Spain's 126-cap keeper Casillas still looks to the future

 

Asked to cast his mind back over 10 years and 125 caps for his country, the man they call Saint Iker was quick to thank those who helped him adjust when he was first selected to play for Spain. "Fernando Hierro, Raul, Luis Enrique, Pep Guardiola, Fernando Morientes," said Iker Casillas, the Spanish captain. "It is important not to turn a blind eye to what happened before the last four years."

It is that seriousness, that preternatural maturity, which means that at Wembley this evening, the Real Madrid goalkeeper will earn his 126th cap, equalling Andoni Zubizarreta's record. Casillas is just 30. It isentirely likely he will win his 200th cap in around 2015. More than any other player, his career will span the remarkable transformation in Spanish football.

The team he joined, like the team he leads, was packed with remarkable players, with richly talented, enormously successful stars, champions of Europe with Real Madrid, champions of Spain with Barcelona or Valencia. It was not, though, a team which ever dreamed of lifting the World Cup, of attempting to retain the European Championship, of travelling to Wembley expecting to dismantle England with a balletic, savage grace.

"Success before was to reach the quarter-finals of a tournament," said Xavi, the Barcelona midfielder who has accompanied Casillas throughout his career as club rival and national cohort. "Now it is to win them."

It is a complete turnaround for a nation which, according to manager Vicente del Bosque, once suffered a "complex" about playing at international level.

"You learn in adversity," said Casillas, presented with a video montage of his international career, to the tune of Radiohead's "Street Spirit", during Spain's press conference yesterday.

"I have had some great moments with the national team, but it is easy to forget what happened before winning two tournaments. I have a lot of hope for the future. I hope we can achieve a lot with this squad and build on the achievements we have had in the last four years.

"But we do not like to be over-presumptuous. We are playing at a high level, that is self-evident, and a lot of that success is down to people at various levels who have had faith in youth and kept the team together. But we must not drop our guard or be over-confident. Now we have a lot more pressure."

That starts this evening, against England, at the ground where Casillas made his debut for his first national team, the under-15s. Captain, manager and playmaker are all adamant that Fabio Capello's side are not as weak as they are portraying themselves to be, whether John Terry and Wayne Rooney are present or not.

"I think maybe there is a false modesty about England," said Del Bosque. "Whichever team Capello puts out will be skilful, powerful and physically strong. It will be a huge challenge playing against a fine opponent. Spain are enjoying a good moment in football but the difference with England is not that large."

The World Cup trophy, and its European Championship equivalent, both currently in Spanish possession, beg to differ. Indeed, it is easy to think Spain's primary obstacle this evening will be the complacency attendant with knowing their legacy is secured.

"Absolutely, the hunger is still there," said Xavi. "It is the highest aim of any player to represent his country. It gives me great pride to be called up, even now. It is getting harder and harder to get here [with so many players emerging in Spain]. That is what is keeping us going. We are now in an enjoyable period, having success that was unimaginable before."

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