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[Edited to retroactively to add a mood icon, in honour.]

Okay, so I've only just got around to gushing about the Spanish win of the World Cup, because it's been that kind of day, but I think I just need to get this out. That push in the chest to write something is (as my mother as a child used to be told she was) "up and down like a fart in a bottle".

The story of my interest in the Spanish side (even against the Dutch, who are actually in my ethnic makeup) is really the story of a single man: Iker Casillas, La Roja's goalkeeper.

Let me tell you that story (at length, because it's a special occasion).

The setting:
World Cup 2002, Japan/South Korea, was the first I took real interest in. (In Australia the matches are only televised live, which usually means 2-4 AM and similar; soccer is not the favourite sport, and it used to be only the die hards who put themselves through the grinder to watch it. Japan/South Korea times were more reasonable, and now I can't help myself.) I play in goal, so I tend to watch the game and the players from that perspective. I had no vested interest in the tournament at all, so naturally gravitated to the most interesting keepers, and thus their teams. Oliver Kahn was still going strong for Germany, dubbed the best keeper in the world at the time, David Seaman was playing for England, and then there was the the lanky Turkish keeper, Rüştü, who was good quality (Turkey won third place), but, perhaps more notably, looked like a pirate.

The player:
But hands down, the keeper that grabbed my attention and imagination was Iker Casillas. Not because he was around my age and rather (okay,
VERY) good looking, because there are plenty of attractive players in the various sides in the World Cup. Although his youth did stand out in that insanely stressful position; there is no more stressful position on the park. You can miss all day as a striker, and get one lucky break, and no one remembers your messups. You can save everything, all day, and have one unlucky break, and no one remembers what you did right. So to be a 21 year-old on the highest international stage doing that is extraordinary, a fact that did not escape me, when I noticed how young he was.

The stage:
Round of 16, they were 1-0 up against Ireland, when Ireland was awarded a penalty shot (Robbie Keane, I think, but honestly it's getting hazy). In case it weren't already blindingly obvious, penalty shots are ten, twenty, fifty times harder to stop than they are to take. The only thing that brings some parity to the situation is that the kind of heightened pressure the kicker experiences to "put it away" – and the humiliation and recrimination of failing – is roughly equivalent to what the keeper experiences all the time during the game. Therefore, psychologically, keepers are better equipped to deal with it. In fact, they have the small mercy of (for once) not being expected to stop the shot – from others, at least; believe that, as a keeper, and you're done before you started.

But general expectation (for once) has correctly sized up the situation. The goalmouth is 192' square, a mere 12' from the penalty spot, with a 6'-odd person standing in the middle, forbidden to come out and narrow the angle at all. No matter how fast and far you dive, there are swathes, swathes I tell you, of room at either side that you simply cannot get to before the ball does. Cannot be done (not that you allow yourself to think that). – I remember one training session where my team, and our sister team, practiced penalty shots (in an elimination-style competition, to simulate something of the pressure). I opted to take shots and let the other keeper stand in goal, and won the competition easily, largely because I couldn't believe how much space I had to aim at, and how much fun it was to be the one who chose where and when to strike the ball. Eveyone else was so inexplicibly nervous, and I was simply enjoying myself.

The action:
Robbie Keane steps up to take the penalty. Casillas dives and gets his hands to it, but can only knock it back into the onrushing players, scrambles, recovers, but the rebound is put wide, much to his relief. Later on, Ireland get another penalty, which they convert, and the two sides end up going to penalty shoot out. It's one of those ones which demonstrates graphically how strikers do not handle the pressure at all well, because several shots go wide from both sides. But here's the point: of those that were on-target, Casillas saves two. This fresh-faced kid, not all that big compared to the usual 6'3, long-limbed stature of star keepers, saves almost half the penalties taken against him. That is just ridiculous. Three saves out of a total of seven penalties is outrageous. And I was all-in. He could have been butt-ugly for all I cared, I was cheering him all the way, and his team could come, too.

Pity they lost against South Korea in the quaters, also on penalties (it's not a good way to win or lose a match, but there aren't a lot of good alternatives). That was the point at which I started becoming aware of the many problems and schisms which bedevil the Spanish national side, and have been fascinated by the larger story ever since. They were back for the next World Cup in Germany, and did no better, but Casillas (now also captaining the side! At 25!) still stood out. He's steady-headed, he's an excellent captain (he's vice captain at Real, to Raúl) he's smart, he leaps like a panther, his positional play is excellent, and his reflexes are phenomenal. And he's cute. What's more to like?

