Iker Casillas was benched for the game Real Madrid lost to Malaga today, the latest sign of a Real Madrid that is torn apart from within. Guillem Balague, from AS and Sky Sports, tweeted, “Casillas is not injured,” and it would seem the decision was taken to punish the Spanish national captain.
Casillas, considered one of the best goalkeepers in the world, is also the captain of the team and a living part of Real Madrid history. His place in the starting 11 hasn’t been questioned for a decade. This is the most visible twist of a conflict that has long divided the Real Madrid team under José Mourinho. It may well prove to be one of the last.
Reports have emerged for months that the Real Madrid team is divided into at least two groups. Balague, on this week’s "Revista de La Liga," seemed to suggest that those most strongly opposed to Mourinho could include Casillas, Sergio Ramos and Gonzalo Higuain, the three captains of the team. On the other side would be Mourinho and the other Portuguese players—Cristiano Ronaldo, Pepe and Fabio Coentrao—who all share the same agent, Jorge Mendes.
The conflict can be traced as far back as January of this year, when Casillas and Ramos, in particular, were very uncomfortable with the attitude Mourinho adopted in an ultra-defensive defeat against Barcelona. The most-read sports newspaper in Spain, Marca, had a cover the next morning showing Ramos and Mourinho face to face with a word-to-word transcript of a confrontation between the two in training.
The tension had also mounted after Mourinho encouraged his players to criticize the referee and Barcelona. Making controversial declaration after controversial declaration, Mourinho was seen by some as stooping too low and damaging the standards of sportsmanship and gentlemanly values of Real Madrid.
Mourinho also tried to fuel the conflicts between Spanish Barcelona and Real Madrid players, in particular trying to break the friendship between Casillas and Xavi.
Although winning the league last season created a sort of ceasefire within the team, the 13 points that now separate Real Madrid from the top spot this season have made tempers rise and conflicts resurface.
In recent weeks, after being booed by a section of the fans at the Bernabeu in Madrid, Mourinho called on a sort of improvised plebiscite by the local fans, declaring 40 minutes before kick-off of their derby game against Atletico Madrid: "I'll go out onto the pitch tomorrow at 9.20 p.m. on my own, those who want to whistle me they can do it.” When Mourinho appeared on the touchline, he got a mixed, although mainly positive, response from the 5,000 or so fans that were in the stadium.
Following the defeat to Celta Vigo in the cup last week, Mourinho came out strongly against some of his players in the press conference, increasing the discomfort and tension in the dressing room.
According to AFP, last week Mourinho also confronted a journalist from the Spanish Radio Marca. Infuriated with the negative coverage of his team, he demanded that the journalist give up the source that was leaking conversation from the dressing room.
It has long been rumored that Casillas could be the one leaking stories to the press to undermine Mourinho. But in recent weeks, the conflict seems to have spread to the club’s president, Florentino Perez, who has pretty much staked his presidency on Mourinho, giving him the most power a manager has had at the club.
Last week, before the game Madrid drew to Espanyol, Perez came out in support of Mourinho, saying that he was "the best coach in the world." Perez was “thanked” by his coach the next day when Mourinho said, in clear contradiction of his president, that he thought “the league was nearly impossible." Perez had to come out the following day to insist that "one of Madrid's sporting principles is to never give up, no matter how difficult the challenge.”
Today’s benching of the captain and symbol of Real Madrid is not likely to go down well with the club president. The conflict has grown to such proportions that it is very difficult to see Mourinho staying at Real Madrid after this summer, and with such a bold move in today’s match, it wouldn’t come as a complete surprise if he didn’t even last that long.
Although he may wait until the result of the match against Manchester United, it is more likely, in the author's opinion, to be a matter of days or weeks rather than months before Mourinho leaves Real Madrid.