While the bulk of the focus in the aftermath of the botched David De Gea deal has fallen squarely on the shoulders of Florentino Peréz, Ed Woodward and de Gea himself (shattered dreams, angry girlfriends, et al), the most helpless party in the entire debacle also happens to be the only one without fault.
After handling himself with the class and patience throughout this ordeal, Keylor Navas — a fine goalkeeper in his own right – found own his future dangled between Manchester and Madrid as the transfer deadline approached. Now, despite Madrid’s overtly clear intention to replace him, he is expected to regain focus and perform up to par, as if the events of the past few days never occurred. Luckily for Madrid, however, Navas has the ideal temperament for this type of situation; perhaps more so than any of Madrid’s other recent goalkeepers.
To call Real Madrid’s recent relationships with their goalkeeping contingent “shoddy” would be rather euphemistic. It’s been tumultuous, at best. From the moment the over-a-decade-long security of Iker Casillas showed signs of fissures in 2012, it would appear to any outside observer that Real Madrid — from their managers, to the fans, to the board — have had some kind of vendetta against their porteros.
It was that year that a spat between Casillas and former coach Jose Mourinho dominated the papers and split the dressing room. But often forgotten are the indirect causalities; in particular, the same man that Real Madrid put five goals past last weekend, former youth team product Antonio Adán. While the Casillas versus Mourinho rift took center stage, it was Adán who was used as a pawn by ‘The Special One,’ who doubled down on his decision to bench Casillas by starting the relatively inexperienced Adán, all the while claiming to the press that Adán was in fact not only ready but the better option.
Was Adán truly outperforming Casillas? Only those at the Valdebebas (Madrid’s training ground) know, but Mourinho’s vote of confidence had a far more sinister goal — knocking the World Cup-winning captain down a few pegs. And unfortunately for Adán, tossed out into a spotlight he didn’t desire, his moment was short lived. Adán conceded six goals in three games, in addition to drawing a red card only five minutes into a fourth game versus Real Sociedad.
Short on options Mourinho would begrudgingly reinstate Casillas, but an injury against Sevilla right before the season’s January transfer window would be the death knell to Casillas’ Madrid career as we knew it. With Adán proving himself inadequate, another former cantera, Diego Lopez, was brought in to fill his spot. Lopez would finish out the season as the starting keeper, and by the next campaign, he was part of Carlo Ancelotti’s infamous keeper rotation of 2013-2014.
Lopez took command of league fixtures that year while Casillas was relegated to cup matches. All things, considered, however, it was a relatively harmonious time. Casillas was good in his own right, breaking the clean sheet record in the Copa Del Rey, though he was often not given much to do. But it all inevitably came to a boil in the Champions League final against Atletico where a shaky Casillas, who was at fault for Atletico’s goal, looked decidedly nervous at every junction. Needless to say Casillas’ reaction to Sergio Ramos’ last minute, game-saving equalizer summed up how momentous the occasion was for him. A disastrous World Cup for Spain would follow, and the focus again would return to Casillas.
Still, despite Lopez’s consistency and Casillas form, the inevitability of it all rendered the situation untenable. The platoon was always a stopgap solution, and after the Liga BBVA 2013-2014 goalkeeper of the year, Keylor Navas, was purchased, and the clock began to tick on Lopez’s remaining time at the Bernabeu. Despite his performances the year before, he was eventually moved on to AC Milan.
With Casillas in goal, Madrid went trophyless last campaign, their inability to cope with the loss of Luka Modric their ultimate undoing. Navas was starved of playing time, making only 11 appearances in total, his career somewhat stagnant as a result. Casillas was also booed a lot – especially near the business end of the campaign — leading to his departure to Porto this summer and even that was laced with confusion. What should have the simplest aspect of all, organizing Casillas farewell became a bungled affair that left Iker crying alone in a room full of journalists.
Madrid is such a behemoth of club, it allows them the luxury of hyper-cynicism. Peréz can act freely without being affected. For example, few teams would break up a Champions League winning midfield just a couple months after winning the title, but Madrid didn’t seem to mind as Xabi Alonso and Angel Di Maria made their departures last summer. Di Maria in particular wanted to stay, but Peréz wouldn’t budge on his wage demands despite his excellent performances down the stretch. Most clubs would be happy to pay such an influential player, banking on the fact that it would be hard to replace such a talent – not a problem for Madrid as James Rodriguez soon joined the ranks.
In much the same vein, Navas’ saga has played out. Madrid, the symbol of the country, wants a Spanish goalkeeper in their ranks, and they’ll jettison any obstacles in the way. It’s a point not lost on Navas’ father. As he told Passion Deportiva:
“The Spanish media want to have a Spanish goalkeeper at Real Madrid, they can’t accept a Central American player there. They know he’s the best, but they can’t accept it.”
The Costa Rican must now cope with the unenviable task of working for an employer who will likely discard him in nine months, regardless of him performances on the pitch.
It hints at the human aspect that’s often forgotten. Fans are quick to pan players when they underperform, expecting consistent top quality performances and nothing less. But regardless of who is ultimately at fault, both teams toyed with their players’ emotions, with Madrid being the bigger of the two culprits. Navas was even granted time off from the Costa Rican national team to sort out his future, a future that didn’t simply mean the swamping out a Fly Emirates jersey for a Chevrolet embroidered one. It was the uprooting of a family with a young son into a foreign land and language.
And yet, Navas still may overcome. Navas’ history and demeanor gives credence to the assumption that he’ll be just fine. He can take solace in the fact that the fans themselves have been on his side. The famously irascible Bernabeu faithful zealously chanted his name this past weekend after a fantastic performance against Real Betis, a game in which the 28-year-old keeper saved a penalty to preserve his second clean sheet in as many games.
Navas’ religious beliefs may play a role here as well. Before each game, he kneels on the goalline, opens his arms wide and prays. He can often been seen making the sign of the cross before kickoff and after every miraculous save as well. Despite the comments from Navas’ father regarding the somewhat ethnocentric desires of the Spanish media, senior Navas believes Keylor’s head is in the right place:
“Seeing him be cheered by the Santiago Bernabeu on Saturday sent shivers down my spine and brought tears to my eyes. He has one of the most difficult tasks at one of the biggest clubs in the world. We are proud of him.
“Keylor tells me he has the support of the dressing room. Marcelo, Cristiano Ronaldo, James Rodriguez … They all love him because he’s quiet and humble.”
And that sums it up: Navas has not been coddled in his career. This is a keeper that was set to play in the Spanish third tier after Albacete faced relegated in 2011, but he was loaned to Levante instead, eventually winning the starting position.
His unwavering focus and commitment to improvement may be his strongest characteristic. He exhibits a calm and stoic demeanor, but he’s a maelstrom of concentrated intensity inside. He famously made up his mind to be a goalkeeper at five after seeing a 12-year-old make a save. “I will never forget that image,” he told Sid Lowe in 2014.
Divine intervention or not, Navas believes that meteoric rise — from Albacete to a €10 million move to Madrid last summer — wasn’t by chance. If reports are to be believed, he sees what happened as a sign that, for some reason, he is meant to be in Madrid at this stage of his career.
Madrid may have no choice, but as a citizen of the country where “Pura Vida!” is the rallying cry of the people, few encapsulate that creed as well as Navas.