James Lawton: Spanish can always have faith in miracle saves of 'Saint' Iker Casillas

However badly things are going for the country, football has been an oasis

Kiev

There will be no shortage of heroes here on Sunday night if Spain achieves what it believes, almost religiously, is its historic destiny to win this European Championship – and gain 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 from Castille 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 leading candidate. The coach, Vicente del Bosque has his own claims. He may at times resemble a somewhat crumpled science master but if Spain win here he will have a unique set of honours.

Elevated to the rank of Marques after winning the World Cup in South Africa 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 – who note that the margins of Spanish glory have never been quite as fine as we have seen here these last few weeks – 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, trade-marked reflex save against Croatia.

Defeat, a possibility that was only extinguished in the 88th minute by a goal from substitute 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 his unmarked team-mate Ivan Rakitic just six yards out. Casillas dived to his right and pushed the header away. There was a similar sensation of relief running all the way the from the Basque Country to the Costa del Sol on Wednesday night when Casillas made the right decision and 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 night, how it would provide a welcome diversion from the nation's wider concerns. He spoke about the narrow line between winning and losing, a subject into which he was dramatically 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 and potential earnings approaching a million pesetas, but it's not for his understated 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 equivalent of the Red Baron. He 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 strangling web of La Roja passing.

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

Extraordinarily, Casillas, who has spent his football life in the shadow of the great Bernabeu stadium of Real Madrid, has been in a state of refined, hair-trigger readiness for 12 years now.

He won a Champions League medal at 19 when Real beat Valencia in 2000. It was 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. If Spain had won this week without the need for a shootout he would have been the first player to triumph in regular fashion in 100 international games.

We could go on like this for quite some time, which is what the football aficionados frequently do in the bars of Madrid's Puerto del Sol. They drink a little Carlos Primero brandy and 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 when she interviewed him in Johannesburg when Spain won the World Cup.

Casillas quite solemnly announced that he was beyond diversion anywhere near a football pitch and was as good as his word when twice stopping Arjen Robben after the Dutchman had run clear of the last defender in the final.

His work has been astonishingly consistent down the years. At the 2002 World Cup he made a save against South Korea rated among the top 10 in football history and his admirers include Gordon Banks, whose stop against Pele is likely to be lodged in that exalted company for as long as the game is played.

Banks said: "Casillas's reflexes are simply incredible. If he continues to play in this way he will prove himself one of the greatest goalkeepers of all time." The landmarks supporting the prediction are plentiful enough.

In 2008 he became the first goalkeeper-captain to lift the European title – after making shoot-out saves against Italy's Antonio Di Natale and Daniele De Rossi in the quarter-final in Vienna – and two years later in South Africa he became only the third to receive the World Cup, joining the great Italian Dino Zoff (1982) and his compatriot Gianpiero Combi (1934)

Now Casillas talks of the heritage he and his team-mates can bequeath to the nation on Sunday night. "When I was a boy I was overjoyed when Spain won the Olympic gold in 1992 and now I like to think we have brought the same pleasure and excitement to a new generation. 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."

"What we have had these last few years has been a source of joy and we are happy and excited about that and we want our people to make the most of it because, you know, it would be very difficult to repeat."

Maybe some of this was going through the mind of the great goalkeeper when he made his remarkable save last week – and when he read so well the intentions of Moutinho in the semi-final.

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.

 

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