Iker Casillas interview: Real Madrid legend makes peace with 'scary' end to stellar career and looks ahead to life after football

World Cup-winning Spain goalkeeper also offers his thoughts on the 'unfair criticism' aimed at Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo's longevity

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Through, thankfully, what he describes as the “hard episode” that forced the end of a truly glittering playing career, Iker Casillas is looking forward.

One of the most decorated goalkeepers in history, for some time recognised as the best, the former Real Madrid man is happy and healthy, his recent ordeal seemingly confined to the past.

In April last year, while representing Porto, Casillas suffered a heart attack during training and spent five days in hospital. A professional athlete for more than two decades, he was only 37.

Fortunately, 20 months on, he both looks and sounds good.

"I'm feeling great, very well" Casillas smiles, speaking to The National from his base in Madrid. "The first couple of months it was a bit difficult; I was a bit scared. But after three or four months of seeing that I was fine, that I was getting better and I was able to start doing some exercise again, I feel OK with it.

“I think having played sports at such a high level professionally for such a long time also helped me recover quicker.”

The rehabilitation included a remarkably swift return to Porto, when a couple of months later Casillas joined the coaching staff. He eventually announced his retirement this August, closing a career that spanned 725 appearances for Madrid, 156 for Porto and 167 for Spain – the latter second only to Sergio Ramos. He is a World Cup winner and twice lifted the European Championships trophy, all as captain.

Understandably, though, the decision to retire - taken out of his hands - was initially tough to take.

“At first I was a bit sad because obviously stopping playing football at the time was very hard,” Casillas says. “So it takes a bit of adaptation trying to redefine where to find yourself in life and what to do next.

“But what we need to keep in mind is that the most important thing is to look after our health. I had the misfortune of going through a hard episode with my health, but eventually thankfully everything went well.

"So right now I’m just trying to enjoy what I’m doing and enjoy life, living accordingly of course and trying to keep my health at its optimum. It’s true that I was in a way forced to retire at a young age, 38 or 39 years old. And the truth is that I enjoyed football for a long time and obviously it is hard to finish your career, particularly when you’re not the one deciding the terms it's going to end in.

“But over the last few years when I was playing I was thinking what I could do next and what to do when my footballing career finished. So in a way I don’t think it was as bad as perhaps I thought it could’ve been.”

I had the misfortune of going through a hard episode with my health, but eventually thankfully everything went well

What comes next includes work with his foundation and “another project I have in my head”. Also, Casillas had intended to run for presidency of the Spanish Football Federation earlier this year, but withdrew once his country became gripped by the pandemic.

As to what could be ahead, a return to Madrid in a non-playing capacity has obvious potential. Casillas grew up there, at the club during his formative years before his first-team debut, aged 18, through the “Galacticos” era and trophy-laden years.

By the time he left, in 2015, he had won three Uefa Champions League titles - the Spaniard remains the youngest goalkeeper to contest the final, the 1999/2000 showpiece arriving four days after his 19th birthday - five La Liga crowns and the Copa Del Rey twice.

There was numerous other silverware; records, too. Still, Casillas possesses the most appearances in the Champions League, at 177.

It’s no surprise, then, that an advisory position at Madrid to Florentino Perez, the club president, has been mooted. Irrespective of the role, patently Casillas would bring with him a wealth of experience.

“Obviously this is something that would be really good,” he says about the possibility of working once more at Madrid, in any capacity. “I have a very long history with Real Madrid, about 25 years, when I started as a very young child only nine years old and up until I was 34. So clearly I have great feelings towards the club.

MADRID, SPAIN - MAY 13:  Iker Casillas of Real Madrid CF holds up the La Liga trophy as he celebrates with team-mates after the La Liga match between Real Madrid CF and RCD Mallorca at Estadio Santiago Bernabeu on May 13, 2012 in Madrid, Spain. (Photo by Angel Martinez/Real Madrid via Getty Images)
Iker Casillas lifts the Primera Liga trophy in May 2012 in Madrid, Spain. He won five La Liga titles, three Champions League crowns, and two Copa del Reys with Real Madrid. Getty Images

"Of course, I wouldn’t rule out this possibility, particularly being from Madrid and living here. That’s something that I would particularly enjoy in time.

“I think that in the short-term, sooner rather than later, I will again be working in something related to football. I’m still not sure exactly on what or when, but that is what’s in the future.”

Even without Casillas involved, Madrid’s immediate future has begun to look bright after a difficult start to the season. Impressive victories have been secured against Sevilla, Borussia Monchengladbach, Atletico Madrid and Athletic Bilbao, breathing life back into the La Liga title race and rescuing progression to the Champions League knockouts.

Sunday's 2-0 victory against Atletico - their first defeat in 26 matches and inflicted by their cross-city rivals - brought Madrid to within three points of the summit. Wednesday's 3-1 win against Athletic keeps them third, but now level on points with Atletico and Real Sociedad at the top.

