THERE WILL BE STATUES OF SERGIO RAMOS IN MADRID ONE DAY. He more than deserves one. What the Andalusian has done for Real Madrid and for Spain has been historic, and he’s not even finished yet. However, it’s difficult to know what to write on the plinth of this statue, as Ramos will leave a multi-layered legacy behind him.
Every football almanac will list him as a centre-back, but few fans will remember the player for his defending. Instead, it will be his last-minute goals, his captaincy, his off-the-field antics, and so much else that survives in the memory for decades. Sergio Ramos is the centre-back whose legacy won’t be defending. This is what he will be remembered for.
“¡¡Que huevos tiene Rrrrraaaaaamoooooooossss!!” “What balls Rrrrraaaaaamoooooooossss has!” The Spanish commentary team cannot believe what La Roja’s centre-back has just done. Just 63 days after he penetrated the ozone layer above the Iberian Peninsula with his penalty kick in the Champions League semi-final shootout defeat to Bayern Munich, Ramos assumed the responsibility of taking a spot-kick again.
If anything the stakes were even higher, as Spain chased what would be a historic international treble and found themselves a shootout away from the Euro 2012 final. In front of him stood Portugal’s Rui Patrício, but Ramos showed zero fear and infinite boyish boldness, executing a perfect Panenka penalty to nudge La Roja one step closer to the final.
To understand the significance of Ramos’ chutzpah, it’s necessary to understand just how much ridicule was directed his way after that Champions League failure. Cristiano Ronaldo and Kaká had also missed penalties against Bayern that evening, but the ire of the Real Madrid fans and the mockery of the rest of Europe was reserved for the centre-back. It was partly because his attempt was the worst of the evening – by several metres – and partly because his came at the most crucial stage of the shootout, yet it was pretty unfair that Ramos was made to feel like the sole scapegoat.
There was nothing he could do to stop the jokes, and the memes and it hit Ramos hard; he’s admitted so. But he did all he could to move on, even cutting off his long hair in a coming-of-age scene that, with the addition of some dramatic music, would make a good montage in the movie of Ramos’ life. He also planned his comeback, deciding to double down on his penalty failure. ‘Go big or go home,’ he thought.
“I had it all planned out because of the pain of the semi-final against Bayern,” he explained after the Euro 2012 match. “It wasn’t so much that I missed against Bayern, but the fact that people immediately questioned my will or my ability to face that responsibility and to triumph. My pride was stung, so I decided right then to demonstrate in style that they were all wrong.”
As much as Ramos knew he was going to take a Panenka penalty against Portugal if afforded the opportunity, he didn’t practice it beforehand, aware that doing so in the training session on the eve of the semi-final would alert the media – and Patrício – to his intentions. Instead, he just trusted his ability, sussed out Patrício, and converted.
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That is pure Sergio Ramos. When all of the marbles are on the line, Ramos takes the biggest risks, a very un-centre-back-ish trait. He is the kid who packs his cheeks with Mentos and takes a swig of Diet Coke, purely to see if something cool will happen. He showed that a few years after his Euro 2012 exploits when he repeated his Panenka trick in his home city of Seville, arguably an even harsher environment.
Ever since his €27 million transfer from Sevilla to Real Madrid in 2005, the defender has been public enemy number one at the Estadio Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán. It was on the final day of his first Real Madrid season that Ramos returned to his former club and he did so to a chorus of boos, whistles and chants of “Sergio Ramos, son of a bitch”.
The hostility he faced had only grown and grown in the decade since, so when he returned for a Copa del Rey match in January 2017, and when Los Blancos won a penalty late in the game which would seal their passage and snuff out any chance of a comeback, the now-Real Madrid captain stepped up to the spot and produced another Panenka. Immediately he cupped his ears in the direction of the Sevilla ultras – the Biris Norte – right behind the goal. It was 3-2 on the scoreboard, but it was 1-0 to Ramos in his personal battle with the locals. Had he missed this unnecessarily cocky attempt, however, then Ramos would never have heard the end of it.
But that’s the beauty of Ramos’ audacity, the fact that he doesn’t consider failure as a possibility. When he made that high-profile move from Sevilla to Real Madrid, there were huge expectations and he had set them for himself. Ever since Joaquín Caparrós gave him his Sevilla debut in the 64th minute of a match away at Deportivo in 2004, he demanded that he dominate each and every game, which Albert Luque quickly found out when the 17-year-old in a baggy number 35 shirt won the ball with a crunching slide tackle just minutes after beginning his professional career.
The next step was to move north to the capital and to the Santiago Bernabéu, a daunting prospect for most 19-year-olds, but a challenge which Ramos faced head on, even requesting the legendary Fernando Hierro’s number 4 shirt. That was quite a jersey to fill, but no challenge is too grand for this man.
