Real Madrid handily beat Barcelona this weekend, with adulation bestowed upon many of the individual victors for their performance. Isco proved his grit and talent in fighting for a spot on a team lousy with great attacking midfielders and excelling when given the chance. James Rodríguez showed why he was made the newest Galáctico, and maybe that Florentino Pérez isn’t as dumb as we thought, by playing the most complete game of his young Madrid career. Cristiano Ronaldo added to his already stunning goal tally this season, and now gets to preen a little more confidently having shown up his rival, Lionel Messi, on the biggest stage.
One player who hasn’t received much of that praise is Madrid’s club captain and legend Iker Casillas. He’s at an interesting stage of his career now, like an offensive lineman in that if his name pops up anywhere in the first paragraph of a match recap, you can be pretty sure it’s due to one of his botches, which have been curiously recurrent of late. This must be hard on the admittedly struggling keeper, given that his shaky form over the past couple years isn’t entirely his fault.
As amazing as it might be to believe of a player whose trophy case is as cramped as his—there are the five La Liga titles, three European Cups, two Copa del Reys, five consecutive IFFHS World’s Best Goalkeeper awards, and the two Euro Championships and one World Cup he won at the international level—Casillas’s problems are a matter of confidence. That confidence was eroded by the manager of the club he’s spent his entire career with, the one whose philosophical ethos has never been more perfectly embodied than by the man they call San (Saint) Iker. He has not won it back.
In the most direct sense, the fault for the relationship between Iker and said manager, José Mourinho, breaking down belongs to a misunderstanding of one particularly pivotal event in the history of the Real Madrid-Barcelona rivalry. But from a broader view, it’s yet another instance of that modern problem any club striving to be something more than a collection of players—something with ideals, something that means something—must face when the baser desires for wins and money threaten to override higher-minded values.
This is an era when Barcelona ostensibly profess to abide by their “més que un club” motto—a phrase once referring to the club’s status as a decidedly Catalan institution in a hostile Spain—while simultaneously dealing with a number of high-profile scandals like breaking FIFA regulations in the purchasing of young players; being investigated (and having the club president resign) for tax fraud in relation to shadowy payments made in the Neymar purchase; the embracing of commercialism (namely with their connections to Qatar) when for so long they prided themselves as a club apart from the rest of the world’s money-grubbing; and signing the much reviled Luis Suárez. This is an era when Manchester City and Chelsea, fueled by the limitless coffers of their multi-billionaire owners, have assembled two of Europe’s deepest and most talent-rich squads, while rivals like Manchester United and Arsenal try to find new avenues of capital injection to compete without rejecting their dedication to fostering local young talent. In this era, we shouldn’t be surprised when Real Madrid—a club purportedly of noblemen who batter opponents on the pitch then praise their fighting spirit in the press conference after—support a coach who slowly but surely dissolves the self-esteem of the archetypical Madridista simply because that coach has a great record in the Champions League. The specifics of this particular détente go back pretty far, but the environment that created it goes back even further.
The Madridista meets Mourinho
We’ll start at the summer of 2010, when José Mourinho, coming off a treble-winning season in Italy with Inter, became manager of Real Madrid. He inherited a very strong yet underachieving Real Madrid roster that had, that summer, just recently added Cristiano Ronaldo, then the most expensive transfer of all time and already showing that he was worth it; Ángel Di María, a real life, human perpetual motion machine; and Kaká, Brazil’s crown jewel and the best attacking midfielder on the planet. On top of this fresh core, the new manager added an old stalwart of his in Ricardo Carvalho and young World Cup phenom Mesut Özil. Out with long-time Madridistas Raúl and Guti, in with new blood.
The one constant that survived this restoration project was Madrid lifer Iker Casillas. The madrileño goalkeeper joined the club’s youth ranks as a 9-year-old and flew right up the development chain. He made his first-team debut at the age of 17, was named the starter at 18, and won his first European Cup at 19. By the time Mourinho came along, Casillas had already won La Liga four times, was a two-time Champions League winner, and was fresh off of captaining the Spanish national team to their first-ever World Cup victory. The keeper was well-trophied, well-respected—he was then what Manuel Neuer is now, hands-down the best keeper in the world—well-loved by fans, and well-established as the heart and soul of Real Madrid.
In this environment, Mourinho was supposed to turn these raw materials into a team that would overthrow what was then the Barcelona hegemony. From the outset, though, it was evident that Mourinho and Real weren’t natural partners. His demanding managerial techniques, coupled with his unfamiliar control of the club’s personnel—traditionally, club president Florentino Pérez is the man who picks the players and tasks the manager with winning with them, the coach’s preferences be damned, while Mourinho was afforded much more power over these things, at least at first—caused friction from the outset.
Marcelo, Mourinho, and Casillas during a training session in September of 2010. Photo by Paul White/AP
Early reports of the budding Mourinho-Casillas beef recall the keeper bristling at superagent Jorge Mendes’s constant presence at practice and the growing power of the Mendes faction of players. (If Pérez is the architect of Real’s roster, Mendes has become the near-exclusive supplier of material.) Mourinho, Ronaldo, Pepe, Carvalho, and Di María were all Mendes clients and would reportedly huddle up together after practices. When walking by this power circle, the rest of the players were supposed to nod or wave in acknowledgement. Instead, Casillas gave the new power players a wide berth and would ignore them on his way back to the dressing room.
That was only one of a number of little dust-ups that would eventually turn into a full-blown tornado. Casillas wasn’t a fan of Mourinho’s pragmatic, defensive style of play. This was at the height of tiki-taka reverence, when the Barcelona/Spain style of possession, short-passing, attacking soccer was hailed as the realization of everything the beautiful game was supposed to be about. At club level, Iker saw Real’s biggest rivals employ the philosophy while winning as many trophies as plaudits. Internationally, he was a cog in a tiki-taka machine that had just won the World Cup after the Euro Championship success two years prior. Mourinho’s strategy of compact defense and quick countering against most sides,and full-on parking of the bus against Barcelona was seen as a capitulation to Barça’s superiority, when the more noble path would’ve seen Real fight the Catalans at their own game. In meetings and in practice, Casillas and some of the others made their dissatisfaction known.
Mourinho was shocked by the audacity of his players—especially his captain—in questioning his strategy. Even though the manager’s tenure as Chelsea boss didn’t end with the glory he would’ve liked, he was still every bit of the “Special One” and was treated so by most people in the sport. On top of that, he was fresh off a European Cup-winning year with Inter, which included a semifinal win over Barcelona. The result solidified his reputation as the one man capable of beating the mighty Barça.
After a cool initial period with Casillas not exactly buying into Mourinho’s style and the new power structure that no longer included his compatriots Raúl and Guti, Pérez asked the new captain to back Mourinho sometime in February of 2011. Pérez was looking for more stability at the management position—Real had nine different coaches in the six seasons between Vicente del Bosque’s last and Mourinho’s first—and thought the transition into the new manager’s tenure would run more smoothly if the face of the club wasn’t so critical of the new guy.
True to form, Casillas heeded Pérez’s call. From then on, Iker made it a point to support the manager in front of teammates. In exchange, Casillas noticed that certain players Mourinho seemed incapable of criticizing earlier (read: Ronaldo) started getting called out for subpar performances. Things looked like they might work out.
