A hugely impressive 2-0 victory over France in Paris last week cemented Spain’s status as one of the hot favourites for the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. Dominating possession with their customary élan, the Spaniards showed why they are widely considered to be a cut above the rest of the field and gave their goalkeeper and captain another relatively comfortable evening’s work in the bargain.
The Stade de France in Saint-Denis has become a happy hunting ground for Iker Casillas. It was there that he collected his first UEFA Champions League winners medal with Real Madrid 10 years ago, and it was there last Wednesday that he collected his 102nd cap, equalling the haul of his Merengue team-mate Raul.
Still only 28, the goalkeeper stands joint second on the all-time list of most-capped Spain players and it seems only matter of time before he surpasses fellow goalkeeper Andoni Zubizarreta’s record of 126 appearances. What is more, St Iker, as he is affectionately known in his homeland, has a better record between the posts than his illustrious predecessor, having let in an average of 0.55 goals per international match, better than Zubi’s career mean of 0.79.
One of the high points of Casillas’s decade at the pinnacle was captaining his country to success at UEFA EURO 2008, only Spain’s second tournament win in their history and an experience he very much wants to repeat at South Africa 2010.
“I’d love to,” he tells FIFA.com in an exclusive interview. “It would be amazing to lift the Trophy. Those are just words, though. It’s deeds that count, and when we go to South Africa we’ll be looking to make them a reality. All the work Vicente del Bosque has done so far in taking us to that objective has been first class.”
It wasn’t easy, but I think it did us good in the end. It reminded us of what it feels like to lose again.
Spain barely put a foot wrong on the road to the finals, topping their qualifying group with 10 wins out of 10, matching the perfect record that Brazil achieved en route to glory at Mexico 1970. “If we can go on to do what they did, that would be just fantastic,” he says. “But times have changed. The other national teams know more and more about how Spain play. They have a better understanding of when to attack us and create problems for us. What we have to do, though, is try and keep this fantastic run of ours going.
“The most positive thing about our qualifying campaign was that we bounced back from losing to USA in the semi-final of the FIFA Confederations Cup,” he continues. “That was a tough defeat for us to take as we really wanted to reach the final. But the team picked itself up, got its confidence back and started on another winning run.”
South Africa revisited
Like most of his international team-mates, Casillas has a positive reading to make of that shock defeat to the Americans. “It wasn’t easy, but I think it did us good in the end. It reminded us of what it feels like to lose again.”
Though Spain’s FIFA Confederations Cup adventure did not have the happy ending Casillas would have wished for, he believes it will stand them in good stead for the main event this year, which be his third appearance at the FIFA World Cup finals.
“We’ve experienced what South Africa is all about and that’s going to be useful for us,” he explains. “We’d never played in cold weather in June before, for example, but now we’ve had a taste of that. We know the atmosphere, the people and the stadiums and that means we’ll adapt more quickly at the World Cup. We’ll try to do better than we did at the Confederations Cup, but we know it’s going to be a very demanding tournament.”
Group H rivals Switzerland, Honduras and Chile will be the first sides to test Spain’s mettle. “On paper we’re favourites to go through, and I think that we have to try and finish top of the group,” he says. “Our first objective is to get nine points. The draw for the knockout rounds is tough, but if you want to reach the World Cup final then you have to go out and beat the best.”
La Roja’s opponents in the Round of 16 will come from the Group H quartet of Brazil, Portugal, Côte d’Ivoire and Korea DPR, one of the toughest sections in the first round. Cautious to a fault, however, when the inevitable question is put to him, Iker declines to select a potential rival, preferring to take things “step by step” instead.
We have to be a force in Europe again, and I think we deserve to be in the semi-finals at least, among the top four teams in Europe. On top of that we have to win the league and be the dominant force in the domestic game.
With the best part of 100 days still to go before the finals get under way, Casillas is focusing for the time being on the many goals Real Madrid have set themselves this season. “Last year we didn’t win a single title, but we’ve taken stock of everything and put right the things that we were doing wrong,” he says. “This season the team has the right balance for an assualt on the Champions League and doing battle with Barça in the league. We’ve made a huge effort by bringing in players like Kaka, Cristiano Ronaldo, Xabi Alonso and Raul Albiol, and it’s up to the team now to respond on the pitch and not let the fans down or the president, for all the effort he’s put in.
“The aim is to win a title,” he adds. “We have to be a force in Europe again, and I think we deserve to be in the semi-finals at least, among the top four teams in Europe. On top of that we have to win the league and be the dominant force in the domestic game.”
Madrid are on the way to fulfilling that latter objective, having returned to the top of the table this past weekend. And their hopes of advancing further in the Champions League depend on negotiating their way past Lyon in the Santiago Bernabeu this week. Should Los Blancos regain their lost status at home and abroad, it would be just the tonic for Casillas as he prepares to pen another golden chapter in the story of his glittering career.