In the years since, Ramos has shown that he did indeed have what it took to inherit Hierro’s shirt and has since matched his haul of three Champions League medals. Now he’s setting his sights even higher and he genuinely believes he could win a Ballon d’Or before hanging up his boots, pointing to the precedent of his friend Fabio Cannavaro, the last defender to claim that honour. “I do not view it as crazy for me to win the Ballon d’Or,” Ramos told Undici magazine. Most people would, but Ramos’ confidence knows no boundaries.
While he may refer to Cannavaro’s triumph, if Ramos is to win a Ballon d’Or then it will not be because of his defensive exploits alone. It will be because he is one of the best goalscoring defenders of the 21st century.
With 83 goals to his name and counting, he is set to break the 100-goal mark before he hangs up his boots, a quite remarkable feat for a member of the back line. The fact that he makes it into the top 15 of Real Madrid’s all-time goalscorers list is already ridiculous, especially considering some of the attacking talent to have passed through this grand club’s doors.
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It’s not just that he comes up with the occasional goal towards the end of a big win, but that Ramos is time and time again the man scoring when Los Blancos need it most. He is a goalscorer for the big occasions. Atlético Madrid know this all too well, having seen the centre-back leap through the Lisbon air to head home the equaliser in the 2014 Champions League final, a knockout blow which set Real Madrid up for the victory and for La Décima – their 10th European Cup. Two years later. in Milan. it was Ramos who again grabbed Real’s only goal of normal time – even if he did so from an offside position – and it was Ramos who confidently converted the penalty prior to Juanfran’s decisive miss.
Then, in the 2016/17 season, he took his knack for scoring to a whole new Roy of the Rovers level, bagging 10 goals, three of them in the last minute, two more of them in the final 10 minutes of matches and eight of them to either level the scores or to give Real Madrid the lead. Matches were never over until minute ‘NinetyRamos’.
So where does this habit of finding the back of the net come from? Well, like a lot of professional defenders, Ramos played as a striker during his childhood. The most talented kids are put up front in most environments and it was no expectation when Ramos – or Schuster, as he was nicknamed, after the German who would one day become his coach at the Bernabéu – played in the patch of grass in front of his apartment block in Camas, a suburb of Seville.
“In the square we used to play in back in my hometown, I used to always play as a striker and I scored a lot of goals,” he told Undici. “I would run around like crazy celebrating then, just like Cristiano Ronaldo does now. So when I join the attack nowadays I feel comfortable because of all the experience I’ve accumulated since I was a kid. As much as it is infinitely more difficult now as a professional, my previous experience allows me to act differently to other defenders who go forward.”
Of course, more than half of Ramos’ goals have been scored with his head from set pieces, the way in which most centre-backs manage to find their way onto the scoresheet. However, he has also scored a lot of goals that belie his defensive position, from direct free-kicks to overhead kicks. He possesses true goalscoring talent and he knows it.
Perhaps the most telling example of that was when he finished the 2010 World Cup disappointed not to have etched his name onto a scoresheet. For a defender to win the biggest prize in football and to have conceded just two goals en route should have been as good as it could get, but Ramos knew he was capable of scoring. The fact that he hasn’t done so at a major international tournament is only notable because of the fact that he is more than capable of it.
One of the reasons why Ramos was so sure he would score at the 2010 World Cup was because he was not playing at centre-back, but as a right-back – and an attacking one, digging trenches up touchlines across South Africa with his urgent dribbling. At Euro 2008, the Spanish central defensive pairing was Carles Puyol and Carlos Marchena, while two years later it was Puyol and Gerard Piqué, so Ramos’ flexibility saw him pushed out towards the flank by Luis Aragonés and then by Vicente del Bosque.
It made perfect sense, as he’d played there on plenty of occasions for Sevilla, learning from Dani Alves during his years as the Brazilian’s understudy, before playing on the right for Real Madrid. While he remained in the middle for whatever game time he was given in his first two years in the Spanish capital, Ramos was predominantly played at right-back by coach Bernd Schuster in the 2007/08 season, taking over from the ageing Míchel Salgado. It wasn’t until the 2011/12 season that Ramos played more games at centre-back than at right-back, a positional switch made by José Mourinho following Ricardo Carvalho’s lengthy back injury and the return of Álvaro Arbeloa.
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While he felt more comfortable in the middle of the back four, Ramos enjoyed a lot of success during those years on the right flank, particularly in the pre-Euro 2008 season, when he scored six goals and provided four assists. Each of those assists from the right flank were worthy of any right-back’s highlights reel, the first being a perfect cross onto the head of Raúl for a Madrid derby equaliser and the second a defence-splitting pass for Ruud van Nistelrooy to slot in against Villarreal.
