unjust with her, mixing things that shouldn’t have been mixed, looking for morbo. I wasn’t as calm as I usually am, because there were a lot of emotions. I realized that in this country, there are many times when good manners are highlighted by their absence. But the good guys always win, both on the field and off.
Choose two moments from the celebration of the World Cup.
The first one is that we managed to convince Puyol to continue with us, because he had decided to retire from the national team after the World Cup. The other happened after the game ended. Xavi and I were sitting on the sign that read “congratulations” and I looked at him and I said to him, in a serious tone, “what’s left for us now, now that we’ve won everything?”
What’s the answer?
To continue to be excited to win more things. We can achieve it. We know that it’s possible for us to receive a thumping in the Eurocopa, but there’s the key, we know that now everyone wants to beat us, but we want to beat them too. We want to feel like champions again. I could have left the national team after winning the Eurocopa and the World Cup, but there is a strong enough team to dream about being the first ones to win the triplete (Eurocopa, World Cup, Eurocopa). If it weren’t like that, we wouldn’t be part of the national team anymore. You want more, and we have the ambition to continue winning.
What does the national team mean to you?
Ilusión. I’ve lived through many tough times as a fan and as a player, but you always see the team coming back after a failure, our hopes are reborn quickly and sometimes there is even an exaggerated optimism. We’ve always wanted the national team to go as far as possible.
Your 100th game came in the Calderón and the ovation you received was incredible.
The national team is not about el madridismo, el barcelonismo or any other colors.
Did you ever say, “I’m never going to win anything with Spain?”
I have thought that, yes.
Iniesta’s goal made you cry tears of joy. Have you ever cried due to anger or helplessness?
No. I’ve felt helpless, but I like to cry out of joy.
Sum up each coach you’ve had.
I have to thank Camacho for believing in me. Iñaki gave me continuity. Luis made me mature, and with him, I went from being a kid to a man. And with Vicente, everything has been easier and he’s seen that this Iker doesn’t have anything to do with the one he had in Madrid.
Pelé compared this Spain to the 1970 Brazil team.
Spain plays like the Spain of the 21st century. I never watched that Brazil. But it’s good because it was a historic team.
A mini test.
Choose a save. The one against Robben is talked about a lot. It’s between that one and the penalty against Cardozo.
A goalkeeper. Schmeichel.
A forward. Samuel Eto’o.
A stadium. San Mamés. I would like to play there with the national team.
Key moments and stats.
His first game: his debut came on June 3, 2000, in a friendly against Sweden in Goteborg. He came in as a substitute for José Molina in the 62nd minute.
His first goal: four minutes after he debuted with the Spanish national team, Iker received his first goal, as a result of a penalty that he committed. The penalty was scored by Thorbjor Nilsson in the 66th minute.
His first game as a starter: Iker’s first game as a starter came on Sept. 2, 2000, in a qualifier for the 2002 World Cup. It was a match between Spain and Bosnia. He allowed a goal from Balic but Spain won 2-1 behind goals from Gerard and Etxeberría.
His first World Cup game: on June 2, 2002, during the World Cup, Iker participated in Spain’s 3-1 victory over Slovenia. The Spanish line-up was as follows: Casillas, Puyol, Hierro, Juanfran, Nadal, Baraja, De Pedro, Valerón, Luis Enrique, Raúl and Diego Tristán.
His first Eurocopa game: on June 12, 2004, Iker made his Eurocopa debut against Russia, which ended in a 1-0 victory for La Roja, thanks to a goal from Valerón. Spain played Iker, Marchena, Albelda, Puyol, Raúl Bravo, Helguera, Raúl, Baraja, Morientes, Vicente and Etxeberría. Iker had been part of the 2000 Eurocopa squad but didn’t debut.
Game #100: Nov. 14, 2009. Iker arrived at his centennial in a friendly against Argentina, which Spain won 2-1 in the Calderón.
World Cup stats: he’s played 15 games, with a record of 11-2-2. Ten goals have been scored against him and his average is 0.66 goals per game. The first goal, by Sebastijan Cimirotic, came in the first round of the 2002 World Cup, and the last one was Chile’s Rodrigo Millar in the first round of the 2010 World Cup.
Eurocopa stats: he’s played nine games, with a record of 6-2-1. Five goals have been scored against him and his average is 0.55 goals per game. Angelos Charisteas scored the first goal.
Overall stats [up to the England game]: his win-tie-loss record stands at 92-21-13. He has received 75 goals, giving him an average of 0.60 goals per game.
Titles with the Spanish national team: one World Cup (2010) and one Eurocopa (2008).
José Luis Casillas on his son.
There’s also this adorable video of José Luis Casillas (who obviously passed on his profile to his son, who made it more perfect) speaking about Iker. I didn’t know that Iker once practiced karate, much less was a yellow belt, and I loved all the highlighted parts in the very detailed Iker scrapbook! I have to confess that some of the clippings in the scrapbook are also in my personal collection. I remember that photo of his bedroom, with the giant Swatch watch wall clock, very clearly, and that profile of him comes from the Real Madrid magazine celebrating the team winning La Octava.