“If I say to him and UEFA what I think, my career ends today.”
Tempers flare during the first El Clásico under Mourinho as Sergio Ramos pushes Carles Puyol. Photo by David Ramos/Getty
Barcelona were still Barcelona, and it was Mourinho’s responses to those huge fixtures that set what was to come into motion. In the new boss’s first clásico, Real were thrashed in a 5-0 beatdown, still remembered as one of the best-played games of that peak Barça era. Mourinho owned up to the bludgeoning but refused to call it humiliating. To beat the team some considered the best club side of all time, he’d have to train his charges better.
Things really got intense during a two-week stretch in April which saw the two rivals face off three times: once in the league, once in the Copa del Rey final, and once in the first leg of the Champions League semifinal. The second La Liga match was a fairly drab draw, but one that just about saw Barcelona to the league title they’d clinch about a month later. In it, however, Mourinho debuted the “us against the world” strategy he’d devised as the rallying cry to inspire victory over their rivals. He was critical of the refereeing, called out the Barça players for diving, and instructed his players to make their presence felt by repeatedly kicking and prodding Barça players right up to (and across) the line of appropriateness. Not even a week later, the two sides met again in the Copa del Rey final. There, using these physical tactics, the blancos muscled out a 1-0 victory and lifted the only trophy they’d win that season.
The fissures in the Madrid locker room started to crack just a week after that match, during the first leg of their Champions League semifinal. It was again Guardiola versus Mourinho. This time, the controversy after the match overshadowed what happened during.
Things began in the cagey fashion common in these Real-Barça matchups. As was his wont against Barça, Mourinho set his team up to frustrate their opponent defensively. They went an hour doing exactly so, until Pepe was sent off for an ugly tackle on Dani Alves in the 61st minute. Madrid fought off Barcelona’s attacks with their physical, bordering-on-ridiculous defending, until Lionel Messi scored the opener in the 76th minute. Three minutes from the end of extra time, Messi again sent the ball into the back of the net, giving Barcelona a commanding lead into the second leg on home turf.
Mourinho was livid. In his post-game comments, the manager hurled every conspiracy theory he’d crafted over his extensive history with Barcelona, mainly centering on what he saw as blatant referee favoritism commissioned by someone—UEFA? FIFA? UNICEF?—to ensure the “good guys” came out on top:
“I didn’t say anything to the referee,’’ said Mourinho of [Pepe’s] dismissal. “I simply laughed and showed my thumbs up. That was it. If I say to him and UEFA what I think my career ends today. I can’t say what I feel. I only leave one question. Why? Why? Ovrebo, Busacca, Frisk, Stark? Why to all these people?”
The four referees he mentioned here were in charge during allegedly shady decisions in favor of Barça: Ovrebo in a 2009
round of 16 semifinal loss of Chelsea’s; Busacca, who sent off an Arsenal player in an knockout leg earlier that season; Frisk, according to Mourinho, was visited by then-Barça boss Frank Rijkaard during halftime of a 2005 Barcelona-Chelsea match where Didier Drogba was shown a second yellow after the interval; and Stark, the ref on the day in question.
Mourinho alleged Barcelona enjoyed some form of “power”, a claim that UEFA must take issue with. “Each semi-final always brings the same,’’ said Mourinho of Barcelona. “We’re talking about a fantastic football team. So why? As a match strategy we were not going to lose.
“I don’t know if it’s the advertising for Unicef. I don’t know if it’s UEFA. Congratulations for a wonderful football team. It must be difficult to get this power. They have managed to get this power. No-one else has any chance really. Arsène Wenger. Today myself. I don’t understand why. I hope one day I will find the answer.”
He felt the tie over. “It’s mission impossible. They have to reach the final and they will. That’s it. Perhaps they could win on merit. This match was bound for a nil-nil result. Why did he do this? He won’t answer because now he is going home. Last year was a miracle but this year absolutely nothing. Why don’t they let other teams play against them?”
He had another dig at Pep Guardiola, Barcelona’s coach, who led his team to victory in the 2009 final over Manchester United.
“I won two European titles and I won them on the pitch,’’ continued the former Porto and Inter Milan coach. “I would’ve been embarrassed to win that title because it was won with the scandal of Stamford Bridge. This will be won with the scandal of the Bernabeu.
“I hope one day he wins a Champions League title as it should be, perfect, spotless, without any scandal. I respect him as a person and as a manager. I didn’t disrespect him before the game.’’
There was no backtracking from these comments, not that that bothered Mourinho. He basically said Barcelona have only won because the powers-that-be wish to see it so. Instead of looking at the repeated shoves, kicks, and stomps of his players, evident in the video above, he focused on the diving of Barcelona’s players and the friendly ref rewarding it all. If it wasn’t clear before, Mourinho had officially declared war on Barcelona.
On one hand, this situation wasn’t new. As we’ve laid out before, the history of Spanish soccer both domestically and internationally cannot be extricated from the fraught history of Real Madrid-Barcelona. The fact that these two giants’ relationship was so ugly was closer to the historical norm than an exception.
On the other, the Spanish national team’s recent performances had done a great deal to heal those old wounds. La Roja had been considered international chokers for so long probably in large part because of the lack of chemistry between the two clubs that employed the nation’s best players, but after Euro ‘08 and the 2010 World Cup, they had finally turned the corner. The older players on those teams—like Casillas, Xavi, Puyol—had been friends since they were children, while the younger group—Gerard Piqué, Sergio Ramos, Sergio Busquets—had only known a time of international success and camaraderie. While they were fierce rivals during the season, it was easy for them to come together again during the summer in international play.
Mourinho’s new antagonism threatened that harmony. Even with Casillas’s early concerns with Mourinho, the keeper was still a proud Madridista and didn’t like seeing the club he loved being railroaded by the team he was groomed to root against. Ramos similarly was still an impressionable young man just growing into a role as one of Madrid’s leaders and easily accepted his manager’s “the world hates us, and we hate Barça” worldview.
For their part, Barcelona weren’t exactly blameless. The blaugrana players were notorious divers, and while their diving often made sense as a reaction to the kicks they received basically everywhere they played, it could still verge on the ridiculous. The club was also all too eager to play into the narrative that had them as the noble heroes and Real as the dark-hearted villains, which emerged first as an appreciation of their style of play but somehow turned into a moral judgment of the very nature of the players and coaches, and yet was really about nothing more than preferred methods of scoring goals.
The time Mourinho tried to gouge a colleague’s eye out
If you could boil down everything that came next—from Spain winning Euro ‘12 to Mourinho hightailing it out of Madrid to the Casillas of recent vintage and his cratered confidence—into one causal event, it would be the second leg of the 2011 Spanish Supercopa. Coming into that season-inaugurating match, the Mourinho-Casillas relationship remained a little uneasy. Iker maintained some issues with his manager’s constant blaming of others—referees, UEFA, the media—for Real’s struggles. To him, it wasn’t the Madridista’s way to run out pointing the finger at everyone else in the face of adversity. A true Madrid man’s reaction would entail magnanimity at any unfairness that did exist and an unflinching look inward at the discrepancy between where the club was and where it wanted to be.