However, it was the third that was the most special, as Ramos set up Gonzalo Higuaín’s title-clinching goal in the Pamplona rain. With just one minute left on the clock as Los Blancos visited Osasuna in the fourth-from-last week of that 2007/08 season, the boy from Camas pinched back possession in the middle of the field, dribbled forward, played a one-two with Mahamadou Diarra and then chipped the ball through a couple of opposition defenders into the Argentine’s path. Then, in the final week of the campaign, he let loose, nodding into Ruud van Nistelrooy’s path for the opener, before bagging a couple of goals for himself.
Those years conducting the right side of Real Madrid’s attacking and defensive play showed the versatility Ramos has to offer, while’s he’s also played at left-back and in defensive midfield on occasion. During practice he even goes in goal, diving around and parrying free-kicks like a natural. This, to put it simply, is a man who loves to play football in any position.
IV. Red Cards
Off he trudged … again. If ever in need of directions to the early shower, ask Sergio Ramos. In the final moments of Real Madrid’s 3-0 victory over Deportivo in the opening weekend of the 2017/18 La Liga season, Ramos was judged to have dangerously elbowed Borja Valle, earning a second booking after previously being shown yellow for a nasty slapping match with Fabian Schär.
This was the centre-back’s 23rd red card of his professional career and his 18th in La Liga, equalling the precedents of Pablo Alfaro and of Aguado. There could even have been more, had fewer referees swallowed their whistle at sharp-elbowed tussles over the years. From the red cards he received in his third and fifth Real Madrid appearances to this one in Galicia, it had become something of a joke for football fans across the globe, even if it was a serious matter from the point of view of the player and of his many frustrated coaches, especially as he has been sent off in five separate Clásicos, only one of which ended in a victory.
However, there were rarely any truly horrible leg-crunching challenges and, more often than not, he was sent off for second yellows; only seven of his dismissals were straight reds. From shouting at referees to unnecessary squabbles with the opposition, so many of Ramos’ bookings have been silly ones, making him the kind of toerag who annoys the punditocracy the most. Many of them have also been the result of bad tackles – not in a dangerous sense, but in a technically poor sense – and that is yet another reason why Ramos’ legacy will not be his defending.
Following the 2014 Champions League victory, he endured two of his worst seasons in a white shirt, made all the more awkward due to his messy contract renewal and the fact he was now the Real Madrid captain and the man supposed to lead by example. A persistent shoulder injury had significantly hampered the Andalusian’s performance levels, but two unhelpful dismissals towards the business end of the 2015/16 season did little to earn him any sympathy from the Bernabéu crowd.
It’s a good thing, then, that he helped the club to win another Champions League title at the very end of that campaign, burying the fans’ exasperation at his ability to consistently leave his team a man short. He’s lucky that he’s been able to staple success on top of a disciplinary record which looks like Royal Dutch Shell’s logo, because the statue honouring his career would otherwise have had to stand a couple of feet from a card-brandishing referee.
So just how many medals has Sergio Ramos won? Well, he actually started his collection off very slowly. No titles had been won during his couple of years in the Sevilla senior squad, even if they won the UEFA Cup the year he left, and his arrival in the capital in the summer of 2005 coincided with a barren spell for Real Madrid – although his backers will point out that this correlation does not necessarily imply causation. He didn’t even reach a Champions League quarter-final until 2011, while it took until the end of the 2006/07 season for him to claim his first professional honour.
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That was the La Liga title, and it was quickly followed by another the following season. Then, Ramos tasted his first international success, playing at right-back as Spain won Euro 2008, amazingly so given the difficult qualifying campaign they’d been through on their way to the tournament. Although he’d experience a major trophy drought at club level over the next two years, as a result of Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona side, Ramos was soon lifting the World Cup trophy in South Africa, the pinnacle of any player’s career.
Yet the centre-back was still only just getting started and racked up title after title over the following few seasons, first when José Mourinho brought some degree of success back to the Bernabéu and then when he played such a decisive role in Real Madrid’s three Champions League trophies in four seasons, including the unprecedented retaining of the title in June 2017. “It’s taken me 10 years, but here it is,” he said as he kissed his first Champions League medal in the dressing room in Lisbon, unaware that a feast was to follow the famine.
In total, he’s now won 20 titles and he has so many medals and miniature trophies that he has some of the former hanging on the latter in his trophy room at home. One trophy which is not in his personal trophy room or in Real Madrid’s equivalent is the 2011 Copa del Rey, which he famously dropped in front of the team bus when the driver braked suddenly and which is now smashed up and on show at the Spanish FA’s football museum in Madrid – much to Real Madrid’s displeasure. Symbolically, it’s almost as if he has so many trophies to his name that he can afford to toss some of them away.
