Real Madrid have found a solution to their goalkeeping conundrum, but it's not the one that makes the most sense.
Iker Casillas, despite a lengthy period of underwhelming form culminating in high-profile blunders in last season's Champions League final and the World Cup, is staying.
Diego Lopez, who has been in better form since his return to his boyhood club in 2013, has been forced out.
Replacing him in the squad will be Costa Rican custodian Keylor Navas, whose eye-catching performances at the World Cup were timed to perfection given the unrest in Real Madrid's goal.
When Carlo Ancelotti took over at Real Madrid, he found himself in a situation where fans and the media were split into two factions over their preference for Casillas or Lopez.
As ever, it was Mourinho who unleashed the firestorm by making the brave decision to demote Casillas to the bench. While the Special One was criticized in some quarters for the motivation behind the move, he was clearly on to something because Ancelotti followed suit—kind of.
Gathering up all his diplomatic nous, the wily Italian made a unique decision—Lopez would play in La Liga and Casillas in the Champions League and Copa Del Rey.
He claimed the decision was made because he had "the two best goalkeepers in the world" and "could not consider that Casillas won't play", per Goal.com.
Real Madrid ended up winning the Champions League and Copa Del Rey, Casillas' designated competitions. They finished a disappointing third in La Liga with Lopez in goal.
On the surface, this would suggest that Casillas had an excellent season while Lopez had a forgettable one. But that would be a gross over-simplification to put it gently, a falsehood, to put it bluntly.
Daniel Girela of Managing Madrid hits the nail on the head by stating that Real Madrid won the Champions League and Copa Del Rey "in spite of Casillas" and not thanks to him, while Lopez's performances were "excellent throughout the season."
Regardless of who performed better, the goalkeeper rotation policy was always going to be a stop-gap solution. It bred a toxic environment where much of the fanbase and media blindly sided with one goalkeeper, while subjecting the other to boos and jibes.
Ancelotti's intervention was creative but unsustainable. One of Casillas or Lopez had to leave this summer, that much is clear.
Form would suggest that Lopez would be the one to stay. From a tactical point of view, too, retaining Lopez would have made more sense given the arrival of Keylor Navas.
After all, Navas is a goalkeeper in the same mold as Casillas. Both are smaller goalkeepers who rely on agility and shot-stopping prowess rather than physicality. With Navas in the squad, it would have made more sense to retain Lopez, an old-fashioned tall goalkeeper who uses his height to command the box and his considerable wingspan to stop shots.
This way, Ancelotti would have had two distinct options for the goalkeeper position.
However, selling one of the club's most loved and decorated players of all time would have incurred the wrath of a considerable section of Real Madrid's fanbase, as pointed out by Lucas Navarrete of Managing Madrid.
After the ecstasy of winning La Decima and the excitement surrounding the signing of three of the World Cup's star performers, selling club captain and legend Casillas would have been a major buzz-kill.
In other words, nobody wants to be known as the club president or the coach who ended Iker Casillas' Real Madrid career.
And so Diego Lopez has been shunted out—but not before reportedly voicing his displeasure over the decision to club directors, according to Goal.com.
It's a shame, because having Lopez and Navas in the squad would have given Ancelotti the license to select his starting goalkeeper based on footballing factors alone rather than political and emotional considerations.
Real Madrid's experienced goalkeeping coach Villiam Vecchi spared no superlative while praising the outgoing Lopez, as reported by Tribal Football:
Technically he’s complete... He has great positioning and can play with both feet. He’s excellent at coming off his line and great with his feet. He’s one of the best keepers I’ve ever trained. His greatest strength? His reflexes. Although he’s 6’4” he’s really quick.
High praise, coming from someone who coached Gianluigi Buffon, Dida and, of course, Casillas. Vecchi seems to think Diego Lopez is pretty great. Why then did Real Madrid sell him?
It appeared to be, as Roberto Palomar of MARCA put it, "a political solution to a footballing issue."
Before I am accused of being in the "Diego Lopez camp," let me clarify one thing: Iker Casillas happens to be my all-time favorite Real Madrid player. I have a jersey with his name and number on it. To Real Madrid fans of my generation who got sucked into Madridismo in the late '90s, San Iker represents something special.
He is the only remaining holdover from the pre-Galactico Real Madrid side that featured such all-time greats as Raul and Roberto Carlos alongside cult favorites such as Fernando Morientes and Steve McManaman. That team holds a special romance for Madridistas burnt out by big-money star signings.
As the only player in the current Real Madrid squad to have played in that era, he has come to be seen as synonymous with it.
He is also, of course, synonymous with victory.
Over the past decade and a half, Real Madrid fans have grown well accustomed to the sight of Casillas performing goalkeeping heroics, before shedding fountains of tears to celebrate major trophy conquests.