The local media eyed any morsel of info evincing a strained relationship as if it were red meat. They talked of rumors that Mourinho wanted to strip Iker of his captaincy in favor or either Ramos or Xabi Alonso, ostensibly because an outfield player would have more opportunity to converse with (and work) the refs. Casillas came out and reiterated that there were no problems, and that he would remain captain.
The first leg of the Supercopa, played in Madrid, was a fairly straightforward 2-2 draw. Mesut Özil scored the opener, David Villa and Messi both scored before halftime to take the lead, and an Alonso goal 10 minutes after the break leveled things permanently. The second leg, at least from minute 1 to minute 90, was a classic.
Messi put on a master class, assisting Iniesta’s opener and scoring the other two goals in what was a tight, back-and-forth 3-2 win. After taking a 2-1 lead into halftime, it appeared Barça would kill the game off in the second by pinging the ball back and forth, keeping possession as only they could. In response, Real resorted to some of the hacking tackles common to these clásicos under Mourinho. Madrid players were shown four yellow cards in the second half alone.
With just under 10 minutes to play, though, striker Karim Benzema managed to bungle home a ping-ponging ball to even things out very late. Just a few minutes later, Messi scored the winner when an outstretched, snapping left foot of his volleyed home an Adriano cross.
Extra time was when everything broke down.
In the third minute of what was supposed to be four minutes of stoppage time, substitute Marcelo came through and scissor kicked Cesc Fàbregas right in front of the two teams’ benches. It was a horrible tackle, for which he received an immediate and well-deserved red card. Barça’s players shot up to complain, and Real players sprinted over too, some trying to calm things, others looking to instigate.
The video above shows all the little skirmishes in what was becoming the regular bench-clearing scuffle at the end of every game between these two sides. Multiple players were shoved. Multiple players hurled insults at each other. Villa said something to Özil, which sparked a pushing match and required the German to be dragged away from the scene while snarling back at Villa.
Two instances stuck out. One was a heated exchange between Casillas and Xavi, not physical like much of what was going on around them, but clearly not friendly, either. The other was Mourinho poking Barcelona’s assistant coach Tito Vilanova in the eye.
As you can see, Mourinho walked right behind Vilanova, dug his finger into the coach’s eye, then walked away. Vilanova pulled the hand off of his face, turned around to see that it was Mourinho, and pushed him as he walked away. Mourinho then turned around with a smirk on his face while others in Real’s technical staff separated the two. It was, in a word, disgusting.
In total, Marcelo, Villa, and Özil were all shown red cards. After the match’s end, Casillas told reporters that the Barça players “have been shot, as always,” a reference to his claim that Fàbregas was exaggerating the effects of Marcelo’s tackle. Xavi said, “The attitude of Madrid has been lamentable. They’ve only been kicking. Such a shame for football not to penalize them over and continue to protest.” Piqué said Mourinho was everything wrong with Spanish soccer.
Mourinho retorted that his actions and those of his players were justified. He claimed that Guardiola yelled at the Madrid bench “Sois una banda, sois una banda,” essentially accusing them of being a gang; that Vilanova called the bench sons of bitches; that Messi spat at the bench and shoved a Madrid player; and that Villa punched Özil and insulted Islam. (Özil is Muslim.)
The relationship between the Barcelona and Real Madrid players was as bad as ever. A bunch that had gotten so close over the years and brought their national team the glory that for so long evaded their grasp had become fierce enemies, unable to even finish a single match without physically attacking one another.
“The call”: Casillas turns traitorous
Casillas knew something had to be done. The Spanish national team would soon meet for Euro ‘12 qualifiers, and there was no way things would run smoothly without a clearing of the air. So the keeper decided to give an old friend—Barcelona vice-captain Xavi—a call.
It was this call that eventually lead to the permanent ruin of the relationship between Casillas and Mourinho. The commonly-accepted version of the call goes like this: Casillas knew Madrid had taken things too far during that Supercopa second leg, so he rang up Xavi and Puyol to talk about it. During the call, Casillas apologized for everything that went on, saying Mourinho’s mind games were threatening to break apart the national team. In closing, he asked that they put everything behind them for the benefit of their country. Xavi accepted and, having patched things up, the two leaders went back to their respective dressing rooms and instructed their colleagues to make peace with their rivals.
In November of 2011, not too long after the conciliatory phone call, Casillas and Xavi are acknowledged for both passing the 100 cap mark for Spain. Photo by Paul White/AP
On the national team level, this version of the conversation worked. Players from both teams, especially the Spanish ones, were adamant that the rivalry had gotten too contentious and that things would be cooled down from there. This selfless move endeared Casillas to the media and to Spanish supporters, burnishing his reputation as San Iker, The Noble One. La Roja went on to win Euro ‘12, and everyone—from the players to the media to the public—pointed back to that fateful phone call as having rekindled the brotherly spirit of the national team.
To Mourinho, though, what Casillas had done was traitorous. From El Economista:
Far from repentance, Jose Mourinho insists. He does so speaking through his spokesman, Eladio Paramés. This character, famous after a dispute with [Jorge] Valdano, has announced that ‘The Special One’ does not regret what was done in the Supercopa of Spain. In addition, this non-vocal leaked extra information: the great annoyance of the Portuguese with his captain. A Mourinho did not like the call in peace Casillas Xavi and Piqué.
According to the daily AS, [Mourinho] interprets this telephone contact between players (and until now friends) from the Spanish selection is a kind of sign of weakness. Kind of like bowing before the ‘conspiracy’ theories that point to the blancos as the bad guys in a film in which Barça only performs well.
Citing his claims about what the Barça players and coaches had done to provoke his team’s ire, Mourinho couldn’t believe that Casillas would then let the Catalan side off the hook by apologizing for everything. Mourinho saw Casillas as selling out not only his manager and his manager’s style of play, but also his teammates.
Casillas disputed these events—but only to a point. He told one paper, while denying that he was orchestrating a Spanish national team dinner only days after the Supercopa, that the phone call with Xavi was actually heated, but he wouldn’t get into specifics. All he’d say was that what he, Xavi, and Puyol said to one another would stay between them. Believing conversations among colleagues should remain out of the media, even if the media’s version was wrong in some way, was exactly what you’d expect from Casillas.
“Eh, mister, round here you say things to our face, eh!”
It was after this perceived betrayal that Mourinho started really going in on Casillas. Despite the Supercopa loss, Real went on to their most successful season under the manager. The team ultimately won La Liga with 100 points, the most in the competition’s history. Ronaldo put up another video game season, scoring a career high 60 goals in 55 appearances. Casillas became the second keeper to win a fourth IFFHS Best Goalkeeper award. The club reached a second consecutive Champions League semifinal, narrowly losing to Bayern Munich on penalties.
But things were nowhere near smooth. The pro- and anti-Mourinho factions at the club continued to clash. Almost weekly, Spanish papers printed inside information about the tumult in the locker room. The suspicion was that one or more Real players were staging a silent mutiny by leaking dressing room arguments to the press.
