James Lawton: Spain can always trust in miracle saves of 'Saint Iker'


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The Independent Online

There will be no shortage of heroes here on Sunday if Spain achieve an unprecedented third straight major title. But if it happens, who will be the first among equals?

Many would say the prize should go to Andres Iniesta, the little man who has been at the heart of La Roja in the years of glory, intense and quite surgical in his ambition. His midfield partner Xavi Hernandez, though looking a little jaded right now, is another candidate. The coach, Vicente del Bosque, has his own claims. Elevated to the rank of Marques after winning the World Cup two years ago, victory here would give him a stunning treble when you include his Champions League triumph with Real Madrid.

Yet some extremely hard judges look beyond these distinguished candidates. They go for Iker Casillas, the 31-year-old goalkeeper-captain who 11 days ago in Gdansk kept the Spanish challenge alive with a remarkable, trademarked reflex save against Croatia.

Defeat, a possibility that was only extinguished in the 88th minute by a goal from Jesus Navas, would have brought down the Spanish dynasty. It was a growing possibility when Luka Modric floated an exquisite deep cross to the head of Ivan Rakitic just six yards out. Casillas dived to his right and pushed the header away. There was a similar sensation of relief on Wednesday night when Casillas saved the shoot-out kick of Portugal's Joao Moutinho – and brought Spain back to life after the opening miss by Xabi Alonso.

Yesterday, Casillas was talking philosophically about the meaning of another Spanish triumph on Sunday, how it would provide a welcome diversion from the nation's wider concerns. He spoke of the narrow line between winning and losing, a subject into which he was immersed as a young boy in Madrid when he forgot to post his father's football pools form, an entry which is said to have contained 14 winning picks, but it's not for his grasp of life's incongruities that he is so revered in Spain.

It is the knowledge that if his team is currently involved in quite a bit of flying by the seat of its pants, Casillas is the man to whom the nation turns when opponents like the ferociously committed Croats or a Cristiano Ronaldo-inspired Portugal, find a way through the web of La Roja passing.

"I don't get so much work," Casillas says, "but when it comes I have to be ready."

Casillas has been in a state of hair-trigger readiness for 12 years now. He won a Champions League medal at 19 when Real Madrid beat Valencia in 2000, the same year he was first capped by Spain. By the age of 27, he had won more caps than any Spanish rival and now he has 136.

We could go on like this for some time, as they frequently do in the bars of Madrid's Puerto del Sol as they discuss the miracle saves of the No 1 goalkeeper. So miraculous are some of them considered, Casillas long ago acquired the nickname "Saint". Such a title did not sit quite so easily with the passionate embrace he gave his model girlfriend, and sometime TV reporter, Sara Carbonera (left) when she interviewed him in Johannesburg when Spain won the World Cup.

Now Casillas talks of the heritage he and his team can bequeath to the nation on Sunday. "It's strange how things happen in life sometimes. However badly things are going for the country in terms of the [financial] crisis, football has been a kind of oasis that has allowed people to forget the problems a little bit."

Maybe some of this was going through his mind when he made his remarkable save last week. In the Puerto del Sol, though, they probably just called for the Carlos Primero and drank to the latest miracles from the hands of Saint Iker.