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PROFILE Casillas rise set to continue

Saturday 1st June 2002

By Lucas Brown

Whether through fate or luck, Iker Casillas is set to complete a remarkable turnaround in fortunes as he lines up as Spain's No 1 for the World Cup finals opener against Slovenia on Sunday.

An injury to his club rival Cesar and a freak accident to the man ahead of him as the nation's No 1, Santiago Canizares, have handed the Real Madrid goalkeeper the chance of a lifetime.

But Casillas is a rare breed. At 21, he has already experienced the highest level with his club and has appeared 13 times for Spain.

Luis Arconada made his Spanish debut at 21 without any league appearances, while Andoni Zubizarreta was the same age but had played 42 times in domestic competition.

The Madrid stopper has played an incredible 86 games for Real during which time he has picked up two Champions' League medals, a Spanish title and one Super Cup. He is, however, a very level-headed young man and has never expected or presumed anything.

"I still do not think that I am the rightful No 1 for Spain," he explained. "Neither have I before and neither will I in the future. In the last two months I have had the worst time of my career while sitting on the bench for Madrid.

"But I am delighted that the national team coach maintained confidence in me and that I have been given a chance in the World Cup."

Two months ago, Casillas was watching from the sidelines after Cesar kept his place in the Real side as the team challenged for the Spanish title and the Champions' League. But things were about to change.

Cesar's foot injury midway through the second half of the Champions' League final in Glasgow saw Casillas come from the bench to save Madrid on more than one occasion. He was hailed as a hero and the country believed that they would be in safe hands at the World Cup if Canizares was to be injured.

Nobody could have foreseen how Casillas would be propelled into the limelight for a second time.

Canizares ruefully announcing at a press conference that as he stepped from the shower he knocked a bottle of aftershave onto his foot that broke and severed a tendon in his toe. Under normal circumstances a key player in such a key position being injured only days before a national team is due to fly to their World Cup training base would have been a major cause for alarm.

But the accident was met with a shrug of the shoulders, and a slight chuckle, by Spain's football fans as they knew what the deputy was capable of. "I always feel that it is misfortune to be given the chance because another is injured," Casillas continued.

"Whether it is destiny or luck that I am here, I know that I will not let anyone down now that I am. In this life you have to work very hard to achieve things and when opportunities present themselves you must not let them escape. I have thought like that since the age of nine.

"But I know Canizares well and I know how much he was looking forward to the finals. The first thing I thought was that it seems absurd he cannot play because of something like that."

It is also a credit to Casillas that even while he was on the bench for Madrid, the majority still believed that he was a better keeper than Cesar. Most importantly, Camacho thought he was a better keeper than Cesar.

It is unusual that a team's No 2 is chosen over the first-choice man, when both are eligible to play for the same country.

Then there is the case of Jose Molina. The Deportivo keeper has had another tremendous season, but his rift with Camacho has prevented him from stepping into Canizares's shoes.

"I never presume that I have the right to be here," said Casillas. "Molina could have been here and so could Toni Prats."

But he has been chosen and maybe being so young will be on his side as the fears and apprehension of older heads will not be a concern. "We have not come here to go straight back home," he explained. "We believe that we have a great chance of doing well in these finals.

"Spain has great club sides at the moment and the best Spanish players have been chosen from them. I think that Argentina, France and Cameroon will all do well in these finals, but with the squad that we have I think that it is right that we are up their with the favourites."

It is not only his strong words that build confidence, but his outstanding ability and the with the mental and physical attributes that he has, Casillas could be one of the Spanish stars of the tournament.

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