The biggest of these leaks occurred in late January of that season, when Marca printed a story with direct quotes from a locker room tiff following another loss to Barcelona. Here’s some of what was in Marca’s report, via an article in the National:
Marca’s cover showed Mourinho and Sergio Ramos face to face. Word for word, they reproduced a conversation between the two men, and Iker Casillas, at Real Madrid’s Valdebebas training ground on Friday morning – two days after Madrid, playing ultra-defensively, had again been beaten by Barcelona; two days after Ramos had noted: “We follow the coach’s tactics. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.” According to Marca, the conversation started with Mourinho turning towards Ramos and saying: “You [plural] killed me in the mixed zone.” To which Ramos replied: “No, mister, you only read what it says in the papers not everything we said.”
Mourinho replied: “Sure, because you Spaniards have been world champions and your friends in the media protect you … and because the goalkeeper …” At that point there is a shout from Casillas, training 30 metres away: “Eh, mister, round here you say things to our faces, eh!”
Another part of the conversation starts with Mourinho saying: “Where were you on the first goal [against Barcelona], Sergio?”
“Well, you should have been marking Puyol.”
“Yes, but they were blocking us off [using basketball style screens] with Piqué and we decided to change the marking.”
“What? So now you’re playing at being coach?”
“No,” replies Ramos, “but depending on the situation in the game, sometimes you have to change the marking. Because you’ve never been a player, you don’t know that that sometimes happens.”
The topics of conversation were at that point already recognized as commonplace in the dressing room: Mourinho complaining that the Spanish players don’t back him and are coddled by the press, pointing out “the goalkeeper” as the ringleader of those in opposition to the manager, and Ramos and Casillas contesting his views in a polite yet confrontational way.
That Marca was able to get such an unfettered look into the locker room really got to Mourinho. These were direct quotes from an event only Madrid’s players and coaches would’ve been privy to, and somehow there they were in the newspaper. He suspected there was a player at fault, one who had no compunction about selling out the coach with concrete quotes. He suspected Casillas.
Mourinho and/or his camp offered a direct rejoinder to the leaks he was so fed up with in the National article referenced above, which reads like blatant Mourinho propaganda, singing the coach’s praises and bitching about his ever-petulant club:
Even in the midst of wilful reticence, Jose Mourinho expressed the absurdity that envelopes Real Madrid.
“We have five points more than the team that everyone thinks is the best in the world,” Mourinho said ahead of Wednesday’s el clasico. “It is because we are not doing as badly and have as many problems as people think we have.
“When I came here, the club had a tradition of being eliminated from the Copa del Rey by teams from the lower divisions. When I arrived, we were not seeded in the Champions League; now we have the record for most wins in the group stage. I seem to have so many problems.”
His frustrations are not difficult to understand. As things stood ahead of last night’s 20th round of Liga fixtures, Mourinho’s Real were in position to end the hegemony of a Barcelona side dubbed by many as not just best on the planet, but greatest of all time. The result of their late April return to the Camp Nou, where now characteristically poor refereeing cost them a victory last week, is set to be irrelevant.
His decision to make this year in the Bernabeu his last derives from a sense of exasperation, a feeling that no matter what he brings to Real the club will remain ungrateful and dysfunctional.
He is tired of a supposedly pliant local press that, in truth, holds undue influence over the club. Mourinho’s attempts to break their control by ending open access to training and banning one-on-one interviews has borne greater resistance. Last week Marca ran a transcript of a training ground argument between Sergio Ramos and Iker Casillas. And Diario AS likened his leadership skills to the capsized cruise-boat captain, Francesco Schettino.
He is weary of the quixotic culture of “Madridismo” that struggles to define itself yet continually seems to stand in the way of on-field success, permeating the media and leaching through the institutions of the club. He is jaded by a cadre of Spain internationals who believe they are the best in the world and know more about the management and tactics of success than a coach who has won spectacularly and systematically everywhere he has been.
Mourinho couldn’t have seriously considered leaving Madrid midway through a second season that was shaping up to be an enormous success, but he probably felt the need to threaten it to get the board’s attention, and convince them how unhappy he was with the current state of affairs.
“Mourinho wanted to know one thing ... Who had plunged the knife in his back?”
While the message Mourinho sent to the board came through the media, the one he sent to the players was delivered face to face. Another article, this time in the Guardian, reported on the team hotel before the next league match against Athletic Club just a couple days after the loss to Barça and Marca’s report:
Mourinho wanted to know one thing above all and he wanted the players to know that he would find out. Who had plunged the knife in his back? Who had leaked a conversation from the training ground? Who was the mole?
The tension at the hotel grew. So, everywhere else, did the theories. It was hard not to go all conspiratorial. Who could it have been? And was Mourinho barking up the wrong tree? He was not the only one turning detective; everyone else was too.
Outside the club itself, an interesting thing was happening among the Madrid faithful:
When Granero was taken off on 72 minutes, the player who more than anyone else represented a shift in approach – the Madrid that Mourinho had turned his back on and some Spaniards had wanted – got a massive ovation. And then, with 10 minutes to go, it happened. The fans who had chanted Mourinho’s name all season – something that has never happened for a coach before – chanted it once more.
Well, some of them did. More of them did not. In fact, they did the opposite. The Ultra Sur began chanting Mourinho’s name. And the rest of the stadium – 30%? 50%? 80%? – whistled their disapproval.
It was not so much an attack on Mourinho per se as an attack on the decision to chant his name, to do it now, in this context, and with this backdrop. It was a symbol of disapproval of those that did so too – the Ultras who had chanted “Pepe, kill him!” and “Journalists, terrorists!” Divisions at Real Madrid had been laid bare. This time among the fans.
This reflected an early division between a couple key sects of the Madrid fanbase. The Ultra Sur, the hardcore group that bought in wholeheartedly to Mourinho’s militaristic regime, supported him over the players they saw as backstabbing him. But to most Madridistas, the Spanish faction represented by Casillas and Ramos who tried to uphold the traditional values expected of Real players were in the right, making Mourinho worthy of whistles.
As captain, Casillas is the first player to hoist the trophy awarded to the winner of La Liga in May of 2012. Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty
Real went on to beat Athletic 4-1, later that season beat Barcelona 2-1 in the Camp Nou, and ended the year with the honors referenced above. Despite those impressive results, things in the capital were as tense as ever. Towards the later stages of the season, there were rumors that Mourinho was so tired of dealing with Casillas that he wanted to sell the keeper in the summer. Goal.com later reported that, indeed, Mourinho did want to sell the club legend, but realized that it was a politically untenable action:
In recent days, speculation has grown that Mourinho could sell Casillas amidst growing tensions between them.
However, Goal.com has learned from sources close to both that the Portuguese coach knows that selling Casillas, who has been Real Madrid’s no.1 for more than a decade, would be a deeply unpopular move.
In fact, club officials have privately agreed that they would be more prepared to lose Mourinho than Casillas.
It is clear that Mourinho sees Casillas as problematic. He has referred to the World Cup winner as merely “the goalkeeper” on several occasions. In one outburst, after a good performance from the 30-year-old against Lyon, Mourinho detracted from this and said: “He has made some good saves as any goalkeeper does for an important team. It’s what he’s meant to do.”
According to sources close to the Real Madrid captain, he does not always agree with Mourinho’s methods and rules so does not comply with them. Casillas is happy to defy his manager, having led the club for several years.
Despite this, many fans feels closer to the sensibilities of the coach, and Casillas has suffered a backlash from fans after errors made in the draws against Malaga and Villarreal.