Well, as I learned by taking notice whenever he crossed my line of vision (not all that often, sadly), he's also full of heart, he's incredibly loyal, and he's stayed out of that silliness and excess that so many star players get sucked into. To employ the hackneyed-yet-convenient phrase, he "keeps it real". Er, "yo". Only, he actually does. He plays for Real Madrid because he grew up there, he loves his side, and he doesn't intend to go anywhere else, no matter what they offer him. His career rose apace with La Roja's, captaining them to win the UEFA European Championship (their first international trophy in nearly 50 years), and clearly cares about the national side as much as his club. The tears that started flowing the moment the final whistle blew and Spain were finally, officially, world champions – that started building the moment the last-minute goal was scored – while his team went nuts around him, are proof of just what it meant to him. Although I imagine some of the
overwrung emotion came from the incredible relief of realising he wouldn't have to face the penalty shoot-out, which he would have been gearing himself up for. The idea of the win coming all down to him is the kind of glory keepers are happy to do without, thank you very much. And then there's this, when his sports reporter girlfriend attempts to do a serious and professional, live post-match interview, right after the final. All together, now: "... D'awwwww...."

Which is why his journey to the World Cup Championship has also, in some ways, been mine. I thought I would be happy, whoever won this match; I thought I wouldn't mind. But as I watched, I realised that was wrong. I didn't care which team won, but I did not want Casillas to be defeated. Thus, because seeing him lift that trophy filled my heart in the way the best stories do, I gush unabashedly in the overflow.


( 6 speakses — have a speak )
Jul. 12th, 2010 10:58 am (UTC)
Dude, it's a special kind of crazy to be a goalkeeper, no matter the sport. :)

Thanks for the nice write-up. I'd been a little disappointed that the Dutch hadn't won, for really no reason except that I've been to Holland, but now I'm kind of thrilled for Spain. :)
Jul. 12th, 2010 08:06 pm (UTC)
I don't get this straight-up passionate about many things, but this just pushes all the right buttons. :)

And agreed on the crazy thing. I once likened goalkeeping to the Black Knight of Python's Holy Grail. The similarities are uncanny!
Jul. 13th, 2010 05:26 pm (UTC)
I'm curious - how did you become a goalkeeper?
Jul. 13th, 2010 09:26 pm (UTC)
I don't really remember! I played soccer as a kid, and I think they rotated us in goal, and I enjoyed my time in there. I think that's what made me tend to gravitate to that position in informal kick-arounds I played as a teen, which made me volunteer for it when I started playing organised soccer again at 16. And, depending on the team and who else wanted to play in goal, I'd play in goal or defense. I love playing in the backs, too, but I think of myself as a keeper, although I haven't played for a few years now. The competitiveness started to really get to me.

So ... I think that's how it happened! :)
Jul. 12th, 2010 12:14 pm (UTC)
Yay goalies! Since one of my dearest friends started playing club football, as a goalie, I've had a much greater appreciation of the stress and pressure involved. To me, the hero of the All Whites is Mark Paston. He saved a penalty kick from Bahrain back in November, which denied them the goal to equalise with us, and his defending at the World Cup was amazing. He's also done great things for our local A-league side, the Wellington Phoenix.

I was also backing Spain, but mostly my family and I were just cheering because SOMEBODY SCORED and it wouldn't have to come down to a penalty shootout. Oh, and I had another ulterior motive for backing Spain: the Netherlands' loss means that New Zealand was the only team to go undefeated at this World Cup. Of course, we only played 3 games, but it's still something to cling to ;-)
Jul. 12th, 2010 08:36 pm (UTC)
Yay goalies! *high fives* It's such a hidden thing, too. The number of times I've heard commentators (and if they used to be players, it's always outfield, usually strikers) look at a play and say, "Oh, that's a mistake by the goalkeeper, they should have blah blah blah...." And, okay, sometimes a keeper will have a moment of really bad judgement. Everyone on the field does, but theirs is so much more catastrophic. But most of the time, it's just that even keepers can't negate the forces of physics (although they do their damndest). I get a bit annoyed at those kinds of calls; I may have even been known to tell the tv off, once or twice, on that one.

Yeah, I was dreading the penalty shoot-out. The absolute worst (non-cheating) way to win the World Cup, ever. Ugh. And congrats on the 0 in the losses column! No mean feat with Italy in your group stage – and you lot helping them on their way out before they ever saw the round of 16! I wasn't tracking Mark Paston especially, but I know he did an amazing job. A good keeper makes such an incredible difference to the performance of a team, but so few people notice. Sigh.

( 6 speakses — have a speak )

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