It’s hard to know when to call it a day as a footballer. When I announced my retirement from international football earlier this year, Luis Suarez called me.
“It’s a pity you’ll play no more,” said my good friend. “We had some good times together. But tell me one thing. How did you know it was the right time to stop?”
I couldn’t answer immediately because the answer wasn’t obvious. Luis persisted. He wanted to know.
“You always think that you can play on but there are little signs which creep up on you,” I replied. “Little details which used to come easily but become harder. It can be a mental or a physical thing. But it’s not just about you. There are other players who may deserve a chance more than you. You’re inclined to be selfish and put yourself first, but you need to be open-minded.”
It sounds confusing, but there’s no clear-cut way of ending your career, or leaving to go to a smaller club, no definite date when you leave and everyone agrees it’s the right time.
I thought about it this week when I saw Iker Casillas announce he was leaving Real Madrid, a great club. I have huge respect for Porto, another great club who consistently challenge for titles. They identify players, develop them and then sell them on for a profit, but let’s not pretend they’re Real Madrid, one of the biggest clubs in the world. It’s a step down for Casillas, just as Robin van Persie leaving Manchester United for Fenerbahce is also a step down.
Xavi said that Casillas wasn’t treated well by people in Spain and his club. I can see his point, but Xavi’s departure from Barcelona last month wasn’t a normal experience. Most players don’t leave a club having just won the treble. Xavi was rightfully celebrated for his years of service to the club as both man and boy, winning an unprecedented haul of trophies, and was given a wonderful send off before he embarks on a new career in Qatar. But what would have been the reaction for Xavi had he left the previous year when Barca won nothing? It wouldn’t have been the happy exit it was this time. Casillas could have left Madrid a year ago, and walked out as a European champion.
Football doesn’t do sentiment well; it’s a cruel profession. Your body tells you things you don’t want to hear. It’s nature and hard to fight against it.
Players, coaches, presidents and fans will often see the same situation differently. It’s not easy for a coach to deal with a player who is in slow decline. Sometimes the coach makes the tough decision. Sometimes it’s the president. Sometimes they get it wrong.
Madrid could have treated Casillas better. They could have protected him from attacks in the media and from his own fans. But they didn’t. They left him alone, to fend off criticism. Were they building a case against him, to soften the blow of him leaving?
I played against Casillas many times. He was the best goalkeeper in the world when I played in Spain. There’s no higher accolade that I can give him. Just being the best in Spain, a country of great goalkeepers, would be a tribute. He was a world champion in South Africa in 2010, saving key shots from Arjen Robben in the finals. He won everything.
In one derby against him at the Vicente Calderon, my Atletico Madrid teammate Sergio Aguero played well, but he couldn’t score. We had shot after shot but Casillas saved them all. Nothing could get past him that day.
Casillas was vital to Madrid. No sooner was he saving a one-on-one, he was starting off a counter attack. It’s not easy being a ‘keeper at the biggest clubs; people are always paying attention to any mistakes, but Casillas had the perfect temperament throughout his career. I met him off the field, too. He’s a good guy, but his situation is difficult.
Casillas deserves to be a No 1, playing every week, but Madrid want the No 1 in the world. That looks like it’s going to be my old Atletico teammate David de Gea. They had the No 1 in Casillas and now they want the next “No 1”, who happens to come from Madrid. It’s similar to Chelsea, who had a brilliant ‘keeper in Petr Cech but wanted Thibaut Courtois, the outstanding young Belgian stopper. Can they be blamed for planning for the future? No.
So how do you oust a legend like Casillas? It’s a tough decision but Madrid need to make them to stay the best, like they did when they let Raul go. Throw a player’s pride, money and ego into the mix and it becomes very difficult.
The legends don’t want special treatment, but they deserve to be handled correctly for everything they’ve done for their clubs over the years. At the very least, they deserve honesty. The problem is that the truth isn’t always told by all parties.
When Atletico wanted to sell me, I was told that I earned too much money and they wanted me off the wage bill. I liked that honesty. Did I rush out and find a new club? No. I had a contract; I was relaxed, not angry. More relaxed than Atletico. They treated me well most of the time, but they could have made things difficult, put the press against me or let me train alone. It wasn’t so bad and, eventually, Inter Milan came in for me.
Casillas and Van Persie will get over the nature of their departures. They have football to concentrate on again. Their departures weren’t ideal, but are they ever?
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