The two men were butting heads over the same issues time and time again. Steadily if slowly, the segment of fans supportive of Mourinho grew.
Casillas is benched
Coming off of the success of the year prior, and with Barcelona manager Pep Guardiola’s shocking decision to leave his boyhood club out of exhaustion, Real Madrid looked like favorites to retain their La Liga title and strong contenders to make another deep Champions League run. In light of this, Mourinho stuck it out for another season.
Casillas, flanked by Barça players Xavi and Piqué, celebrates another international trophy when Spain beat Italy in the Euro 2012 final. Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty
From the players’ position, things couldn’t have been better in the summer following the 2011-12 season. Real members Alonso, Ramos, Álvaro Arbeloa, and, yes, the captain Casillas were pivotal contributors to the Spanish national team’s Euro ‘12 victory. The Real-Barça relationship that came so close to permanently fracturing had been healed through the magnanimity of Iker and Xavi, and the countrymen thrived under former Madrid manager Vicente del Bosque’s tiki-taka. Even returning to Mourinho and his pragmatic counterattacking didn’t seem so bad, since the lure of new trophies—especially the coveted decima, the club’s tenth European Cup—awaited.
The season started horribly. Real only picked up four points from their first four matches, and trailed Barcelona by eight points just a month into the season. The griping and backbiting started anew, and the club was as discordant as ever.
As the season progressed, the usually sure-handed Casillas began making worrisome little mistakes here and there. Madrid would concede soft goals you wouldn’t expect a four-time World’s Best Goalkeeper to allow. Mourinho’s constant digs at his ability probably didn’t help. As noted, the manager had a habit of blaming “the goalkeeper” when things went poorly. When things went well, he’d say that good performances were the least one should expect from the No. 1 at Real Madrid.
Around late November, results in the league began reflecting the shaky nature of the locker room. Madrid lost 1-0 to Real Betis on the 24th of that month, barely rescued a 3-2 win against Valladolid two weeks later, then had to settle for a 2-2 draw at home against Espanyol on December 26th. Fed up with dropping points in two of four matches and only keeping one clean sheet, Mourinho decided to make a change. He benched Iker for Antonio Adán, a 25-year-old keeper from the club’s academy with only three La Liga starts in his career.
Adán’s first match was a 3-2 defeat against Málaga. That result put them 16 points behind Barça in the title race, a gap that wouldn’t have felt much more gaping if it had been twice that number. Barcelona were flying, Madrid were reeling, and Mourinho was taking most of the pressure. Still, he remained as defiant as ever:
Jose Mourinho insists he has no intention of quitting as Real Madrid coach and does not fear for his job in the wake of Saturday night’s 3-2 defeat to Malaga.
Mourinho, who took the surprise decision to drop club captain Iker Casillas from his starting line-up, was in defiant mood when asked whether he had considered stepping down.
He told reporters at the post-match press conference: “Neither before, during or after the game have I thought about resigning.
“I don’t fear for my position. This is football. I’m not a child, nor have I been here for a couple of days. Coaches know that football has no memory and only takes into account what was done today and not what was done yesterday.”
Regarding his selection of Antonio Adan ahead of long-term first-choice goalkeeper Casillas, Mourinho said: “It’s a technical decision. The coach analyses the situation, looks at the players at his disposal and chooses his team. At the moment, for me and my coaching staff, Adan is better than Iker.
“You can invent the stories that you want but it’s purely a technical decision.”
Even with Casillas’s struggles, nobody bought that dropping him for Adán was anything but a reflection of a contentious relationship. Adán was a nobody, not even thought of as a functional backup but more as a loyal body behind a club legend, one who wouldn’t be a disaster in desperate times but also wouldn’t threaten the starter. For as many behind-the-scenes tiffs as the media made us privy to, most could still be written off as typical rumormongering, or the kind of disagreements that always occur in a locker room. Benching Casillas, though, was overt proof that something was rotten in Madrid.
Mourinho stuck to his guns despite the loss and the 16 point league gap he described as “insurmountable” by starting Adán again in the next match against Real Sociedad. Two minutes in, Benzema scored the opening goal. Seven minutes later, Adán made a poor last-ditch challenge in the box, resulting in a penalty and a red card. Thus Casillas stepped right back in between the goal posts. Real went on to win a 4-3 thriller.
Adán was forced out of the lineup for a match after his red card, so Casillas was again made the starter in the following league match against Osasuna on January 12—a 0-0 draw, which put hopes of a La Liga comeback even further out of reach. Nonetheless, even Mourinho couldn’t pretend Adán was the better keeper, and Casillas kept his job.
There’s a new goalkeeper in town
As it turned, Casillas didn’t stay in goal long. During the second leg of a Copa del Rey quarterfinal on January 23rd, a Valencia player challenged Casillas for a ball and kicked his hand. Casillas couldn’t shake the knock and had to come off for Adán. After the match it was discovered that Iker had broken his hand and would miss around three months.
The timing of the injury was uncanny. The following day, Marca came out with a report about a meeting between the two club captains, Casillas and Ramos, and the club president and general manager. Ostensibly, they were there to hammer out what the potential Champions League win bonuses should be; however, the players allegedly took the opportunity to issue an ultimatum.
The captains assure Florentino that all the players are totally committed. They tell him they’ve held a meeting in the dressing room and are more united now than ever. But, significantly… the coach and coaching staff weren’t at the meeting.
It’s just the team that’s united, nobody else. They tell the President that they are determined to treat every match between now and the end of the season as though it were a final, that Sunday’s performance wasn’t a fluke, but a turning point.
The conversation turns to the future and this is when Casillas and Ramos inform the President how the team feels: “Boss, it’s Mourinho or us.” In a nutshell, if Mourinho continues managing Real Madrid next season, several of the top players on the squad will request transfers.
The injury situation complicated matters. After Adán’s unconvincing displays between the poles, Mourinho acted quickly in securing a new goalkeeper to fill Casillas’s gloves. On January 25th, the club signed a former Casillas backup, Diego López, from Sevilla.
López was a bit of a journeyman. He spent his formative years with Real Madrid’s reserve teams and behind Casillas on the bench before moving clubs and flourishing with Villarreal. When the injury-ravaged Yellow Submarine were relegated after the 2011-12 season, he moved to Sevilla. Playing time was hard to come by at his new club, however, so he was more than happy to rejoin the capital side with its promise of a starting role for a club like Real.
López’s first foray in the starting lineup on January 30th in the Copa del Rey semifinal against Barcelona. Real won that round but lost in the final to Atlético. Photo by Andres Kudacki/AP
The new keeper was an immediate success. He brought a level of consistency and assuredness that had been missing from Casillas’s game for a while at that point. Despite the turmoil behind the scenes—in late January, Casillas’s girlfriend and TV journalist Sara Carbonero reported on the “open secret” that the players and manager didn’t get along—Madrid ended the La Liga season on a 16-match undefeated streak and managed another Champions League semifinal before losing to Borussia Dortmund.
