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the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

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The Tuesday Portrait: Iker Casillas

As a figure of ineluctable anxiety the goalkeeper is arguably the most modern player in football, the one who both emotionally and as a potential subject for iconography echoes the feeling of the woman with something in her briefcase as she descends the subway stairs. Do you pause for a long moment, hand lingering on the light switch, before you go in to your wife? Are you lying to a man on the eighty-seventh floor? Is there a dream of escape, salvation, a clean slate, the disintegration of secrets, that makes the air tremble and the light swell while, buses roaring past, you make your way through the fog and the passing faces, letting it uncurl in your mind? Then you’re like the goalkeeper, who at any moment could be exposed, could be found out.

Thus: Iker Casillas is the most comforting player in football, because, playing the most terrifying role, he’s better than anyone else at escaping when he’s out of position, in trouble and alone. The ball rises over him at an unreachable angle, and somehow, leaping like a marionette whose master has just pulled its strings, he flings himself back and tips it safely over the bar. He’s fallen to the ground, well off his line; the attacker bears down on him; and somehow, rolling to smother the shot, he gets the ball away. A man turns into a spider and suddenly turns back. The trial concludes, and the verdict is handed down innocent.

I have seen a film in which a man who committed murder for the love of a cynical woman staggered back into the wrong apartment, the scales of justice hanging off hit hat-brim, his betrayed eyes bleak in black and white, and listened to the footsteps of the police as they climbed the stairs outside. I have seen Iker Casillas, stumbling two yards outside his own six-yard box, recover his balance, take the ball with his feet from the oncoming attacker, dribble around the midfielder who came to challenge him, and send a long pass safely down the pitch.

The triumph of Iker Casillas

It isn’t simply that he has better reflexes, quicker reactions, and more good luck than any other goalkeeper. It’s that he has a specific genius for calamity, a distinct ability to see more, play better, do the extraordinary thing when all planning has collapsed and he’s left with an emergency and one last moment. The fast talker who never has to worry. The improviser who lives by the grace of the world.

In the movie the man pulled back his overcoat to show black blood welling through his shirt. He staggered forward to take the arm of a chair. Eighty thousand people rose to their feet in the stadium. They cheered because they knew they were safe.

You’re a sucker, said the neon sign in the window. It was flashing neon gray. Everyone knows everything.

We’ve got you, said the captain. You’re caught, you’re through, you’re finished.

But you’re not.

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The Tuesday Portrait: Iker Casillas

by Brian Phillips · February 5, 2008

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