As the cameras flash and the array of national flags tied around players’ waists billow in the Lisbon air, there is a beaming, round face at the front of celebrations. Yet, instead of grass-stained shorts and socks, Casemiro is cheering on the team in a nifty pair of black suit trousers.
The then 22-year-old hadn’t made the squad for the 2014 Champions League final and was afforded just a smattering of appearances across the campaign, with the experienced names of Xabi Alonso and Sami Khedira ahead of him in the pecking order – that season even Mesut Özil made more La Liga starts than Casemiro, despite joining Arsenal in August.
Two years on from that night, the thought of Casemiro anywhere other than the centre of Madrid’s midfield would have sent anyone of a Real persuasion into a bout of cold sweats.
It seems incredible to think now – given his foremost task revolves around diligently and dutifully mopping up after his teammates – but during his teenage days in Brazil, Casemiro was considered so full of himself that he was burdened with an unwanted nickname, combining his surname with the Portuguese for ‘arrogant’: Casemarra.
Equipped with a certain swagger, Casemiro initially moved from São Paulo to Madrid’s B team, before earning a permanent move for €6m in 2013. After three years on the outskirts of the squad and a loan spell with Porto, Casemiro truly came to the fore under Zinedine Zidane.
These days, the Brazilian is the first name on the teamsheet but that wasn’t the case when the legendary Frenchman first took over in January 2016. It wasn’t until Zidane’s tenth game in charge that he picked Casemiro in his starting XI.
Yet, despite this unwillingness to select the Brazilian, Zidane and the midfielder already had a very close relationship, fostered during Casemiro’s time with Madrid’s reserves. Now as manager, Zidane again eased the player’s concerns, promising: “Keep working as you are, doing that your opportunity will come and I will be fair to you,” as Casemiro later recalled.
Zidane eventually turned to his secret weapon after a catastrophic 1-0 loss to their city rivals Atlético Madrid at the Bernabéu which effectively ended their title hopes. Casemiro gratefully snaffled up the opportunity when it came his way, proving pivotal as the side’s only midfielder whose first thought is to stop an attack, rather than launch one themselves.
Having been installed as a mainstay in the side, Casemiro missed just three of Madrid’s remaining games as Zidane’s team found a rich vein of form, winning 15 of their next 17 matches before the season’s climax in the Champions League final against Atlético Madrid – the side that had effectively forced Zidane’s hand to pick the Brazilian.
Prior to the game, Diego Simeone highlighted Casemiro as Madrid’s key player and – with the suit and tie safely stored in the locker room – he was named man of the match by some as Real eventually prevailed on penalties.
With Casemiro now a fixture of the side as the defensive midfielder – or volante (literally steering wheel) as the role is known in Brazil, Zidane led the Real to a La Liga title and another Champions League final the following season as Casemiro got the goal to put Madrid ahead of Juventus in the 2017 showpiece. The hat-trick of Champions League trophies was completed against Liverpool the following season.
The defensive skills in Casemiro’s repertoire have rarely been questioned but Real’s number 14 responds to the needs of the team beyond pure destruction. In fewer appearances, Casemiro has more goals for Real Madrid than Toni Kroos and as many as Luka Modric.
Despite this eye for goal, Casemiro has come to appreciate and master the unglamorous side of the game, as he outlined in an interview with El País: “I love to score goals, give assists, make a good play, but what I like the most is stealing a ball and giving it to a teammate. I feel comfortable and happy doing that job. It gives me pleasure.”
The sight of Casemiro materialising in the path of an on-rushing attacker, swiftly separating opponent from ball, is common but not spontaneous given the obsessive research and preparation which dominates his professional life. Between additional workouts in his home gym and naps in a hyperbaric chamber, Casemiro spends hours watching and analysing games using the scouting platform Wyscout – even in front of the TV, his legs are stuffed into muscular recovery apparatus.
Despite the precarious nature of his role as the side’s single pivot, Casemiro’s disciplinary record is remarkably upstanding. In more than 250 matches across his career, the prolific tackler has received just one red card. Admittedly, he is no stranger to a cautionary booking, and though Casemiro may appear to spend most matches walking a tightrope, he is obviously equipped with one wider than most.
At the base of Real’s midfield, often as the lone defensive presence somehow able to command the swathes of green grass as his A-list teammates bound forward, is where Casemiro will be remembered. And where, at the age of 28, he will remain for many years to come.