“One of the first things that caught your attention about him was his character, his way of being, his way of interpreting football and his way of directing his teammates.” That’s what Pablo Blanco, the Sevilla youth academy director, told Michael Robinson that he remembers of Ramos, who he saw progress through his club’s youth ranks before the player went on to bigger and better things.
Bigger and better things like captaining both Real Madrid and Spain. Having inherited both armbands from Iker Casillas, the kind of authority Ramos had commanded throughout his career now had a physical token to represent it. From playing through a broken nose against Bayern Munich to the way he defended teammates during on-pitch brawls, nobody in either squad doubted that the centre-back deserved this honour, nor that he was the best man for the job, one he’d performed as caretaker several times since first leading his club side out against Levante in 2011.
As captain he has led Real Madrid to two more Champions League titles and helped them to reclaim the league title, proudly dressing the Fountain of Cibeles up in a white scarf afterwards, the captain’s privilege. As leader of Spain, though, he has yet to win anything, but only because he hasn’t yet had the chance to. He took over that job from Casillas following Euro 2016 and will make his tournament debut as a captain at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
Whether or not Julen Lopetegui’s men actually reclaim the title they won in 2010 will come down to a few instances of luck and skill, but what is for sure is that this team will have guts behind the wheel, like Sandra Bullock in Speed. They’ll also be led by the player who is set to break Casillas’ caps record, with Ramos now just 22 appearances behind the goalkeeper’s 167. With youth on his side, the 31-year-old will surely break that total and could captain Spain at another couple of tournaments. It’s what Pablo Blanco believes he was born for.
Which was worse? The white suit or the birthday suit? Maybe they were equally horrific. During his time at Sevilla, while still just a teenager, Ramos was already something of an attention seeker; he simply loved the spotlight. “I’m too humble to be a Galáctico,” he said at 18 years of age in an interview with the magazine Interviú, a statement which was slightly contradicted by the accompanying photo of a completely naked Sergio Ramos sat on a football pitch – thankfully with a leg and an arm in the right places.
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As part of that same photoshoot, he stood by the goalposts with only a pair of football boots – the old Nike Total 90s, the ones with the 90 in a circle – covering his private parts, hanging from the laces dangling around his neck. Confident he was. Humble he wasn’t.
He similarly grabbed the spotlight a few months later when he was on the verge of signing for Real Madrid. Spain were taking on Uruguay in a friendly match and the defender had been called up to the squad, meaning a trip to the national team’s facility at Las Rozas, not far at all from the offices of MARCA and AS and where the Madrid media were, therefore, waiting. Aware of the gossip regarding his future, Ramos did not try to duck the questions or keep a low profile, instead turning up for the Spain camp in an all-white suit. He later admitted he’d wanted to “play around a bit” with the media. Two weeks later, he joined Real.
That was only the beginning; Ramos’ celebrity would grow and grow in line with his career. Being based in Madrid helped, of course, but this is a man who would have found a way to grab the headlines no matter where he was based, whether by slagging of Gerard Piqué at a press conference or by tweeting something controversial online. He may be less popular than some particularly ulcerous STDs in parts of Catalonia, but he is still talked about.
The fact that Ramos is the Spanish footballer with the largest online presence, boasting more than 23 million followers on Facebook, 20 million on Instagram and 12 million on Twitter, only highlights how much of a famous face he is in popular Spanish culture. His fans come for the footballer but stay for the entertainer. And, like all of the biggest football celebrities, Ramos also has a famous partner, TV presenter and model Pilar Rubio, who he has been dating since 2012 and with whom he has two sons, Marco and Sergio Jr.
Whatever Ramos does after football, whether he does follow through with his occasional comments on coaching or if he pursues his other passion of training purebred Spanish horses, he’ll surely form part of water cooler conversations around the country for a few more decades to come.
Ramos has come a long way from the Jardín Atalaya patch of grass just in front of his apartment block in in Camas, where he first fell in love with the ball. It was his older brother René, now his agent, who first got Ramos excited about the game and who brought the Spain captain along to his training sessions, where he’d watch on and then play as striker whenever given an opportunity.
If you’d told that baby-faced, fluffy-haired kid that he’d one day become a footballer, he would have believed you and accepted that – even more so if told you’d told him he would be audacious, that he’d score lots of goals, that he’d play in a variety of positions, that his temper might get the better of him and he’d frequently be sent off, that he’d win lots of trophies, that he’d be the leader of men and that he would become one of Spain’s A-list celebrities. But if you’d told him he’d play at centre-back, little Sergio Ramos would probably have turned his nose up at you. In the end, he did it all.
By Euan McTear @emctear