Iker Casillas left out the back door, alone. At 10.21pm on Saturday night it was finally official: Real Madrid’s captain was leaving the club and Spain’s captain was leaving the country, destination Porto. It was five years almost to the minute since his save helped win the World Cup in Johannesburg, 17 since he was pulled out of a technical drawing class to travel to Norway in the Champions League, and 25 since he joined Madrid, aged nine. Now, aged 34, he had gone.
There was no happy ending but at least there was an ending. There needed to be one because the situation had become untenable. The last few years have been divisive, damaging ones; years in which José Mourinho saw a sinner and made a martyr of the man they had called the saint, in which he was whistled by some supporters, and in which the president showed him the door with ever-decreasing subtlety.
Perhaps the best demonstration of that was this: there was something telling and uncomfortably fitting about the way it ended. On a Sunday morning, in an empty stadium, no trophies, no videos, no embrace. Nobody, in fact.
Casillas has played 725 games for Madrid and has won every trophy there is: winner of three European Cups and five league titles, as well as two European Championships and the World Cup with Spain. The club captain, he has been there for quarter of a century and had intended to be there his entire life. But Madrid did not want him and did not wave him off. He came in on his own, sat on his own and left on his own. His former team-mates were on a plane to Australia, president Florentino Pérez was not present and no director accompanied him. There were none even in the room. There were no fans in the stadium, either, although a few had gathered outside.
Some had turned up two days earlier, expecting a big send-off on Friday, proudly announced in the press, but final negotiations to rescind his contract had become bitter and the deal had momentarily fallen through. By the time it was put together, both sides’ only satisfaction came from seeing the back of each other. The send-off had been cancelled, if there had genuinely been plans for one in the first place. It is not clear why, but reports suggested that Casillas had turned down the opportunity, seeing it as hypocritical, the insincere embrace of a club that forced him out.
And so all there was on Sunday was this, and it was not much. “This should only take 30 seconds but I think I’ll take an hour,” Casillas said when he appeared at the Santiago Bernabeu, laying his statement on the desk – polite but unremarkable words of thanks – and blowing out his cheeks. Cameras surrounded him, clicking frantically. “You’ll get another one with tears,” he said. “Right,” he continued, then coughed, voice cracking. “Erm ... first, thanks,” he began again, but again he had to stop, trying to prevent himself from crying. “I told you the first photo would be no use,” he said. They had their tears now.
"Look, I have to read this," he insisted. Eventually, slowly, he did. And then he got up and he was gone. He had been there for nine minutes and that was it. Over. No homage, no warmth, not even any questions. They would have been awkward, damaging ones; the simplest question of all perhaps the most cutting: "Why?" How did it come to this?
The battle around Casillas has often been vicious and is one in which some of his defenders did him more harm than good. The lines were clearly drawn when Mourinho dropped him in December 2012 and the consequences were lasting. Casillas has not been the same since, but nor has he been anywhere near as bad as his fiercest critics claim. The coach had diagnosed the decline, said some. He provoked it, said others – if they recognised it at all.
But it was about more than just playing, it was about personalities and politics and Casillas’s reputation became increasingly damaged – the goalkeeper standing accused of leaking dressing room secrets and of lacking professionalism. He was protected by the media, his detractors complained, but protection was certainly not offered from the club. In one interview he admitted to feeling "alone".
Those scars remain; relationships have not been repaired. There is a divide that has become entrenched and purely footballing criteria have been buried beneath politics and phobias; it is not just about the player but the legend and the legends.
If there had been questions, that would have been broached and now was not the time; now was the time just to get away. It was hard enough for him to keep it together anyway. They might have asked Casillas about his parents’ comments too. Had they spoken for him? Were they right? On the morning that he said goodbye, an interview was published in which they blamed Pérez but from which no one emerges well, including their son with whom they admit that they no longer talk.
According to Casillas’s parents, Perez never rated Casillas because he was not one of his own signings and because he was "short", but the relationship really soured when they demanded compensation from Madrid over a break-up with Casillas’s then-agent. “The campaign to tarnish Iker has been orchestrated by Florentino since 2010; he has suffered for many years,” Casillas’s mother, Mari Carmen, told El Mundo. "They have vilified him; it’s been an attempt to hunt him and destroy him," said his father José Luis.
They could have asked about that but there were no questions, no celebration, no thanks, and no send-off, no fond farewell. Instead, there were just journalists who watched and listened as the Real Madrid captain who has won it all walked in, read a statement, and nine minutes later walked out again, tears in his eyes, alone. Briefly, they clapped. There was no one else there to do it.