As one of football’s most formidable goalkeepers, Iker Casillas can anticipate most things heading in his direction. But a team tribute on the eve of a record-equaling international appearance against England left the captain momentarily stunned on Friday.
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Casillas was flanked by coach Vicente del Bosque and midfielder Xavi Hernandez as a showreel of the saves that have helped turn Spain from football’s biggest underachievers into world and European champions was played in a London hotel ballroom.
”It was a lovely thought, a really nice touch,” Casillas said over the applause from his colleagues and the media. ”I’m a bit speechless … actions speak better than words.”
It is Casillas’ consistency and agility that will enable him to match retired goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta’s record 126 Spain appearances on Saturday.
Apart from Real Madrid’s Santiago Bernabeu Stadium, there are few venues more fitting for the 30-year-old Casillas to reach the milestone in than Wembley.
It was at the north London stadium 15 years ago that Casillas appeared in a Spain jersey for the first time for the under-15 side.
”I had only being playing in local youth leagues as a 14-year-old, to step out on hallowed turf was a great achievement,” the lifelong Real Madrid goalkeeper recalled through a translator Friday.
Much like Wembley Stadium itself, Spanish football has been completely transformed since that match against England – with Casillas at the vanguard during 11 years in the senior side.
Pinpointing his most important save is not hard for Casillas: denying Arjen Robben with an outstretched leg when the Netherlands winger came one-on-one with the goalkeeper during the 2010 World Cup final, which Spain won 1-0.
”It was such a decisive time in the game, but it turned the game in our favor,” Casillas said. ”It was not a pretty save, it was standard regulation save, but I’m very proud, of it. It is the one that sticks in my mind because it was such an important occasion.”
Spain is getting used to those kinds of occasions by now. That was not the case when Casillas was embarking on his international career.
”I have had some great moments with national side,” he said. ”But it is easy to turn a blind eye to what happens before the four years when we won two tournaments. You learn in adversity.”
Now the mission is avoiding complacency, having lost to Italy in an August friendly despite a perfect record in qualifying for the 2012 European Championship.
”We don’t like to be over-presumptuous about ourselves but we are playing at a high level and that is a fact … it is not ourselves saying that but experts and media,” Casillas said. ”A lot of the success is down to people behind the scenes at various levels, who have had faith in youth and kept the team together at various levels. But we mustn’t drop our guard or be over confident.”
It was a message echoed by Del Bosque ahead of the first friendly since qualifying for next year’s tournament in Poland and Ukraine.
”We are in a more difficult position than in 2008 – back then we were contenders,” said Del Bosque, who replaced Luis Aragones after Euro 2008. ”Now we go as holders. We go there with an even bigger responsibility.”
Del Bosque believes Spain’s recent success owes a lot to players like Xabi Alonso, Cesc Fabregas and Fernando Torres gaining match experience outside of Spain in the English Premier League.
”It’s been absolutely vital to have had such players (here),” Del Bosque said. ”It is one of the main factors that have helped us … to shed that complex we used to have about playing at international level.”
The English national team’s fortunes, though, haven’t improved since its domestic league was enhanced by the arrival of top international talent.
Spain’s success at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup has left England as one of world football’s biggest underachievers, having not won a major trophy since the 1966 World Cup on home soil.
And England coach Fabio Capello will be without many of his key players on Saturday. Midfielders Steven Gerrard and Jack Wilshere are out injured and Wayne Rooney has been dropped while Capello assesses other strikers who can fill in when the Manchester United forward is banned for the three Euro 2012 group stage matches.
Captain John Terry is also dropped to the bench – a decision Capello insists is not due to the police investigation into alleged racist abuse by the Chelsea defender.
”It is a risk, but not a lot,” Capello said. ”We respect all the teams but Spain’s style is different. Their ball possession is really good and when they lose it they press very quickly to win it back. This is why you need to play a good game and play with confidence.
”We have prepared well but we know it will be difficult.”