Spain’s embarrassment of goalkeeping riches

By Simon Jalie
iker casillas
(Photo: Jose Porras)

iker casillas

Iker Casillas has conceded two goals in eight competitive matches so far this season, making him the most effective top flight goalkeeper in Europe so far in 2010-11.

Real Madrid’s failure to convert a satisfactory percentage of their chances created -a concern ridiculed by last Sunday’s 6-1 victory over Deportivo La Coruna at the Bernabeu -has distracted us from the fact that we have already seen a huge defensive improvement under Jose Mourinho.

For the majority of Casillas’ tenure as Real Madrid’s number one, clean sheets have relied predominantly on his own outstanding merit. As a case in point, last season’s record points haul and the small margin which separated Madrid from Barcelona until the very end owed an enormous amount to his intervention as the last line of defence behind a shaky back four.

Casillas is a one off, a true great, and as the captain of Spain’s only World Cup-winning team his legend will not be lost to posterity. That crowning success came earlier this year, completing an international double of European and World Cup for both Casillas and Spain.

At club level, however, he has been steadily building a profile as the best stopper in the game for over a decade and he is still the right side of thirty.

Casillas made his debut in the Real Madrid team when he was just 17 years old and still cycling to the club’s training ground at Valdebebas because he wasn’t old enough to drive. He has amassed nearly 400 competitive appearances for Real and well over 100 caps for Spain.

It is hard to dispute the fact that he has now overtaken Gianluigi Buffon as the most highly-rated contemporary goalkeeper and, with Peter Cech not the same since the horrific head injury inflicted by Steven Hunt two seasons ago, only the veteran Italian and Brazilian stopper Julio Cesar can claim to compete on a similar level to Casillas at the moment.

This week, Marca ran a story which highlighted Casillas’s goalkeeping economy so far this season. Granted, Spain’s number one sports daily has spaces to fill during the international break, but the very fact that they make such a big deal about it shows the difference in attitude towards goalkeeping here in Spain compared to say, England.

La Liga is a place where goalkeeping prowess is, ostensibly at least, celebrated as much as goal scoring. The Zamora trophy -an award for the most effective goalkeeper at the end of the league season -sits side by side with the Pichichi, even if, for obvious reasons, it cannot claim to garner as much interest from the fans.

This sort of attitude is perhaps the reason why Spain has at least half a dozen goalkeepers who would walk into the England team.

Since the retirement of David Seaman eight years ago, the problem has become so desperate that the ridiculous situation has arisen in which there is genuine debate about whether Manuel Almunia should be considered between the sticks for England.

Almunia would qualify for citizenship because he has lived in London for more than five years and he is eligible according to FIFA rules because he has never come close to representing Spain.

Thankfully, Fabio Capello has dismissed the possibility of a call-up for Almunia. You have to ask yourself, would he even want the job? In a country where goalkeepers are vilified by the press and expected, even willed, to fail, who would want to be England number one? Paul Robinson weighed up the pros and cons and decided he did not, hence his retirement days after being called up for the Euro 2012 qualifiers with Bulgaria and Switzerland back in September.

England is in need of an attitude change before even dreaming of restoring their former goalkeeping glory and catching up with the likes of Spain.

There are at least seven Spanish porteros who would easily gatecrash the England squad and compete for a starting eleven berth. In reality, more than half would walk unopposed into the number one spot.

Spanish goalkeepers that England would love to hate:

Iker Casillas

The best of a strong bunch in Spain and one of the greatest of all time. Casillas’ reputation and track record helped him fight off a strong challenge for the Spain jersey from Victor Valdes in the run up to the World Cup. A fine tournament, including a crucial penalty save against Paraguay in the quarter-finals, justified Vicente del Bosque’s faith.

Pepe Reina

English fans have seen plenty of evidence of Reina’s quality in the Premier League and, indeed, the son of former Spanish international keeper Miguel Reina is desperately unlucky to have been born in the same generation as Iker Casillas. In any other period he surely would have accrued many more caps for his country.

Victor Valdes

Valdes has well and truly shaken off his error-prone tag from his early days at Barcelona to establish himself as one of the best goalkeepers of his generation, whose pivotal role as the last line of defence for the most successful Spanish club side in history will not be forgotten, especially not in Catalonia. On form, Valdes had a strong case for a starting berth at the World Cup but he could not compete with Iker Casillas’ gargantuan reputation.

Diego Lopez

Diego Lopez is one of the best and most underrated goalkeepers in Europe and has been delivering consistently for Villarreal since he joined the Valencian club from Real Madrid in 2007. Lopez was one of many of La Liga’s top stars who have found success elsewhere after failing to nail down a place at the Bernabeu. The fact that he didn’t even make the World Cup squad says so much about the embarrassment of goalkeeping riches at Vicente del Bosque’s disposal. He would be first or second choice for any other nation in the world, bar none.

Andres Palop

Palop is about as “English” as Spanish goalkeepers come: error-prone and with a Jens Lehmann-esque temper on him, occasionally he is given to making spectacular saves. Palop had an awful run at the back end of last season as some bizarre mistakes were directly attributable to lost points for Sevilla.

David de Gea

De Gea is a Casillas-like prodigy at just 19-years-old has made a strong case to claim the mantel of the best young goalkeeper in the world. He was a key part of Atletico Madrid’s UEFA cup winning campaign last season and is already being linked with a big money move to Manchester United. His rise to prominence has come at the expense of Sergio Asenjo, whom he usurped as the best young keeper in Spain.

Sergio Asenjo

Atletico Madrid signed Real Valladolid’s exceptional young keeper Sergio Asenjo in the the summer of 2009 and he started last season as Atletico’s first choice. An early sticky patch, however, saw the even younger David de Gea given a chance nearly a year ago and Asenjo has not managed to wrestle back the number one jersey since. Unfortunately, unless De Gea moves on, he will probably have to leave Atleti in order to find more playing time and get his career back on track.

Joe Hart has started the season well and deserves his chance to prove his worth as England’s number one. In fact, he deserved it a couple of months ago at the World Cup but Fabio Capello was not willing to take the risk on a young, unproven player and it backfired spectacularly, of course.

The Manchester City goalkeeper is quite fortunate to be English. Were he Spanish, for example, Hart would quite possibly be 8th choice in goal and, like Manuel Almunia, wouldn’t even get a look in with La Seleccion.

Read more on Spanish football at Simon Jalie’s La Liga Blog

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