Iker Casillas's Real Madrid farewell paled in comparison to the grace and honor of Xavi's from Barcelona, writes Jonathan Wilson.
When Xavi left Barcelona, there were tears. When Iker Casillas left Real Madrid, there were also tears, but they were tears of a different kind.
For Xavi, the tears were of appreciation for what Barcelona had given him, a lament for the passing of time and the fading of the light that had made his departure inevitable. Casillas, it seemed, was weeping tears of frustration and anger over an exit that seemed unnecessarily brutal. Not for him a sinecure in Qatar to run down his career; the transfer to Porto suggests he feels he still has a lot to give.
Lives that had run oddly parallel have diverged at last.
Perhaps that was always going to happen. Casillas is 16 months younger than Xavi. Goalkeepers go on to play longer than midfielders. Perhaps there was always going to be a four- or five-year period at the end of their careers when Casillas was still striving for major titles and Xavi was gone from Spain. But the difference in the manner of their exits–these two players who have embodied, whose friendship underpinned the golden age of Spanish football–is striking.
Whereas Xavi was seen off by his teammates at the end of last season, Casillas left on Sunday–five years to the day after winning the World Cup–with a lonely press conference, the rest of the Real Madrid squad on its way to Australia for a pre-season tour. He had been supposed to leave on Friday, but late wrangling over the dissolution of the contract delayed it.
He left again on Monday, before a crowd of 2,000 fans on a platform on which the trophies he won in 17 years at the club–five leagues, three Champions Leagues, two Copas del Rey–were displayed (and there were also, of course, two Euros and a World Cup at national level). It was hardly an emotional farewell, though; rather a self-justificatory press conference from president Florentino Perez, who was heckled by the fans.
"I look at Iker and I have the feeling that lately he is playing under pressure, as if he has to prove what a great keeper he is in every match, without the joy he always had," Xavi told La Vanguardia. “In recent years I have seen that he is not enjoying himself like before. He even seems bitter, and I think everyone in this country should think about this. It cannot be that people neglect to value everything they have done for their sport and instead focus on their defects, sometimes with malicious intent."
Perhaps the issue is in the relative personalities of Xavi and Casillas. Xavi seemed to accept with relative equanimity that his powers were fading and that last season would be one in which his main role was to support Ivan Rakitic. Casillas, though, despite a bout of poor form that has lasted well over a year, seems determined to fight on.
When Raul left in 2012, it was Casillas who became the dominant presence in the Madrid locker room and, in a world as political as the Bernabeu, that is a significant role. Even before the publication of Diego Torres’s book about Jose Mourinho, it was a fairly open secret that Casillas had been the leader of the internal opposition against him–which was, of course, what prompted Casillas’s relegation to a substitute role behind Diego Lopez toward the end of 2012-13.
Did Mourinho diagnose Casillas’s decline? Did he induce it?
It may be that the decision to offload Casillas and the wrangling over the future of Sergio Ramos–another key locker-room figure–was rooted in a desire on the part of the club to diminish the potential locker-room dissenters. Casillas’s mother openly blamed Perez, saying he had “orchestrated” a “campaign” against her son.
And of course there is the distant niggle about the game behind the game. Jorge Mendes is the agent of David De Gea and is negotiating to secure his move to Real Madrid from Manchester United. If De Gea is to sign, Casillas would have to be moved. Mendes has a good relationship with Porto. Just as you can’t help but wonder whether Chelsea would have taken a punt on loaning Radamel Falcao had it not been that Mendes represents both the forward and Jose Mourinho, it would be unrealistic not to acknowledge that Casillas’s move to Porto benefits Mendes and his interests.
That’s not to say anything illegal or even immoral is going on. A lot of deals in a lot of businesses are done in this way (“Yes, we’d love to buy X but, first we have to sell Y.” “OK, let me call Z and see if he might be interested”). But at the same time there’s something disturbing about individuals having so much influence.
Yet for all that, and for all the doubts about the extent to which Casillas may be to a degree responsible for the club’s lack of warmth, this feels more about Madrid and Perez. The endless politicking, the endless demand to be seen as the biggest in the world by breaking transfer records, gives the club a corporate feel: there’s something cold about it.
Nobody, it seems, can ever leave Madrid on good terms.
Football may now, more than ever before, be a business, but that shouldn’t mean there is no room for humanity. Casillas will be remembered as one of the greatest goalkeepers Real Madrid has ever had; the future will judge the anti-climactic nature of his farewell very strangely.