Real Madrid defeated Alaves 3-0 on Sunday in La Liga. It keeps Zinedine Zidane’s side top of the table, two points ahead of Barcelona. It was a routine victory. What was noticeable was that Real Madrid rested their goalkeeper Keylor Navas, who had been in Central America on international duty with Costa Rica, only returning to the Spanish capital on Thursday. Real Madrid’s reserve goalkeeper Kiko Casilla played instead.
Navas would have been travel-weary, in need of a rest. More worrying is that he is in a prolonged crisis of confidence. In Costa Rica’s pair of 2018 FIFA World Cup qualifying games, Navas coughed up a soft goal during the 1-1 draw with Honduras, and the manner in which he spilled the ball from a corner for Mexico’s second goal in a 2-0 defeat evoked memories of an embarrassing mistake for his club side against Real Betis before the international break.
The Real Betis match was a strange one for Navas. He pulled off an acrobatic, injury-time save from an Antonio Sanabria header that ensured Real Madrid bagged three points, but he was lucky to escape a red card for a reckless, outside-the-box lunge on Serbian striker Darko Brasanac in the first half.
The ups and downs continued a couple of minutes later. In the 24th minute, Navas saved a Sanabria shot from inside the box, but then in a second movement—while grounded and flapping—Navas scooped the ball under his shoulder into the net. It looked pathetic. At the final whistle, Sergio Ramos ran towards him for an embrace and joined a chorus of Real Madrid players, including Marcelo and Luka Modric, in the press area’s mixed zone in supporting their forlorn team-mate with words of encouragement.
Navas—whose cock-up in Real Madrid’s previous league game against Las Palmas cost them a win—had to ship some queries from the press after the Real Betis match about his performance, especially the own-goal he conceded. “It was bad,” Navas admitted, according to La Prensa (in Spanish). “It was an ugly moment. These are circumstances you don’t want to be involved in. I just want to keep moving forward now."
Some of Real Madrid’s fans are on his case. Throughout the Real Betis match, he was whistled at when he touched the ball. The Santiago Bernabeu is an unforgiving place when the home fans turn on a player. Jose Garcia has been going to the stadium to support Real Madrid since a 2-2 draw against Deportivo La Coruna in 1968.
“Those fans who whistle at the Bernabeu are not genuine Real Madrid supporters,” Garcia said. “We call them ‘piperos’—they spend the game eating pipas (sunflower seeds). They barrack all the stars at various stages, even Cristiano Ronaldo. I’m not like that. I give the players a chance. The problem now is that Real Madrid fans want a change of goalkeeper. They want a new face. They’re always looking for new players.”
Throughout the season, the Spanish footballing press have aired transfer gossip stories about either Manchester United’s David de Gea or Chelsea’s Thibaut Courtois making a big-ticket move to Real Madrid in the summer. Navas is under-appreciated because he didn’t arrive at Real Madrid in the summer of 2014 as a marquee name, landing at the club from lowly Levante for €10 million.
Santiago Segurola, a columnist with newspaper AS and a doyen of Spanish football writing, had this to say: “In my opinion, Navas is one of the players at Real Madrid who has had the most difficulties in trying to establish himself in a very delicate position. Real Madrid has always had very good goalkeepers.”
“Navas has had to succeed a myth—Iker Casillas, who is an exceptional player in the history of Spanish football, a mythic goalkeeper, who was with Real Madrid since he was a child. It is a position that Casillas kept for almost 17 years with enormous authority. He was an unrivalled player, even though his last years were complicated because of his relationship with Jose Mourinho. Navas didn’t have qualities that suggested he would be a successor to Casillas.”
Segurola adds that Navas’ footballing pedigree is not impressive. He comes from Costa Rica, which isn’t a powerhouse in football terms. He lacks the cachet of a high-profile signing like, say, his team-mate Gareth Bale, one of several Galacticos club president Florentino Perez has signed since he became club president in 2000.