Toward the final few weeks of the season, the only question waswhen and where Mourinho would continue his career, since it definitely wasn’t going to be with Real. That didn’t prevent him from taking a couple more shots at the goalkeeper, naturally. In May of that year, after it became increasingly obvious that Mourinho’s return to Chelsea was all but finalized, the still-Real Madrid manager had time to reflect on what went right and wrong during his Spanish tenure:
José Mourinho claimed that he has not yet made a decision on his future but did so during a press conference performance that felt like a farewell and a settling of scores. At one point he pulled out a piece of paper and reeled off a list of former Real Madrid managers whose achievements, or lack of them, put his record into perspective. He also pointed the finger of blame for his impending exit at two principal targets: the media and the club captain Iker Casillas, with whom his relationship has long since broken down.
Mourinho also rejected suggestions that his relationship with the fans has been problematic, instead defining it as “perfect” and shifting the blame on to the media, who have been accused of turning against him because he has done away with some of the privileges they had become accustomed to. Above all, though, the man singled out was Casillas, whom Mourinho dropped in favour of Diego López. The manager accuses Casillas of cultivating a relationship with the media and the media of championing the goalkeeper’s cause. There is no longer any pretence when it comes to the confrontation between captain and coach.
“My players like to be treated the same way,” Mourinho said. “They want a coach who coaches with his head and, if that happens, there is no problem. The problem happens when someone thinks he is above the rest.” If that was ambiguous, what came next was not. Asked if he would have done anything differently, Mourinho replied: “I should have been more proactive at the end of the first season, more demanding and more insistent. We should have brought in Diego López then. I asked but he didn’t come. I didn’t do enough to bring him in and that’s a pity.
“The press don’t go on the plane with the team? I’m sorry but I think that is correct. The press are not allowed in at training sessions? Correct. The press don’t know the starting XI? Correct. I don’t put your beloved children in the team? Correct.”
On his way out of the door of a successful (at least on the pitch) managerial stint, Mourinho just had to jab the shiv a little deeper into his traitorous captain.
From saint to scapegoat
The post-Mourinho era was supposed to be a liberating one, and for the club as a whole, it was. Real brought in Carlo Ancelotti, a calm, media-friendly, players’ coach, to replace the brash, arrogant Mourinho. The Italian wasted no time in trying to restore peace in the dressing room, insisting the only thing that would determine playing time was performance.
For Casillas, that wasn’t necessarily great news. Ancelotti couldn’t exactly bench López, who had been great after his switch back to Real, just because the other guy had a bigger name. Instead, he announced that López would be keeping his starting job in the league. As a compromise, Ancelotti did his captain a favor by electing to start him in the cup matches. This meant López was the keeper in La Liga, and Casillas was the one in the Champions League and Copa del Rey.
Even without totally regaining his starting position, Casillas could breathe easier knowing he would be getting important matches and that he no longer had to worry about upsetting Mourinho, especially since Spain boss Vicente del Bosque continued backing his preferred keeper even when he wasn’t getting games on the club level. Once Casillas returned from injury, he went right on back to his starting role for the national team, including playing every Confederations Cup match in the summer of 2013. With Mourinho gone, del Bosque could speak frankly about the origins of Casillas’s problems with his club manager:
“It’s true that in difficult moments for the national team, when the Real-Barca matches got a little strange, he (Casillas) ... helped the team to move on and continue winning things like the (2012) European Championship,” Del Bosque told radio station Onda Cero.
“This did not go down well and perhaps had a detrimental effect also on Iker,” added the former Real coach. “He was a key figure in fostering harmony in the national team.”
Though the club itself was more sanguine than before, the fans were not so quick to let bygones be bygones. Ancelotti’s decision not to gift the captain back his starting position was taken by many fans as a confirmation that Mourinho was right; Casillas just wasn’t at his best anymore. Here’s an excerpt from a Voz Populi article reporting on the fan split after Mourinho’s departure:
Mourinho goes, but Real Madrid stays. With all that entails an entity so much history and grandeur. And on its way out, leaving some broken Portuguese . The most worrisome because it is the reason for the entity, which divides the fans.
For a lot of “unity” that Florentino Perez intends to sell, it is undeniable that there are two opposing sides. mourinhistas and casillistas De reconciliation depends much of the future of Real Madrid.
For those who are bent on denying the evidence, the battle bloodiest of that civil war takes place in social networks. because while broadcasters only seem to find fans willing to stand in front of the cameras to criticize the Portuguese coach in Twitter are legion Mou defenders.
“Mourinho just left. Mourinhismo has only just begun,” said one of those early posts. From there, countless awards made under the same heading - “thanks for everything, Mou” - and a key slogan: “The manor is not cheap philosophy, but die in the field.” And as a summary of nonconformity: “Mou goes, stays mourinhismo Neither forget nor forgive.” And sigh with the return of Luso coach someday.
The concern is that what you do not forget or forgive those Madridistas they consider is the betrayal of Iker Casillas, main accused in the output of a coach who had a contract until 2016 for the sector ‘mourinhista Iker is no longer the best goalkeeper the world, the master, the idol ... they now consider him “the leaking mole (#Topor they call it)“ the costumes and they throw his friendship with several sports journalists in his face.
The “leaking mole” insults stem from Mourinho’s belief that Casillas was the mole who leaked most of the info about behind the scenes arguments to his media friends. (Topor, incidentally, is a pun that you could roughly translate as “molekeeper.”) What was once a trust in Mourinho held almost solely by the hardcore Ultras, by then had spread much wider; it was a position held by many, if not most, Real Madrid supporters.
Real Madrid’s Ultra Sur fans hold a banner that reads “Mourinho, thank you for fighting against all odds” during Mourinho’s last La Liga match as Real manager. Photo by Andres Kudacki/AP
Why would fans take the side of Mourinho, who by behavior basically stood against everything true Madridistas were supposed to represent, instead of Casillas, who was the embodiment of Madridismo? That too was an offshoot of their rivalry with Barcelona.
Real Madrid fans had grown tired of playing second fiddle to Barcelona. During this time of unprecedented, overwhelming Catalan success, every trophy and plaudit Barça won felt like a direct attack on Madrid. Barcelona played beautifully, not like those pragmatic blancos they keep beating. Barcelona grew their own star players, rather than bringing in new, mercenary Galácticos every year. Barcelona’s superstar player, Lionel Messi, was selfless and only wanted to win, not like that whining glory-hound Cristiano Ronaldo. Even when Madrid won, like they did in 2011-’12, Barcelona’s style of play and Messi’s ridiculous goal-scoring seemed to capture the world’s attention more than Madrid’s staggering play.
In the face of this, the gentlemanly high road favored by Casillas—complementing Barcelona on their success and saying little more—was inadequate. Fans wanted someone to fight back. Mourinho did fight, and with his conspiracy theorizing about referee bias and UEFA’s pro-Barça sentiment and his willingness to poke (literally) the bear, he gave fans a reason to believe that maybe it wasn’t merely Barça’s superiority on the field contributing to the discrepancy. Either way, they had a manager who wasn’t going to sit idly by while Barcelona continued on their rampage.
And so the season went on under a sort of truce between Casillas, the club, and the fans. Casillas got his minutes every couple weeks; López was the regular starter even if he didn’t play the highest-leverage games; and the anti-Casillas crowd only had to put up with him intermittently while the pro-Iker faction got to see their man in the most important competition.
The strategy worked almost perfectly. They did end up third in the league, their lowest finish in a decade, but they also won the Copa del Rey and, more importantly, finally raised that tenth European Cup. In the two competitions Casillas played in, the team won.
