Casillas deserves better than to exit with a whimper
It took the Spanish just 15 seconds to play the ball back to their captain. For the hopeful, that was a good sign. After Iker Casillas allowed five goals against the Netherlands in Spain's opening game -- two of them his fault -- there were suggestions, even demands, that he be benched on Wednesday against Chile. But Vicente del Bosque went with a man who is in every sense his No. 1, and that early pass back to Casillas took on more than the usual weight. A team that doesn't have confidence in its keeper won't give him the ball. Now here the ball was, at his feet once again.
That otherwise forgettable little feed could prove Casillas' last moment of command, at least on the international stage. He and his team, the defending champions of Europe and the world, are out of the World Cup, eliminated despite having one more game to play. Spain's collective collapse -- seven goals against, only a single penalty for -- has been so complete that there is no recovering from it. Whatever this team was, it no longer is, and it might never be again.
It seems especially true for Casillas, which is hard to accept. I've always liked him as a player. He has made so many spectacular saves that his 100th best would be something that lesser keepers would have had printed on posters. He has lifted every trophy available to him. He has not only anchored his teams; he has also led them. That's a hard trick to pull from the back, but Casillas has managed it, and for so long that I don't understand how the forgetting of his greatness has already begun.
The first cracks opened when Jose Mourinho famously dropped him from the first team at Real Madrid. Casillas is one of the top modern keepers, the most capped man in Spanish history, but being the best at something requires belief before execution, from within and without. Suddenly there was doubt in him. He's admitted that he cried and had trouble sleeping.
He continued to start occasionally, mostly in the Champions League, which Real Madrid won only weeks ago. But even in that victory over Atletico Madrid, he allowed an uncharacteristically weak goal. Then came the disaster against the Dutch, and now, in some ways, the even more devastating humiliation by the Chileans.
The second goal Casillas allowed against Jorge Sampaoli's men was, like more and more of the goals against him, his fault. He punched a ball he should have caught. For goalkeepers, under these lights, that can make all the difference. Witness England's Robert Green in South Africa in 2010, the whole of his career derailed by a single gaffe. Russia's Igor Akinfeev knows what's coming for him, too, after he let a soft shot go through his hands against South Korea earlier this week.
If there's a line of defence that can't reveal any sign of our essential human fallibility, it's the last one, and few instruments betray a shaken faith more plainly than a keeper's hands. Once he starts punching rather than catching, it's hard to get him back again.
I hope Casillas gets one more chance to remember how to catch. I hope he doesn't listen to the inevitable braying that he should call it a day rather than risk sullying his legacy, as though his legacy could ever be erased. How could any genuine fan have wanted him to sit, after all that he's done? How could anyone be that disloyal?
Casillas has a chance to recover his form only because of Del Bosque and his trust. That's how every reconstruction starts -- with a faith that it isn't the end. And so all of us should want to see Casillas out there one more time, against Australia on Monday.
By the measure of this tournament, it will be a meaningless game. Both teams have been eliminated. But Iker Casillas will be done along with them only if his last view of the World Cup comes from the bench, and if that is our last view of him. He needs to believe that he isn't alone in his belief. He needs to know that he isn't the only one who can lead from the back.