It seems strange to think that after everything the all-conquering Spanish national team had achieved in the past six years they had anything left to prove, other than retain the World Cup.
And yet one stalwart of the double-European Championship and World Cup winning side, Iker Casillas, arrived in Brazil with a desperate need to perform. It's hard to imagine it having gone any worse for the Real Madrid keeper.
Few would have predicted the precipitous slide that his career has undergone in the last two seasons.
Ever since he burst onto the scene in 1999 as a 19-year-old, he had been the undisputed first-choice keeper at the biggest team in the world. Numerous stars had come and gone through the revolving doors of the Bernabeu, but Casillas had been constant, an unerringly cool and reassuring presence.
He had spent the best part of a decade vying for the title of best goalkeeper in the world with Juventus and Italy legend Gianluigi Buffon, and there was little doubt that when Buffon—three years Casillas' senior—retired, it would be "Capi" that took the throne.
Even when Jose Mourinho first began mentioning nefarious dressing room influences undermining him, little appeared at stake for Casillas. He's been managed by 14 different coaches since his league debut, and with Mourinho sowing the seeds for his own departure at the end of the 2012-13 season, it looked to be a brief disruption rather than a full-scale derailment.
Even when Mourinho drafted in Diego Lopez in January 2013 following an injury to Casillas, the majority consensus was that it was just a temporary move. When he didn't reinstate the club captain, it was attributed to the Portuguese's typical mind-game politics, his last-ditch attempt to rein in dressing room dissenters by showing that no one was indispensable.
Normal service should have been resumed when Mourinho was replaced by Carlo Ancelotti at the beginning of last season. However Lopez's strong form left the Italian with a major dilemma.
Lopez had won his place and had done nothing to warrant losing it. Stripping him of his starting berth would not only be harsh, but would also reinforce the idea of certain players being untouchable. This was what Mourinho had identified as being Real's crucial weakness.
In the end, Ancelotti elected to keep the faith with Lopez, who repaid it in droves. Casillas was relegated to a supporting role, something that would have been unthinkable just months earlier.
For many outside of Spain, the first they saw of Casillas last season was his appearance in the Champions League final. What was a dream opportunity to reassert himself in the team and the eyes of the world quickly became a nightmare, as one disastrous moment of indecision nearly cost Madrid "La Decima".
This shaky form continued into this summer's World Cup, with costly errors against the Netherlands and Chile leading to him being dropped for Spain's final group game. With the emergence of David De Gea as a major talent, his international career is now in serious jeopardy.
In his whole illustrious career, Casillas’ stock has never been lower. This has raised the question of where his future lies.
Madrid is one of few clubs capable of paying a reserve player the wages that Casillas currently demands (rumoured to be around €6M, per Tribal Football), and to cut him loose would be hugely unpopular among the Madrid faithful. For that reason, he's unlikely to be transfer-listed or deemed surplus to requirements, but it won't necessarily mean he'll stay at the Bernabeu.
Numerous elite clubs would still be willing to take a calculated gamble on the Spaniard if the price was right. At 32, many would argue that he’s too young to be suffering a permanent decline, and he will have at least three seasons of top quality football left if he rediscovers his best form.
One club that has been repeatedly linked to the Spanish custodian is Arsenal. The Gunners are expected to undergo a fairly extensive squad overhaul this summer after another disappointing Premier League campaign. With question marks lingering about Wojciech Szczesny’s credentials as a truly world-class keeper, Arsene Wenger may be tempted to gamble on the Spaniard.
A move to the Emirates could well prove to be the most elegant solution for all parties, but if that fails to materialise, then Casillas may need to look elsewhere. It’s hard to see his career recovering should he remain at Real.
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