Not that it was so clear-cut a successful rebound for the keeper. He remained as dodgy in goal as ever, maybe even more so. During that Champions League final, crosstown rivals Atlético Madrid nearly won after they scored the opener thanks to some poor, extremely indecisive goalkeeping:
So while Real came away from the season with two coveted trophies, they weren’t all that closer to rebuilding Casillas’s confidence.
Things only got worse from there. Entering this past summer’s World Cup, Spain were one of the favorites to win it all. If they have completed that feat, giving them two World Cups and two European Championships back-to-back-to-back-to-back and topping it all by becoming the first European team to win a South American World Cup, they would undoubtedly have gone down as both the most successful and greatest national team of all time. Instead, in their first match they were blown out by the Netherlands 5-1, thanks in part to more terrible goalkeeping by Casillas:
Instead of being christened the greatest national side to ever kick a ball, Spain were brutally exposed in a generational changing of the eras. Del Bosque had shown too much faith in older players who had won all those big games in the past but had since lost much of their ability due to age. The captain Casillas and his partner in peace Xavi were two of the most obvious scapegoats.
After the failure in Brazil, Casillas returned to Madrid with yet another keeper controversy. López had arguably been the better player during the season prior, but Casillas had the name, the armband, and those two new trophies. Ancelotti had always supported Casillas, and likely considered the positive effects of keeping the captain, so he elected to reinstate him to full-time starter status. López wasn’t content on sticking around as a backup to a man he probably felt he outplayed, so he went off to AC Milan. In his place, Real bought World Cup hero Keylor Navas. It wasn’t clear at the time whether Navas was signed to compete for a starting role or to serve as primary backup, but Casillas retained his spot in the starting lineup.
Which brings us more or less to the present. Real Madrid didn’t start the season on the best terms, mainly because of their defensive problems. An early loss to Atlético in the league brought about a surprising turn of events. Atléti midfielder Tiago gave his team the lead from a corner in the 9th minute, and after, the home Real fans started whistling at (the equivalent of booing) their keeper:
After Tiago’s goal in the 9th minute [...], Iker Casillas was whistled by the Real fans in the Bernabéu. The complaints, which didn’t appear to emanate from the new fan zone behind Casillas’ goal, were first heard in the 15th minute and repeated, louder, in the 17th. They were then heard every time the Madrid captain touched the ball. One section of the stadium chanted “Iker, Iker” in support of the 15 year veteran with the club, but the chants weren’t taken up by other sections.
In his post-match comments, Iker made sure to say he understood why the fans whistled the team and him especially because of the bad result, but he had to be stunned. Here he had suffered so many public and private indignities at the hands of Mourinho—indignities he never commented or complained about publicly—and had won la decima, but only a couple matches into a new season, he was already being whistled. Not only that, the boos and whistles were no longer confined to the Ultra Sur and drowned out by the majority of supporters appreciative of everything he had done. Now the fans trying to support him were the difficult ones to hear.
It didn’t stop there. In the following match, a Champions League fixture against Basel, he was again whistled by supporters. This in a convincing 5-1 Real win! Sergio Ramos—with his own problems with the Madridistas who no longer saw him as the face of the club—implored fans to stop. Ancelotti did likewise, asking fans to focus on the positives instead of obsessing over the negatives. Madrid were a team in transition after losing key cogs like Alonso and Di María, and it was always going to take time for this new side to come together.
As the team became more comfortable with its new players and started scoring goals for fun, the heat on Casillas dissipated a bit. In this time of respite, he decided to fight for his reputation, including returning to the conflict with Mourinho that precipitated the downfall of their relationship. On October 6th, Casillas gave a very revealing interview with Canal+ (here’s a link; it’s in Spanish), where, for the first time, he directly addressed some of what he’d gone through in the past few years.
Here’s one series of excerpts:
Press leaks: “I think it’s a bit unfair that they call me a mole. I understand that people started circulating that and I have to accept it. I want to think that the coach and president didn’t believe I was a mole. They know I have a good relationship with many journalists because I’ve known them since I was 16. That doesn’t take away from the fact that I know how to differentiate between the relationship with a journalist and a friend”.
Mourinho: “Maybe I should have answered Mourinho, but I decided to zip it for the good of the club. I didn’t want to add fuel to the fire. Strangely enough after those press conferences, we didn’t speak. It wasn’t a good relationship and each of us went our separate ways. I would come in every day when I was injured and as soon as I recovered, Mr Karanka said that I was unfit for competition and that’s when I felt they had a problem with me”.
Here are a few more:
“I felt a bit isolated “(after being asked if he felt “helpless” by Florentino Perez when injured) “During the first two weeks of my injury I saw too much dirt. They called me traitor and I just I was recovering.” “The day Sara (Carbonero) speaks at Televisa, is used as an excuse to attack me.”
“When I was injured my relationship with Mourinho it was lovely. We talked every day. Mourinho likes people going straight. Sergio (Ramos), Cristiano and I have always gone against.”
“Iker Casillas did not apologize to Xavi at all, however much you want to sell that story. ‘Captain of Real Madrid is lowered pants’ is a lie ... “ “We talked (with Xavi and Puyol) and it was tense because when we went to the selection we had to see the faces.”
That last quote again points to the controversy stemming from that famous phone call between him and Xavi after the 2011 Supercopa debacle. Instead of the widely-held version of events, involving Casillas apologizing on behalf of all of Real Madrid, he recalls the situation differently.
The fullest explication of what really went down between Iker and Xavi actually came out in a news story soon after the post-Mourinho era began. The version of events reported by El Economista wasn’t too far off from what the public and Mourinho believed happened, with a couple significant differences. Casillas did indeed call up Xavi to try and clear the air, but Xavi blew off that first first call. Iker then got ahold of Puyol and hashed things out with him. When Xavi was in more of a mood to talk, the two had a peaceful but still charged conversation about the events at the end of the match.
Of particular importance to both men was the argument they had on the pitch that day, when Casillas accused Fàbregas of diving to get Marcelo sent off and Xavi taking issue of it. Eventually, either because he saw the tackle after the fact or just to move on, Casillas apologized for calling Fàbregas a cheater. After that single admittance of personal fault, Casillas went on to propose that the two Spanish teams take the edge off the rivalry to preserve what they had going for them internationally. Xavi agreed and the two men returned to their clubs.
Xavi, though, apparently didn’t think his teammates would accept the truce only armed with what Iker had told him. So rather than telling them exactly what happened, he instead gathered the players and said Casillas took full responsibility for everything that had gone wrong in that clásico and the tense ones prior on behalf of Madrid as a whole. The Barcelona players agreed to cool things down.
The message Xavi relayed to his teammates was closer to the story the public heard, and was the reason Mourinho was so angry with his goalkeeper. Mourinho’s anger does make some sense, especially when there were players in Iker’s own dressing room who claimed Barça players had behaved at least as badly as anything Madrid were alleged to have done. By apologizing for everything, he would have been selling out these concerns. But in fact Casillas had done no such thing. The report mentions that Iker tried to clear things up with Mourinho by telling him what really happened, but that the manager didn’t buy it. And so that pivotal event that caused so much damage, both to Mourinho’s time in Madrid and to Casillas’s own career, was mostly a matter of a game of telephone gone wrong.
