On top of the stops

Iker Casillas' rapid ascent has not always been straightforward. He spent long spells on the bench between 2000 and 2002 when he lost out to Cesar. It was not until that 2002 Champions League final when he really established himself, writes ANDYHAMPSON.

One-time youth prodigy, Iker Casillas has largely gone on to fulfil his potential as one of the best goalkeepers in Spain and Europe. He is just 25 and still has a long career ahead of him but he is already a vastly experienced player having been in or around the Real Madrid first team since the age of 17.

Casillas is noted for his agility, shot-stopping excellence, speed and calmness under pressure.

Casillas was born in Madrid and has spent his entire career with his hometown club, whom he joined at the age of eight. He claims he only became a goalkeeper under duress because his football-mad father wanted to take shots at him all the time. Nevertheless, the practice did him good and he impressed continually as he made his way through the Madrid junior ranks.

He first hit the limelight at 17 when he was pulled out of a high school art class to be told he would be on the bench for a Champions League match. He soon became a regular member of first-team squads and remarkably got a chance to play in the 2000 Champions League final win over Valencia due to injury to Bodo Illgner. International honours followed and he was a member of the Spain squad for Euro 2000, although he did not feature in any of the matches.

The next two seasons he spent largely establishing himself and truly made his mark in the 2002 Champions League final against Bayer Leverkusen in Glasgow. Again he came on as a substitute, but this time his contribution was immense as he ensured Real held on for a 2-1 win.

He was Spain's first choice for the 2002 World Cup and was a fixture in the Madrid side that won the Primera Liga in 2003. He has held the number one jerseys for both club and country with distinction since.

At youth level Casillas helped Spain win the FIFA World Youth Championship in 1999. One of his greatest moments with the senior side came at the 2002 World Cup when he saved two penalties in a shoot-out to secure a place in the quarter-finals at the expense of Ireland. Casillas' rapid ascent has not always been straightforward. He spent long spells on the bench between 2000 and 2002 when he lost out to Cesar. It was not until that 2002 Champions League final when he really established himself.

There were reports last year that he was unhappy with his Real Madrid salary in comparison to some of the club's other big stars but he eventually signed a contract committing him to the Bernabeu until 2011.

Casillas is currently dating Spanish model Eva Gonzalez, Miss Spain in 2003. She comes from Seville and has appeared in TV programmes and done numerous photo shoots for magazines. She was recently voted the prettiest footballers' partner in Spain. They presently have no plans to marry.

In 2000, as Real advanced to the final of the Champions League, Casillas, being too young to drive, famously travelled to training by public transport. He now has his choice of Audis due to Real's link-up with the German manufacturer. He chose the A6 3.0 TDI quattro tiptronic, Audi's attempt to bring some `sport appeal' to its hitherto reliable but corporate-aimed range of cars. It retails at around GBP35,000 and is designed to compete with the BMW-5 Series.

Name: Iker Casillas Position: Goalkeeper Club: Real Madrid DOB: 20/05/1981 Spain Caps: 61 Spain Goals: 0 Spain Debut: v Sweden, June 2000

Moment to remember

Zinedine Zidane's stunning winner is the one enduring memory of Real Madrid's Champions League final win over Bayer Leverkusen in 2002 but without Casillas the result could have been different.

Casillas came on to replace the injured Cesar with 22 minutes remaining at Hampden Park and produced a series of outstanding saves to ensure Real held on to their lead. At one point Leverkusen appeared to be queuing up to score but Casillas was at his best, his efforts to deny Yildiray Basturk and Dimitar Berbatov particularly brilliant.

Moment to forget

Spain went to this summer's World Cup in Germany with high hopes and early performances suggested they had a chance of success. Their hopes were ended by a Zidaneinspired France, however. Spain had led their secondround clash in Hanover but France hit back to win 3-1 with two goals coming in the last seven minutes.

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