Iker Casillas, the most decorated goalkeeper of his generation, will count his blessings before he thinks about whether a career counting trophies has ended.
Casillas suffered a heart attack during practice for his club, Porto, on Wednesday. He is in a good state of recovery but has been advised to prepare for the possibility he will not play professionally again.
Casillas, who turns 38 later this month, had been in training for the weekend’s meeting with Aves, the first of three remaining opportunities for Porto to eke out an advantage in the tight joust for the league title with Benfica, who top the table with a two-point lead. He felt a sudden pain to his chest, and some numbness. Rushed to a local hospital, he was diagnosed with acute myocardial infarction, stents applied to his arteries.
He was lucky, he was told, the incident took place with Porto’s medical staff immediately on hand. The professional game has advanced protocols for such emergencies following a series of high-profile cases of cardiac arrest in apparently young, fit footballers.
Casillas acknowledged “it was a big shock”. He will certainly be out of action for the rest of this season and specialists doubt his chances of returning to top-level sport.
If so, some of his targets will need to be shelved. Casillas in March signed a new one-year contract with Porto with an option to extend to 2021. “I want to play until I am 40 and finish my career here,” he said, confirming that his move to Porto in 2015 had turned into something more than the brief swansong many anticipated when he left the club, Real Madrid, he had come to symbolise.
It has been a spectacular career, and in Casillas’ understated way, a defiant one. He maintained his status as arguably the world’s best goalkeeper for over a decade - the ‘arguably’ centred around ‘Casillas or Gianluigi Buffon?’ debates, the gloveman’s version of ‘Messi or Ronaldo?’ - in an era when to measure only 1.85m in height, as Casillas does, would be grounds for being discarded as a would-be keeper by many talent-scouts.
What Casillas lacked in inches, he had in agility and superhuman reflexes. They were exceptional enough in Madrid’s youth divisions that when two of the club’s senior goalkeepers suffered injury in November 1997, a call was made to Casillas’s school to pluck the kid out of class to travel to Norway, as cover for a Champions League fixture. He was 16. A 22-year romance with the European Cup had begun.
Not all of it was easy. Casillas was on the winning side four days after his 19th birthday in the Champions League final of 2000. But by two years later, he had slipped down the hierarchy. He started In the 2002 final against Bayer Leverkusen on the bench, and came on because of an injury to perform heroically in preserving Madrid’s 2-1 lead.
It was a defining month of a career that would eventually bring him at least one triumph in every major competition he contested for Madrid and Spain. A few weeks after his second Champions League gold, Spain’s Mo 1 keeper Santi Canizares injured a foot in a random bathroom accident; it meant Casillas was promoted to first-choice at the 2002 World Cup.
From there, no looking back. Casillas became Madrid’s uncommonly tranquil homegrown hero in team of so-called ‘galacticos’, glamorous recruits like Zinedine Zidane, Brazil’s Ronaldo, David Beckham and Luis Figo. Their Madrid prioritised attacking excellence over defensive solidity. Casillas’s split-second athleticism time and again made up for the shortcomings.
Though he has never been a loudmouth, he emerged as a formidable leader. He is Spain’s most successful captain, having lifted two European championships and his country’s only World Cup, in 2010, for which he will forever be thanked for the resourceful, quick-witted save with a stretched-out leg that prevented the Netherlands taking the lead in a tense, 120-minute final.
In 2014, Casillas captained Madrid to the club’s historic 10th European Cup, bailed out, that night, by his teammates after an error contributed to Atletico Madrid’s first-half lead. He was at the time coming out of his toughest period at Real, dropped the previous year by then manager Jose Mourinho.
An exit beckoned. Porto offered it it and although there was a phase of 2017-18 when he briefly lost his hold on first-choice status, the last 12 months has been the story of a real renaissance.
If Casillas is obliged to say farewell, he will know his body gave the instruction while his hands were still reliable, his legend unmatched.