OHANNESBURG (AFP) -Andres Iniesta may grab the backpage headlines for his dramatic extra-time winner in the World Cup final on Sunday but the true match-winner was goalkeeper Iker Casillas.
Being a football goalkeeper can be a precarious and lonely business at times as shot-stoppers are far more often branded as villains than heroes.
But the international goalkeeping fraternity will have noted with delight the two vital interventions made by Spain captain Casillas.
The Real Madrid star made two crucial one-on-one saves to deny Holland’s Arjen Robben in normal time to keep the scores level before Iniesta smashed home the historic winner four minutes from time.
In truth, over the 120 minutes, Casillas had little to do, but when he was called upon, he never faltered.
In the first 50 minutes he had made two comfortable saves from speculative Robben efforts but his real influence was yet to be seen.
On 62 minutes Wesley Sneijder dissected the Spain defence with an inch-perfect through ball that Robben scampered onto and raced clean through.
With time to pick his spot he hesitated but Casillas was not fooled and he stuck out a leg to divert Robben’s left foot effort away for a corner.
Then, seven minutes from time, Robben skinned Carles Puyol for pace, with the Barcelona centre-back doing all he could to hinder the pacey winger’s progress but bringing him down.
He did just enough to give Casillas a chance and as Robben tried to round the keeper, he smothered the danger.
Had Robben taken either of those chances, he and not Iniesta would likely have been the World Cup final hero.
But having lifted the World Cup trophy as he was mobbed by delirious team-mates, Casillas thus completed the full set of footballing gongs, 10 years after he sensationally burst into football’s collective consciousness.
And leading Spain to their first ever World Cup triumph was a fitting reward for a player who must now be ranked above Italy’s Gianluigi Buffon as the best goalkeeper in the world.
“It’s sensational. It’s an historic moment for Spanish football,” said Casillas.
Back at the start of the 1999/2000 season Real Madrid’s first choice goalkeeper was Germany number one Bodo Illgner but by the end of the season it was a teenage Spaniard who had earned a starting berth between the sticks.
Casillas first announced his potential to the world at Old Trafford as he put in a sensational display to keep out the majority of what Manchester United could throw at him as Real stunned the reigning Champions League holders 3-2 on the night and on aggregate in the second round.
Real went on to beat Valencia 3-0 in the final and at 19, Casillas became the youngest goalkeeper ever to play in a Champions League final.
That season he also made his international debut and was a non-playing member of Spain’s Euro 2000 squad.
Two seasons later the young stopper suffered a blip in his career as poor form saw him relegated to the bench, but he was once again to be Real’s Champions League hero.
After Cesar Sanchez had to go off injured in the final against Bayer Leverkusen, Casillas came on to make a string of fine saves as the Spaniards held out for a 2-1 victory.
He would suffer another one of those rare blips at the beginning of this World Cup, blamed by many for Switzerland’s goal as Spain were stunned 1-0 in their opening match, although some suggested having his TV presenter grilfriend Sara Carbonera behind his goal may have distracted him.
But since that moment, Casillas was faultless and now he can add the World Cup to his European Championship, three Champions League and four La Liga titles.