How Good Was Iker Casillas Really

Iker Casillas was considered one of the best goalkeepers of his era. He was part of the hyped up Real Madrid era of Los Galacticos, and he remained on the team through the Cristiano Ronaldo run. Ultimately leaving ironically for Porto a little before the Portuguese star also left Real Madrid. With Spain he captained the team through its most glorious run in their history. Two European Cups with a World Cup in between. With that resume it seems even sacrilegious to suggest that Iker’s talent should be up for debate. When thinking about writing this article though I keep going back to the Los Galacticos era. The team was overhyped, but they really didn’t win as much as they maybe should have. Was Iker part of this problem? 


Maybe he wasn’t part of the problem, but his style of play is not the one that we typically see out of modern goalkeepers. In fact, I think there’s an argument to be made that he’s one of the last great goalkeepers that was in a sense missing key skills that are nowadays necessary to be considered a top man between the sticks. Let’s not get this one twisted, for me Iker Casillas was one of the best goalkeepers of his generation. However, I do believe that it’s going to be very hard for a goalkeeper with his skill set, and his physical stature to make it big once again in the international game. Perhaps that alone should tell you all you need to know about Iker Casillas, but I still want to explore the question, How good was Iker Casillas really?

What Were Iker Casillas’ Main Skills 

One of the things that I really enjoyed about doing the research for this article was looking into the footage of the young Casillas. His story has been well documented, someone from Real Madrid came down to his school to let him know that he had been called up to travel with the first team because of the injuries that the club had at the position. From those first days Casillas showed that he was incredible between the sticks. I wouldn’t say though that he was a high flier between the sticks like Oblak, Ochoa or some of these other goalkeepers that we have today. His mastery came in cutting off angles and making it difficult on shooters at any point of attack. 

In short what he would do is force 1v1 situations where he had the upper hand. He was able to do that because he had the burst in his step to be able to quickly come off the line and put himself in a favorable position. There are very few goals that we’ve seen Iker concede over his career in which he’s completely out of position, and he gets chipped for example. With the way that he played I think that’s something that’s just a testament to how amazing he really was at understanding where he was in goal at all times. Of course, he did have quite a few of the high-flying saves that I just referenced as well.   

The Holes In His Game

This is not a section that I want to use to completely bash on the man. However, I do think that in a sense he was always kind of “protected” from media scrutiny. There are a couple of reasons for that, number one he was at certain points one of the few Spaniards on the squad. So the local media didn’t really want to put him down as much. Also, there were seasons where the team was really not up to par with the standards that we have come to expect from Real Madrid. He was one of the few bright spots that allowed the team to be in the Champions League each year, and at least compete at every level. 

Having said all of that, since he isn’t one of the tallest goalkeepers out there, he had a real tough time when he was forced to come out and catch crosses. He almost lost the team a Champions League final to Atlético de Madrid on an errant play. That’s not the only time that he had trouble with those types of plays throughout his career. Another thing that I feel really goes overlooked was that he really didn’t play well with his feet. Back to the footage in the young days he wouldn’t take goal kicks. Perhaps that could’ve been a practice that the team should have continued; he was never a long ball hitter. These flaws though are certainly things that you can live with considering the other parts of his game were above average.   

His Best Run As A Professional 

I would contend that Iker Casillas’ best run as a pro started right around 2007, maybe more towards the 2007 to 2008 season that ended with Spain winning that first European Cup. Although there’s a strong case to be made that he was a great player even before that. I feel though his best start to really show was the moment that the Los Galacticos era ended, and Florentino Perez left the club. In that space Real Madrid was a bit of a crossroads and had quite the trouble finding their footing. These moments tend to be the best for goalkeepers to come into their own. Particularly a goalkeeper like Iker Casillas who was always a part of a big club. I’m going to talk about that in a bit, but at times if you don’t come across adversity as a goalkeeper you end up being underappreciated.

In the presidency of Ramon Calderon at Real Madrid, with the likes of Bernd Schuster, Juan de Ramos, and even Manuel Pelegrini in later years on the bench Casillas was really able to prove his worth. These were the years when he was nicknamed San Iker. The name came about because he was tasked with making a ton of amazing saves to keep his team in games. Part of the reason why he had to make those marvelous saves was because the team around him was not that good. With Spain he saw a completely different era. He wasn’t being bombarded with shots from all over the place, but he was more than capable of anchoring a Spanish defense that was splendid for a period of about 4 to 5 magnificent years.    

