As 2012 nears its end, the debate over which player should scoop the biggest individual prize in football is raging, with Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi inevitably dominating most people's shortlist for the Ballon d'Or. Both players have been in incredible form over the last 12 months, but at talkSPORT we're not entirely sure either should run away with the award. Allow us to present the case, instead, for a goalkeeper, Spain and Real Madrid's number one, Iker Casillas...
The Ballon d'Or is an individual prize, but it's worth taking into account how a player's individual brilliance impacts on the success of his team, all the while keeping in mind the strength of the competition the side competes in. On that basis, a player whose individual genius helped his team to a major trophy at the highest level would be a more suitable candidate than another player who scored twice as many goals in a weaker competition. The beauty of Iker Casillas is that, this year, the Real Madrid man has excelled both in his own performances and in providing game and trophy deciding moments of genius for his respective teams.
If the Ballon d'Or was decided purely by the weight of the trophies a player has won, then Casillas would already be pulling ahead, after helping a record-breaking Real Madrid side to wrestle the La Liga title from an FC Barcelona outfit which is often touted as the greatest club outfit of all time, then following that feat by going on to do what no other player has done by captaining a national team to a third back-to-back international trophy. As the Ballon d'Or is an individual prize however, we also have to consider how Casillas has performed in his own right in helping his sides to achieve those victories.
Moments of individual brilliance which lead to collective success are easy to come by when looking at the keeper's season. In April of last year for example, a resurgent Barcelona were trailing Real Madrid by only four points in the league, and a victory over their rivals at the Nou Camp would cut the deficit to only one. With the tie scoreless early on, Casillas gave a sign of things to come by denying an offside Cristian Tello from within the box, and a more concrete example soon followed. With Madrid one goal up, Barcelona pushed for a reaction, and after Lionel Messi released Xavi, the Catalan went unchallenged in the box to face Casillas, only to be stopped at the final hurdle by his friend. So slight was the keeper's touch, it initially appeared that Xavi shot wide, but subsequent replays proved that Casillas had managed to turn the ball away after spreading his frame to towering effect in front of the midfielder. Crucially, Real Madrid would finish the first half with their advantage in tact, and though Barcelona would go on to score in the second half, with Alexis Sanchez stabbing home after Casillas pulled off two equally brilliant saves in a row, the tie would ultimately be settled on a one goal margin. The loss effectively ended Barcelona's league challenge, as well as driving a nail in the Pep Guardiola era at the club, and though Cristiano Ronaldo's winner is perhaps better remebered, the save his captain made at the other end was equally important.
It wasn't a fluke. More recently, Casillas would produce similarly brilliant saves from Lionel Messi that proved critical in Madrid's narrow 4-4 aggregate Spanish Supercup victory over Barca. Most notably, he denied the Argentinean striker Barcelona's fourth goal of the tie in the first leg, only for the ball to break at the other end and Madrid to score their second. A potential 4-1 became 3-2 after the actions of the Madrid captain, completely changing the momentum of the tie.
For Spain, such moments are even easier to find. Take their narrow 1-0 victory over Croatia in their final group game of Euro 2012 for example. With half an hour left to play in the game, a Croatia win could have put Spain out of the competition entirely, so when Ivan Rakitic burst into the box to latch onto a Luka Modric ball, the outcome seemed inevitable. Casillas had other ideas however, producing a typically brilliant save from point-blank range to deny Croatia their goal, allowing Spain to continue plugging away unphased and eventually net the winner in the 88th minute.
Moments like that one change history, and it's easy to forget that the international side that would go on to achieve a record breaking third back-to-back major trophy win could easily have left the competition before the knockout phase began had it not been for the inspiration of their captain.
Then there was the penalty shootout which would guarantee Spain's place in the final. After Xabi Alonso saw his opening penalty saved by Portugal's Rui Patricio, the weight of an expectant nation rested on the La Roja captain's shoulders as he took his own place between the sticks. Unphased, Casillas stared coolly into the eyes of Joao Moutinho, and, refusing to move too early, lept to his right to stop the midfielder's spot kick. The save turned Spain's momentum from a downward to upward trajectory in a flash. Cometh the hour, cometh the man, as they say, and it would prove vital in denying Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal's fifth spot kicker, the chance to take his own penalty in the shootout. Spain's players later admitted that the presence of Casillas alleviated their worries significantly in the shootout and allowed them to relax, as was evident by the three succesful Spain spot kicks which followed the stop.
For all that Spain's Euro 2012 win will be remembered for their unorthodox forward line and demolition of Italy in the final, their tournament could have been short lived had it not been for Saint Iker as he's known in his home nation. “He is not a goalkeeper, he's a hero, a leader” Slaven Billic said of the number one after Croatia's elimination. In those words, Billic reveals exactly why Casillas should become the second keeper ever since Lev Yashin in 1963 to lift the Ballon d'Or. Iker Casillas is not only the best keeper in the world, but he is also the best captain in the world, a man whose individual brilliance is never more important than his job as a leader, yet who, at the same time, manages to use his own unique genius to lift his players in their moments of doubt. At club level, Casillas is the one man to defy the Real Madrid galactico policy, a youth product who is so good he would be a galactico signing anyway had he came through the ranks at any other side. He will also likely outlast the latest swathe of superstars to be brought in to the Spanish capital.
Much is said about how difficult it will be for Spanish football to fill the gap left by Andres Iniesta and Xavi when they retire, but while potential candidates for the midfield slots, ranging from Cesc Fabregas to Thiago can be hypothesised about, no such replacements for Casillas spring to mind. That says it all about just how irreplaceable he really is, and how pivitol he has been to the greatest national team of all time as a result. That's why Iker Casillas deserves to win the Ballon d'Or.
Casillas in numbers
La Liga titles: 5
Champions Leagues: 2
European Championships: 2
FIFA World Cups: 1
Fifa World's Best Goalkeeper: 4
Do you agree? Does Iker Casillas deserve to win the Ballon d'Or, or is it still a two-way choice between Ronaldo and Messi? Leave a comment below...