In the Canal+ interview, Casillas seemed to accept that he was most likely not long for Real Madrid. He admitted that he thought about leaving at various points under Mourinho, but thought it better to fight for his place. “But in the end, at 33 years of age, you think, why should I [leave]? I want to fight, to make a go of it, to be reborn from the ashes.” After all of that fighting and a rebirth that never quite reached the heights of his previous life between Real’s goalposts, Casillas now is more open to the idea of leaving the only club he’s ever known. He later stated that he’d like to retire at Real Madrid, but also noted that he might one day appreciate playing in a new country. “I would like to have some experience abroad before retiring. I think it would help me to appreciate Real Madrid even more. I am convinced that if you go abroad, you will realise what this club represents for the whole world.”
Those last comments might be telling. Recently, there have been rumors that Madrid are planning on adding a new starting goalkeeper sooner rather than later. His understudy with Spain, Manchester United’s David de Gea, is one candidate who would definitely spell the end to Iker’s time as Real’s starter. There’s also some talk that Mourinho could send them his own recently-deposed club great Petr Cech in exchange for Sami Khedira. It’s impossible to know for sure with transfer rumors being what they are, but it doesn’t sound like Madrid will be the final stop on Casillas’s journey. Mourinho broke Casillas’s spirit, and, in a roundabout way, he might be the one who finally rids the club of him.
The Mourinho Era
You could point back to the call misunderstanding as the turning point, because it was, but there’s also something deeper going on. The entire affair—from the board’s decision to hire and Mourinho and give him unprecedented-for Madrid power, to the Spanish core bristling at his style in favor of the traditional Madridista philosophy, to the benching, to the fan’s turning on the man they once called a saint—is but one instance of what being a club in modern times really means.
Is a club simply a hodgepodge assortment of players from all over, playing and behaving however the individual quirks of the players and manager lead them? Or is there a fundamental ethos underlying the enterprise that ideally remains consistent from player to player, team to team, year to year?
That Mourinho has been at the fore of this culture clash—and not only at Madrid—is not a coincidence. Mourinho was the anti-Madridista. His style is confrontational, braggadocios, entitled. By hiring him, the club was on some level admitting that results were more important than their values. By firing him and siding with Casillas, they at least partially sought to rectify this. It’s not yet clear whether the fans, who were originally uncomfortable with the Mourinho way and later switched sides in significant numbers, want them to. This is what the whistling of their keeper reflects.
As Barcelona—the club most recognized for placing its ideals above and beyond the winning of matches—and their recent scandals have shown, this isn’t an issue only for Real Madrid. In fact, it could’ve happened sooner for them, had they decided to hire Mourinho after he interviewed with them back in 2008.
Mourinho actually spent a significant part of his early coaching career with Barcelona, first as an assistant for Bobby Robson, then as Louis van Gaal’s number two. His position under van Gaal was his last assistant job before moving to Benfica as head coach.
After losing his job at Chelsea the first go-round, Barcelona were keen to interview the hottest name in coaching for their vacant position after deciding to get rid of Frank Rijkaard. According to Graham Hunter’s book Barça: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, Mourinho made a structured, detailed, and convincing pitch on what the club needed to do in order to improve and that he was the man who could make it happen.
But when Txiki Begiristain, Barça’s director of football, and Marc Ingla, the club’s vice-president, asked if he could tamp down on his recurrent fire wars with the media, Mourinho declined:
Ingla confirms: “There was one moment when I said to him, ‘José, the problem we have with you is that you push the media too much. There is too much aggression. The coach is the image of the club. Three times a week, talking to the media for an hour, talking for the club, you cannot start fires everywhere, because this is against our style’.
“He said, ‘I know, but that is my style and I will not change’.
“He told me, ‘Look at van Gaal. In his first era he was mean at Barca and he was a success. The second time he became like a ‘mother’, he changed his style and he failed’.
The club’s brass believed Mourinho would bring success in the form of trophies, but that his playing style and personality did not fit Barcelona. Instead, they hired one of their best former players, a Catalan man who first joined the club as a teenager, developed into a team captain, and, after retiring, had rejoined the club as a youth team coach. Instead of Mourinho, they chose a manager directly out of the Johan Cruyff mold in Pep Guardiola.
As we’ve seen, though, even Barcelona are not immune to the modern pressures of money and results. Like Madrid, they are struggling with how to translate the parts of their history and legacy they’d like to retain and which ones can be shed without sacrificing too much of their identity. At least for Madrid, sticking with Casillas is a positive signal that hoary statements about soccer and community and history and culture still have a place in this sport. But the battle between that and the more immediate desires for wins and money has not been without its casualties, chief among them Casillas himself.
A fan’s welcoming ahead of Mourinho’s first match back as Chelsea’s manager. Photo by Clive Mason/Getty
And while Casillas is destined for the scrap heap as his career winds down, Mourinho has quietly been building the perfect monument to his ruthless pragmatism at the club that accelerated the transition into this new money world. His squad at Chelsea is entirely a mix of ideal players for various systems who, when used within Mourinho’s tactical structure, create a deadly team that can play any way they need.
In Diego Costa, they have the perfect counterattacking striker, a player who uses his physicality and athleticism to hunt down hoofed balls and singlehandedly start a fast breaks. In Cesc Fàbregas, they have the best playmaker in the world, who’s at his best in one-touch, possession systems where he can poke and prod a defense with passes until shattering the whole thing with a pinpoint through ball. In Eden Hazard, they have a dribbling maestro who can weave his way through compact defenses or knife his way behind high lines on counters. Oscar is a hardworking, goal-scoring attacking-cum-central midfielder, Nemanja Matić is the prototypical destroyer defensive mid, Willian is a create wide playmaker, André Shürrle a scoring winger, etc.
None of those players, especially in this system, could be said to represent or stand for anything other than being really good. They impressed playing various styles for various clubs around the world, so Chelsea bought them. They don’t need to behave any particular way, and they aren’t criticized when they win in a way that doesn’t strictly conform to an overarching philosophy. (This isn’t true elsewhere—see, say, the accusations of defensive play at Tottenham under André Villas-Boas, or Barcelona stomping Rayo 4-0 under Tata Martino yet eliciting mass hand-wringing for not winning the possession battle.) As long as the players do what Mourinho asks, which is basically just win, they are free to express themselves how they see fit.
In part because of this absence of ideology, being a Chelsea fan isn’t the most emotionally gratifying position to hold. Chelsea are rich and good, and that’s about it. Chelsea fans don’t get to feel the particular brand of happiness that is seeing your club conquer the world on their own terms, like when Spain won everything with tiki-taka or when Barça started an entire lineup of homegrown players or when Real Madrid won their tenth European Cup with some of the best and most famous players the world over but with their own Madridista, Iker Casillas, at the heart of everything. Nevertheless, it does result in winning. And not insignificantly, it avoids many of these sentimental problems that plague the ideologues. (Unlike with Casillas and Xavi at their respective clubs, Chelsea were quick to marginalize then offload their long-time talisman, Frank Lampard.)
Mourinho might not be the right man for every club, but he is the right man for this time. It’s easier to win when winning is the only thing you care about.
Photos via Getty