Why Iker Casillas deserves to win the Ballon d’Or

The Real Madrid goalkeeper has come into contention for the prestigious prize following a fantastic year for club and country. But can the 31-year-old win the individual honour?

The debate had already begun. As Spain celebrated their semi-final win over Portugal at Euro 2012, talk turned to the Ballon d’Or. Had Cristiano Ronaldo done enough at the continental competition to claim the award? Or would it be Lionel Messi for a fourth year in a row?

The next night, Andrea Pirlo threw a spanner in the works as he inspired Italy to an unexpected victory over Germany in the other last-four clash. And after the final, Spain’s Andres Iniesta came into contention for the prestigious prize as he starred for La Roja in the 4-0 win, overshadowing the Juventus midfielder in a one-sided encounter.

But what of the man who lifted the trophy for Spain last Sunday?

Iker Casillas is the latest name to emerge as a candidate for the award, now merged with Fifa’s World Player of the Year prize. Backed by Pele and virtually ruled out by Madrid legend Alfredo Di Stefano, Casillas’ case has already divided opinion.

Spain’s shot-stopper supreme led La Roja to glory in Poland and Ukraine, albeit from a privileged position, watching in awe as the team’s golden generation of footballers passed and pressed their way to a third title in four years.

Casillas, however, was there when needed. The 31-year-old made a stunning save to keep out an Ivan Rakitic header at 0-0 against Croatia which could have eliminated the champions from the tournament in the group stages. And his shoot-out stop to deny Joao Moutinho was vital as it denied the Portuguese the psychological boost of taking the lead after Xabi Alonso had seen his penalty saved by Rui Patricio.

In the final, Iker’s intervention then thwarted Antonio Di Natale as the Italians looked for a way back into the game at 2-0 down. Spain scored twice more in what was a flattering scoreline in the end, with Thiago Motta departing through injury and leaving the Azzurri with a man down for the last half an hour. Three minutes of injury time were to be added, but Casillas told the referee to stop the contest. The game was over, the damage done – it was a sporting gesture from the goalkeeper.

That match was Casillas’ 137th for Spain and he is now 11 clear of previous record-holder and fellow goalkeeping great Andoni Zubizarreta. Even more significantly, though, the final success made the Madrid man the first-ever player to secure 100 wins at international level. He also broke Dino Zoff’s record of 494 minutes without conceding at a European Championship, as he went 511 without letting in a goal after Antonio Di Natale’s strike in Spain’s Group C opener against Italy.

It was a fitting finale to a successful season with Real Madrid, in which theBlancos‘ captain made a crucial Clasicosave from Xavi in the decisive 2-1 win at Camp Nou in April, as well as a remarkable reaction stop to deny Manu del Moral at Sevilla and imperious interventions in the narrow wins over both Valencia and Rayo Vallecano.

Casillas made light of his rocky relationship with Madrid coach Jose Mourinho by leading the club to their first Liga success since 2008, before repeating the feat with Spain at Euro 2012.

Club colleague Cristiano may have been the main man for Madrid, but his inability to inspire Portugal to glory over Spain at Euro 2012 means he may fall short, while Messi won four titles and hit an incredible 73 goals but missed out on the most prestigious prizes for Barcelona in 2011-12 – and he has had no international date this summer, either. Pirlo’s performances were ultimately insufficient, too, as Spain sealed success in Kiev on Sunday, and one of their players now surely deserves individual recognition in the Ballon d’Or.

Xavi and Iniesta have come close and will be in contention again, while Sergio Ramos was superb for club and country this year. But for his leadership, his consistent ability to perform when it matters and everything he represents for both Madrid and Spain, Casillas deserves the award. Whether he will win it, however, is another matter altogether.