“They had some very positive results over the past few weeks, both in Champions League and in La Liga, which I think gives a very good stability,” says Casillas, who describes Madrid's next opponents in the Europe, Atalanta, as "dangerous".

The criticism Zidane has been receiving has been unfair because he's been a very good coach and he's earned his right to lose

“In fairness, stability is a constant for Real Madrid. They’re doing well and it’s good for the competitiveness of the season. They should keep at this level until March, which is really when everything starts to get decided. They are where they need to be.”

For Casillas, Zinedine Zidane is where Madrid need him to be, also. The Frenchman’s second stint as manager was said to be under threat not long ago, after losses to Cadiz, Alaves, Valencia and Shakhtar Donetsk (twice). Zidane, though, did simply what he always seems to do: maintained his cool and carried on. After all, it’s an approach that makes him, even at 48, the most successful manager in European Cup history.

Asked if the recent criticism of his old colleague and his team has been fair, Casillas says: “Let’s start from the point that Real Madrid is always a target for criticism. Right now, this is a bit out of place because it’s not a catastrophe; it’s not until May that competitions are decided.

“The criticism Zidane has been receiving has also been unfair because he’s been a very good coach and he’s earned his right to lose. He’s won three Champions Leagues, two leagues in Spain and he’s doing a great job. So I don’t think we can demand a lot more from him.

“He’s giving that continuity that's really important for the team. And we cannot forget that, while Real Madrid is a club that has many big names - Ramos, [Luka] Modric, [Toni] Kroos, [Karim] Benzema - it has a very young pool of players that also need to find their place and come through.”

Knowing Zidane - they shared the Bernabeu dressing room from 2001-2006 - Casillas is in little doubt his fellow World Cup winner can maintain success at Madrid. He always thought Zidane would thrive.

Spain's Iker Casillas lifts up the trophy after defeating Italy to win the Euro 2012 final soccer match at the Olympic stadium in Kiev, July 1, 2012.      REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach (UKRAINE  - Tags: SPORT SOCCER TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY)
Iker Casillas won the 2010 World Cup and the 2008 and 2012 European Championships with Spain. Reuters

“The reason is his style is very suited to the intensity of the situation,” Casillas says. “Also, he is able to surround himself with the right staff. And besides that, given his career as a football player himself, he can read and understand the life of the players, and realises the mentality that going from competition and from game-to-game requires.

“He has won many titles; he has lived through it all, both personally as a player and as part of a team. He’s been able to take this experience onto the pitch as a coach as well.

“Other than that, besides a coach, he’s also a great manager, because it’s a very difficult skill to be able to manage a club and a team.”

A genuine Madrid great, Casillas understands the pressure and the politics, the need to perform as football's lead club. He has competed alongside some of the finest players in history, Zidane included. Both Ronaldos, as well.

Casillas marvels at Cristiano Ronaldo's longevity, the Portuguese departing Madrid with more goals there than anyone ever had and then transitioning seamlessly to Juventus. When earlier this month Ronaldo reached 750 career goals, Casillas joked on the forward's Instagram, "Only 750? I'm sure you can do better".

It's basically down to his professionalism and ambition; that has taken him to the top of the footballing world

Having witnessed Ronaldo’s work ethic close hand – “after every game for two or three hours he would stay behind with the physiotherapist” – he isn't surprised that he's sustained at the summit.

“I could have easily imagined that,” Casillas says. “Obviously he’s a good professional, he looks after himself, eats well, gives the necessary importance to rest also. So this is just a result of being what a footballer is. Other than that, he’s also a great athlete.

“The reason is he’s always hungry and always wanting to improve and better himself. Perhaps also his small rivalry with [Lionel] Messi has helped him better himself. But it’s basically down to his professionalism and ambition; that has taken him to the top of the footballing world.”

As for how much longer Ronaldo can keep going at the apex, Casillas says: “I hope he can continue to play for a very long time. But, of course, football and its nature is what it is. We all know that everything must come to an end and time does go by for everyone. Hopefully we will be able to still enjoy his football for a long time, but it’s difficult to say.”

Casillas is acutely aware of how quickly it can come and go. After a taxing 2019 personally, and the testing 2020 globally, he looks to next year with optimism.

“I think what’s coming in 2021 is that hopefully they will be able to find a vaccine for this situation and we’ll all be able to go back to normal and how things were before,” he says.

“If we can take anything out of this year and the whole situation, it's a lesson for all of us to improve ourselves mentally. And hopefully it would have made us more aware of the fact that we can all help people. That is something that is always needed.”

Iker Casillas was nominated for Player of the Century at the upcoming Dubai Globe Soccer Awards, which take place in conjunction with the Dubai International Sports Conference at Armani Hotel on December 27. The awards are held in partnership with the Dubai Sports Council.