Was He Helped By Playing In Real Madrid? 

green and blue soccer field
Photo by Pablo Cordero on

If there is one thing that people want to hold against Iker Casillas it would have to be the fact that he played for Real Madrid. The idea is that one he was coddled by the local press. Which in a sense he was, but when Mourinho came along that love turned to hate, and created a very nasty situation for Iker. As I mentioned if his entire career would’ve been dominance and smooth sailing I would actually argue that he could’ve been affected negatively by playing at Real Madrid. There’s a clear example that happened to a contemporary of Casillas at Barcelona, Victor Valdes. Valdes was the goalkeeper for Barcelona in two amazing eras for the club. In his younger years he won a Champions League title under Frank Rikjard, and the on field leadership of Ronaldinho. 

Later in his career he got to play for perhaps one of the best teams of all time Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona led by Xavi, Iniesta, and of course Lionel Messi. Since he didn’t really go through adversity he was never really challenged as a goalkeeper all that much. When he left Barcelona he realized there was not much of a market for him because he was quite frankly not all that good. Casillas on the other hand did go through adversity even at a top flight club. That allowed him to really position himself as one of the top goalkeepers of his era. In fact, the spotlight and the adversity within it that he faced at Real Madrid really helped him cement a legacy. Even if he did have some favorable press.    

The Intangibles Were Off The Charts 

One of the things that stood out about Iker Casillas was his ability to lead in the locker room. By a certain age, 25 onward more or less, he was a galactico himself. In the sense that he’d been with the team for a lot of years and he was a respected presence in the locker room. He took that step in stride though, and that must not have been easy at all. The thing is he was playing with the first team on a regular basis from a very young age. Of course at the beginning one of the things that potentially helped out was that Real Madrid’s back line was mostly Spanish. Lead by team captain Fernando Hierro, and right back Michel Salgado. Both of these guys seemingly took Iker under their wing. 

By the time that players like Cristiano Ronaldo, and Kaka came along he was already a well established presence in the locker room. To the point where he was never questioned as a true leader in the squad. Of course it also helped that Raul was still there when Cristiano Ronaldo arrived, and it was still very much their team. As previously mentioned it was perhaps even too much leadership that ended Casillas’ time at Real Madrid. Jose Mourinho accused him of leaking stories about the team to the press, and refused to put him on the field. Although he returned to a starting role and won one more Champions League with the club it was clear his days were numbered. 

How Iker Casillas Stacks Up Against His Contemporaries 

When Iker Casillas had already been a part of the Champions League winning Real Madrid team he wasn’t really considered a top goalkeeper in the game. I say this to highlight the fact that naming someone like Oliver Kahn his contemporary is a bit unfair. Even though both of them saw action in the tournament Iker was still an up and coming young talent. At the tournament Kahn would prove that he was at the peak of his powers. Sadly, as I’ve covered on this site, his powers faded in the final. That’s the life of a goalkeeper though. 

Really his direct competitor has always been Gianluigi Buffon. Recently I wrote an article on the Italian and I referenced Iker. That’s one of the main reasons I took to analyzing the Spaniard next. In any case, what I’ve always maintained is that overall Buffon is a more complete goalkeeper. I don’t feel that saying that is bad-mouthing anyone. Buffon is taller, has a wider frame and just a wider skill set across the board. Not to mention the fact that he played for longer at a higher level. Buffon is older than Iker, and he’s still playing! Being second to potentially the greatest goalkeeper of all time isn’t a bad deal though.  

How Good Was Iker Casillas Really? – Conclusion

Ultimately he was certainly one of the best goalkeepers of the early 21st century and into the middle of the 10s. From there his performance did drop off, and yet Real Madrid enjoyed a ton of success. So I do think that in a sense his career maybe isn’t remembered as favorably as it should due to the fact that immediate success followed his departure. He was there with the old guard in Los Galacticos and was the link between that team and the Cristiano era. He truly made a difference when he needed to in key moments.  

The way that he played for his country is also remarkable. There’s no question that he is the greatest Spanish goalkeeper of all time. Also, he was there in the key moments regardless of the fact that it could be said Spain had the best team in the world for that 4 to 5 year stretch that I mentioned earlier. There are probably more than a few Real Madrid supporters that want to put Casillas as the greatest goalkeeper of all time. I think he comes in second in his own era, but that’s not something to be ashamed about at all.