SOCCER

Why always a forward? Casillas Ballon d'Or support grows

Not since 1963 has a keeper won top award with feet holding sway over hands

Casillas makes a reaction save from Ivan Rakitic.
Casillas makes a reaction save from Ivan Rakitic.REUTERS

When the "bible" speaks, the world listens. The bible in question is France Football, the prestigious sports magazine that founded the annual Ballon d'Or award in 1955. This week, France Football has opened the debate: should Iker Casillas win the award this year? Many of the game's observers have fallen into the magazine's trap, sparking debate in the media and among professionals over the accumulated merits this season of the Real Madrid and Spain goalkeeper and whether he has earned the most significant individual prize awarded for excellence in a team sport.

"Because of the combination of his work, his permanence at the peak of success that Spain first achieved in 2008, but also for his calming presence, his personality, his influence and mastery, Casillas deserves a Ballon d'Or," France Football wrote in a special Euro 2012 supplement this week.

Immediately, the reverberations began. "He has contributed as much as the forwards in their victories. You can have the best Number 10 but it won't work if there isn't a great goalkeeper behind him, observed Pelé. "I have been very important, I will not deny that, because I was a forward. But look at [Amadeo] Carrizo, [Lev] Yashin and [Gordon] Banks. People do not talk about the goalkeepers."

For his presence, personality, influence and mastery, Casillas deserves a Ballon d'Or"

Casillas has even found support in Italy's La Gazzetta dello Sport, despite the result of the European Championship final, after a video of the Spain captain asking the assistant referee to put the Azzurri out of their misery by blowing the whistle was posted on the internet.

Despite making key saves at Euro 2012, not least from Croatia's Ivan Rakitic as Spain flirted with elimination at the group stage in Gdansk, he faces several obstacles ahead of the awards ceremony in Zurich at the start of next year. Firstly, he is just one of a group of outstanding players who over the course of the season have achieved similar success in terms of titles while excelling in their individual roles. Among this collective are Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Xabi Alonso and Sergio Ramos.

Then there is the twin concern of Leo Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who have shared the top two spots in three of the past four years. While neither has triumphed conclusively with club or country, their individual statistics will be hard to ignore. Messi scored 82 goals in the 2011-12 season, 73 of them for Barcelona. Ronaldo netted 69 in total, including 60 for his club. Televised montages of the duo are a ubiquitous accompaniment to every season.

Finally, there is the weight of history. The Ballon d'Or has only once been awarded to a goalkeeper: the USSR's Lev Yashin in 1963. By far the most frequent winner by position are forwards. Only one true defender, Fabio Cannavaro, has won the award. Franz Beckenbauer, Lothar Matthäus and Matthias Sammer all played as sweepers converted from midfielders.

Soccer is about goals and the adulation naturally falls on the players that score them more than those that prevent them being scored. Nonetheless, Casillas is the first player to have accumulated 100 victories with a national team; he has been designated the world's best goalkeeper by both Fifa and the IFFHS for the past four years; he went unbeaten for 509 minutes at the European Championship, breaking Dino Zoff's long-standing record; and he saved João Moutinho's spot kick in the semifinal penalty shootout. Casillas also stopped two 12-yarders in the Champions League semifinals, although that did not prevent Real's elimination.

Another highlight of Casillas' season was an improbable save from Manu del Moral in a match against Sevilla. However, even within the Bernabéu there are doubts that this particular ball will fall into the keeper's hands.

"Casillas deserves to be paid homage to because he is a great goalkeeper, but playing with your feet and not with your hands is what counts now, so I do not think he will get the Ballon d'Or," said Alfredo di Stéfano, winner of the 1957 and 1959 awards.

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