Spain’s Captain Courageous
Spain have had to draw on many different virtues in qualifying for their third UEFA European Championship final, and no member of the 23-man squad encapsulates those virtues better than their goalkeeper Iker Casillas.
The 27-year-old, who has conceded only 47 goals in 81 international appearances, is taking part in his third UEFA EURO finals. Understudy to Jose Antonio Molina and Santiago Canizares at Belgium and Netherlands 2000, he became Spain's first-choice keeper by Portugal 2004. Four years on, at Austria and Switzerland 2008, he has played a major part in taking his country to the brink of their second continental title.
"We've been preparing for this for two years, and although we didn't start too well we are reaping the rewards now," said an emotional Casillas after the 3-0 semi-final defeat of Russia. "We have achieved something wonderful for both Spanish football and for Spain."
It was his penalty shootout heroics against Italy that helped Spain end the quarter-final curse that has bedevilled them in recent years, cementing the flying keeper's hero status back home, where he is reverentially referred to as St Iker.
Not normally known for dishing out effusive praise, coach Luis Aragones has expressed nothing but admiration for his indispensable custodian. "Iker is the perfect captain. I'd give him ten out of ten for everything he does as a keeper, a captain and in the way he behaves. He sees everything so clearly. The whole squad deserve a ten but Casillas more than anyone. As the captain he's the one I speak to the most. He's a phenomenon."
Modest to a fault, the Spanish No 1 is keen to deflect attention onto the team. "This is an amazing squad and they are even better people than they are footballers," enthused Casillas. "The group comes before any player and we've learned to come together. I think that's clear to see. The guys who aren't playing as much get behind the rest and give them support and affection. That gives us a lift when the going gets hard."
The leader of the Spanish pack reserves his warmest words for coach Aragones, however. "The boss is the main reason we're in the final. Now I know why they call him 'The Wise Man'."
Oh captain, my captain
On the domestic front Casillas has grown well accustomed to success with Real Madrid, winning four league titles, two Spanish Supercopas , two UEFA Champions Leagues, one UEFA Super Cup and one Intercontinental Cup. And should the shot-stopper hoist the trophy aloft on Sunday it will not be his first exploit on the international stage either, having already won the European U-15 and U-17 titles with Spain and the FIFA World Youth Championship Nigeria 1999.
Casillas, who inherited the captain's armband from his Merengue team-mate Raul Gonzalez, has proven himself one of the greatest keepers in the game. In 2000 a well-known Italian sports magazine awarded him the Bravo Trophy as the best young keeper on the continent, and this season he picked up the Zamora Trophy, presented to the goalkeeper conceding the fewest goals in the Spanish first division.
As well as the accolades, Casillas has strung together dozens of memorable performances and legendary saves over the last eight years. With his superb reflexes and feline agility, he has built up a reputation for pulling off seemingly impossible point-blank saves, a reputation that he enhanced further in last weekend's quarter-final with Italy when he denied Mauro Camoranesi from close range. Add to that his commanding presence and organisational skills at the back, and it is easy to see why he enjoys such feted status.
And although a virtual spectator in Thursday's comfortable semi-final win over the Russians, Casillas emphasised his immense powers of concentration by pulling off a stunning save to thwart Roman Pavlyuchenko late on.
The Russian striker was one of only two men to find a way past the Spaniard in the group phase, Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic being the other. Since then the likes of Luca Toni and Antonio Cassano have come off second best against the inspirational shot-stopper, and should the German duo of Lukas Podolski and Miroslav Klose suffer the same fate on Sunday, then Casillas's place in the pantheon of Spanish sporting heroes will be assured.