El Pais journalist and author Diego Torres explains that Perez orchestrates an elaborate propaganda machine made up of journalists who work for Spanish newspapers, radio stations, websites and Real Madrid TV. He uses this propaganda machine to do his bidding, to influence opinion. The comparison with how Navas and Bale are treated, for example, is instructive.
“The Real Madrid president Florentino Perez points a finger at certain footballers. His propaganda apparatus is capable of persuading people to believe that there are footballers that are a problem that need to be eradicated; and that there are other footballers who are very good and that need to be protected,” says Torres.
“This propaganda distorts people’s perception. Keylor Navas is quite a good goalkeeper who doesn't deserve being whistled at, but he gets whistled at; there are other players, like Gareth Bale who has done absolutely nothing important; however, he is considered one of the best players in the world. Neither his statistics nor what he contributes in each match deserves that elevated status.
“What is the difference there? The difference is that the propaganda is in Bale’s favor and against Keylor Navas. Why? Because the president likes Bale, and he doesn't like Keylor Navas. This propaganda structure influences the fans. That is why they jeer their own players like Navas.”
It wasn’t always this way. Navas spent his first season at Real Madrid as an understudy to Casillas. In the summer of 2015, he was on the verge of being shipped off to Manchester United in exchange for De Gea, but the transfer fell through at the death, owing to last-minute trouble organising the paperwork. It was a sign that Real Madrid’s hierarchy lacked faith in Navas.
In the run-up to the De Gea transfer farrago, Navas had impressed in pre-season games, especially during a 5-0 win against Real Betis in which fans chanted his name: “Keylor! Keylor! Keylor!” His excellent form continued through the season, earning him the nickname “Keylor Paras” (Keylor Saves) from his team-mates. As Real Madrid marched towards an 11th Champions League title in Milan, Navas only conceded three goals in 11 games.
“It is really hard for me to remember one sole error from Keylor last year,” Segurola said. “I think he was one of the three best goalkeepers in the world. I believe he played like that because he had a challenge. He was probably quite upset with what happened during the summer when he was almost offloaded in favour of De Gea. A gauntlet had been thrown down. His reflexes were fast. He read the game very well. His anticipation was good. He was firm and calm. Even though he was guarding the most pressurised goal in world football, nothing overwhelmed him. He exceeded expectations.”
This season, however, his form has dipped. He picked up an Achilles injury in May 2016, which required an operation a month later. The long summer layoff meant he missed the start of the league campaign. His deputy Casilla, signed from Espanyol and a graduate of Real Madrid’s youth academy, proved an able replacement. His statistics have been far better this season—four clean sheets in eight league outings, compared to only four clean sheets in more than double the number of games for Navas.
There is a clamour among Real Madrid’s fans, and in press circles, to drop Navas for the remainder of the season, as Real Madrid close in on a league title and back-to-back Champions League crowns. Two critical games are looming—Saturday’s Madrid derby against Atletico and a Champions League first-leg quarter-final tie against Bayern Munich next week.
Real Madrid’s coach, Zidane, has backed Navas, against a barrage of criticism, throughout the season. He is conservative by nature, which suggests it’s unlikely he’d risk dropping him permanently. Navas has one other important ally. The club’s goalkeeping coach, Luis Llopis, is a friend of Navas from their days together at Levante, and he is also a valued assistant of Zidane’s.
Torres stresses, though, that it is the opinion of Perez—and not Zidane—that is the issue for Navas. “The problem is not the coach,” he says, “but the president who doesn't want that goalkeeper. He wants to sign a new goalkeeper. He wants De Gea or Courtois. In order to sign a new goalkeeper, the president needs to distort the goalkeeper playing to get him to leave the club.
“This situation generates insecurity and unease in Keylor Navas and this makes him play badly. Because he plays badly, he gets whistled at; because he gets whistled at, he plays badly. This is like a snowball. In the end, he ends up deserving to get dropped because he becomes a bad goalkeeper; but he only becomes a bad goalkeeper because his own club has destroyed him. It has undermined him.”
Navas' Real Madrid future could be decided in the next couple of weeks—or the president may have already decided it.