There were tears in 2000 when, just days after his 19th birthday, he kept a clean sheet in the Champions League final. There were tears in 2007 when a Fabio Capello-coached Real Madrid pulled off the most improbable of season comebacks to win La Liga after a horrendous trophy drought.
There were, of course, tears aplenty after the 2010 World Cup final.
There was no trademark tearful outpouring of joy after La Decima was won, however, only a sense of relief and gratitude in the teammates who bailed him out.
For had it not been for Sergio Ramos' imperious headed equalizer deep into stoppage time, the 2014 Champions League final would have been remembered as the game in which Casillas threw away La Decima and gifted Atletico Madrid La Primera.
There's no shame in making a blunder, even in a big game. The greatest players to have ever played the game have all been there, and Casillas sits in that pantheon.
A player who has contributed as much as he has to Real Madrid's successes this century deserves to be able to enjoy a Champions League title despite playing poorly in the final.
But he does not deserve to remain in the team at the expense of a better player purely because of his history and when his powers are clearly on the wane.
But, you ask, isn't Casillas—at age 33—theoretically still in the prime age for a goalkeeper? False. Unfortunately, said theory tends to apply to the more conventional goalkeeper, which Casillas has never been.
If you consider some of the great goalkeepers of recent times who played on at the highest level deep into their 30s—Peter Schmeichel, Oliver Kahn, Edwin Van Der Sar—they all had something in common.
They were traditional-style goalkeepers who were large in stature, had a commanding physical presence and were excellent organizers of defences. As their speed and reflexes deteriorated with age, they were able to fall back on their other attributes to keep them going.
Casillas is anything but an old-school goalkeeper, however. He is unique, special even. He has always relied disproportionately on his extraordinary shot-stopping ability, a by-product of his agility, cat-like-reflexes and prowess in one-on-one situations.
It's what made him so thrilling to watch for so many years.
It's what allowed him to make so many seemingly impossible saves such as this magnificent pair against Sevilla, the second of which must rank as one of the greatest saves of all time.
It's what allowed him to play a starring role in so many titles at club and international level.
It's also the reason why he's unlikely to remain a world-class goalkeeper for much longer.
Age takes its toll on speed and reflexes, and Casillas doesn't have a commanding physical presence to back him up. He is also not as good an organizer and communicator as somebody like Gianluigi Buffon, who continues to call upon his top-notch organizational skills to keep him going even as his physical faculties atrophy.
This is not to say that Casillas is completely washed up just yet. He surely has many more great performances in him. It wouldn't even be completely beyond the realm of possibility for him to regain his top form.
However, Diego Lopez would have been the safer and smarter bet, as he is at present a better goalkeeper than Casillas.
As is Keylor Navas.
The Costa Rican may have made a name for himself at the World Cup, but he has been a standout performer in La Liga for some time now. Last season, his humble Levante side achieved the best defensive record in the league outside of the top four teams. A large chunk of credit for that goes to Navas, whose outstanding form helped him rack up 16 clean sheets in 37 games, according to UEFA.com.
Shot-stopping aside, Navas is also an excellent defensive organizer, as pointed out by B/R's Karla Villegas Gama. He also offers better distribution than Casillas, whom Real Madrid fans have grown all too accustomed to seeing punt the ball out of play under little to no pressure.
He's also younger, fitter and hungrier.
All of this points to the likelihood that Navas will replace Casillas as Real Madrid's first-choice goalkeeper in the near future.
Casillas earned the right to play the recent Super Cup as he was Real Madrid's goalkeeper in the Champions League last season. But he will face a stern challenge from Navas as the weeks roll on.
If Casillas is dropped, he will accept the decision quietly as he did last season's rotation policy.
But large sections of the Real Madrid fanbase and Real Madrid-centric media will not be as kind and will heap unfair pressure on Navas.
While Casillas can be expected to conduct himself in a professional manner no matter the situation, many Madridistas see him as a legend not to be trifled with. And they will take out their displeasure on Navas, as they did on Lopez.
The fact of the matter is that Madridistas cannot stand the sight of the club's greatest-ever goalkeeper being reduced to a squad player. Casillas' visible drop in confidence and often forlorn expression while warming the bench have been understandably painful for Madridistas to stomach.
After all, this was the boy who wowed the world with his incredible goalkeeping while still a teenager. This was the man who lifted Spain's first World Cup title as captain—the Real Madrid captain who captained Spain to international domination. It was perfect. He was supposed to return home and stay Real Madrid's No. 1 forever.
This overwhelming and at times blinding affection for Iker Casillas has led to him staying on at the club at the expense of poor Diego Lopez. It also ensures that Keylor Navas will be subjected to extra pressure—as if that were needed at Real Madrid—if and when he displaces Casillas.
It was not merely a political decision; it was also a decision of the heart. Whether it leads to something beautiful or results in spectacular failure remains to be seen.
Either way, it was not the correct footballing decision.
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