Life lessons from World Cup winner and Real Madrid legend, Iker Casillas

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports
In an exclusive interview with The Sporting Tribune, Iker Casillas reflects on his life and career.

LOS ANGELES — Some might say he’s done it all – a successful career, a lasting legacy, a family, a divorce — but World Cup winner and Real Madrid legend, Iker Casillas, has a more evolved outlook on life that reflects his own journey which has taken unpredictable twists and turns, bringing him face to face with both the highest joys in his personal and professional life, as well as the depths of loss and heartbreak.

During his 16-year tenure with Real Madrid, currently 11 points clear at the top of the La Liga table after defeating their arch-nemesis FC Barcelona in the latest edition of the El Clásico, he amassed 5 La Liga titles, 2 UEFA Champions League trophies. His parting words in 2015, on the day of his departure from the club he joined at the age of nine, “Be sure that no matter where I go, I will keep shouting, Hala Madrid,” ring true to this day. And while his intention was to continue prospering in the sport which defined the first three decades of his life, his dream was abruptly cut short after a dream season with Portugal’s Premeira Liga’s FC Porto wining the league title, when he suffered a heart attack during practice in May of 2019. The 2010 FIFA World Cup winner and would attempt a return to the pitch after his recovery, however he was forced to announce his retirement from soccer in the following summer.

“What is important is the path you travel and the people who accompany you, not the destination to which it takes you,” Casillas said on Twitter. “With hard work, you will always arrive where you want. I can say, without a doubt, that it has been the path and the destination that I’ve always dreamed about.”

In the intervening years, Casillas, also known as San Iker to fans of the Madridistas, has begun his life anew in many ways. After his divorce from Sarah Carbonera who experienced her own battle with ovarian cancer, and the decision to give her full custody of their two children in the ensuing split, the announcement of his retirement from professional soccer on the national and club levels, while challenging and painful, ultimately led to a birds-eye perspective on life.

In an exclusive interview with The Sporting Tribune, he reflected. “You know, until something happens to you, it’s like a window display you see in a store– it’s just there. But the reality of a situation doesn’t dawn on you until it happens to you. And that’s what you have to do,” he explained. “I’m always telling everyone, enjoy the moment, enjoy your life. We can be blinded by other things and not enjoy what we’re doing. We always say, “I’ll get around to it. I’ll do it next week. I’ll go and visit someone next month.”

But the time to do it is not next month, it’s now.” Casillas currently contributes to the club that helped bring a lasting meaning to his life on an arguably higher level – he is the CEO of the Real Madrid Foundation. He further finds fulfillment in working alongside youth coaches at his foundation and helps with soccer clinics including the Iker Casillas Academy in Orange County.

The COVID-19 pandemic years impacted his perspective on life as well. “We came out of a pandemic three years ago and afterwards, there are countries at war. It’s crazy. Humans are crazy in general. We can’t seem to be logical,” he said. “Instead of showing others a little more empathy, everyone is focused on their own stuff, you know? And no one notices anyone else unless they’re going through the same thing. The example is right there. After the worst pandemic we’ve had in 100 years, thinking we’d come out of it with a little more serenity, with people being more committed to one another…instead, a month later, there’s a war. Four days after that, another war. I mean, we won’t get anywhere like that.”

Nearly five years since that cathartic moment that led to his re-evaluation of his life, the 2-time Euros champion is doing his part to forge a legacy beyond his titles with Real Madrid, FC Porto and Spain. He recognizes the value of the sport he knew as a child as a tool to enact positive changes in the world he sees around him, not just on a close personal level, but on a global stage as well.

Within the worst of times, Casillas sees a potential to turn each downturn into a chance for positive growth. Just as he was able to do that in his own life, he’d like to see that for the state of women’s soccer in his country. Spain is just one of two nations to win both a men’s and women’s World Cup, yet systematic problems in their women’s program were exposed on the heels of their 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup trophy lift scandal involving then president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation, Luis Rubiales, whose actions led to a 3-year ban from soccer as well as potential jail time.

It was arguably one of the darkest moments of the sport in modern times. “I think that for Spain and for Spanish women’s soccer, the world championship was a very important achievement,” Casillas said. “Within the worst of the situation, if that moment, if everything that happened causes women’s soccer to change [if all that had to happen for soccer to change]…listen, we’d all be happy to see big improvements in how things are done, and for things to be done the right way in women’s soccer, which has the best team in the world right now.”

With a smirk, Casillas, a month away from turning 42, has learned to live with and savor the memories of his past, while embracing the possibility of each new day. “In my life, there have been two moments that have always made me very happy. One was when I won my first title with Real Madrid. And later when I won Spain’s first world cup in 2010. I think those are two different but very significant moments in my career,” he said. But, he’s also learned the hardest of lessons coming back from the brink of death. “In life, you have to enjoy every moment.”