Sergio Ramos is on the brink of a PSG exit... what's next for football's Iago?
Left out of Spain's Euros squad, now Sergio Ramos could potentially be jettisoned from PSG. Is time up for the art-loving anarchist we love to hate?
A version of this feature on Sergio Ramos first appeared in the Summer 2021 issue of FourFourTwo magazine. Subscribe now (opens in new tab)!
Iago is unique among Shakespeare’s villains. The main antagonist in Othello doesn’t plot, lie and murder to advance up the food chain like Lady Macbeth, Claudius or Richard III. Instead, the ‘Motiveless Malignity’ invokes suicide, wrack and ruin for little reason other than because he can. Iago doesn’t just want to see what happens when the world burns, however – he’s got the matches and kindling to do the lighting.
Sergio Ramos is long since established as football’s Iago: a player of inconclusive moral compass who embraces the dark arts not because he has to, but because it’s his nature. He doesn’t set out to be the modern game’s pre-eminent s**thouse – that’s just a by-product of success. Winning trumps all. Records matter. Taking down the opposition’s star is the best way to win; dislocating their shoulder is collateral. Sorry, Mo.
The outgoing Real Madrid skipper's Machiavellian scheming fixates us to the extent that we ignore the horse-loving, art-collecting family man has actually been one of the best defenders of the past 15 years, has almost 130 goals for club and country, and major trophies galore.
At Euro 2020, the 35-year-old – Spain (opens in new tab)'s captain and seemingly their most important player despite struggling with injury throughout 2021 – wanted to break another record. Before the tournament began, Ramos was just four caps short of retired Egypt midfielder Ahmed Hassan’s all-time international record of 184. Oman’s Ahmed Mubarak and Bader Al-Mutawa of Kuwait are still active alongside him, but La Roja had two scheduled pre-tournament friendlies before three group matches against Sweden, Poland and Slovakia. If he had played in each of those, Ramos would become the outright all-time leader.
Then his phone rang. On the evening of Sunday May 23, Spain boss Luis Enrique called to tell his captain he hadn't made the Spain Euro 2020 squad. That record would have to wait, potentially forever.
"Obviously, it is because he has not been able to compete since January in the right conditions," said Enrique. "It was difficult and hard. It gives me a bad taste because he is someone who has always been at the highest level, but I clearly believe that it is a decision that seeks the best for the group."
Enrique was quick to point out this wasn't the end of Spain's most-capped player and that he should use the summer to "recover 100 percent to continue playing for his club and in the future in the national team", but plenty predicted the end of one of the great international careers.
Sure, we luxuriated in Ramos seemingly growing old overnight in the Champions League semi-finals against Chelsea (not knowing the second-leg would be his final game for Los Blancos) and his unexpected Euro 2020 exclusion – but isn’t it about time we grew to love football’s best pantomime villain? After all, he might not have long left...
Ramos always seemed to be destined for greatness. Born in Camas, Andalucia in southern Spain’s bullfighting and flamenco heartlands, the explosive Sevilla (opens in new tab) defender was an age group regular for La Roja from their under-16s and won the 2004 European U19 Championship alongside David Silva and Roberto Soldado.
That uber-talented generation – allied with another three or four years older containing Iker Casillas, Andres Iniesta, Fernando Torres and Xavi – provided the backbone for what would become one of international football’s finest teams. Two European Championships, one World Cup... and Ramos the indomitable last man standing.
Strange as it may seem 179 caps later, his senior Spain debut was controversial. Ramos was only halfway through his first season as a Sevilla regular when Luis Aragones called up the precocious right-back for a March 2005 friendly against China. He was the youngest debutant for 55 years. “I couldn’t care less that he’s 18,” huffed the typically brusque Aragones. “He plays every Sunday in La Primera.”
By the 2006 World Cup, Ramos was a Roja regular. He’d swapped Sevilla for Real Madrid not long after his international bow – a bold betrayal for which neither he nor his family have ever been forgiven at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan – but by Euro 2008, Aragones wasn’t happy with his player’s off-field antics. Too chilled, too late down for breakfast each morning, too giggly and disrespectful when a local oompah band played at the squad’s Neustift training base in western Austria.
When Ramos struggled to contain Zlatan Ibrahimovic in a group win against Sweden (opens in new tab), Aragones let him have it. “Sergio’s a great guy and professional, but there are certain codes of behaviour that he needs to adhere to,” Aragones said afterwards. “It’s not about his football, it’s something to do with our life off the pitch.”
Ramos seethed at the public nature of his punishment. He kept his place, though, adapted and excelled. Later, he admitted, “Of all the coaches I’ve had with Spain, Aragones had the biggest impact on me.” Indeed, that same legendary coach was responsible for teaching Ramos his favourite trick of addressing referees by their first name to subconsciously get them onside.
Not that it’s always worked. During March 2021’s 2-1 win for Madrid against Elche (opens in new tab), Ramos was seemingly hauled to the floor in a manner that Mohamed Salah might recognise. “It’s such a clear penalty. It’s a miracle he hasn’t broken my arm. Look at it, Juan,” wailed Los Blancos’ skipper. “My name is Jorge,” sniffed referee Figueroa Vazquez.
Vicente del Bosque replaced Aragones for the 2010 World Cup, but there was never any doubt of Ramos losing his place, despite a rib injury sustained in his country’s surprise opening defeat to Switzerland (opens in new tab). Ramos was immaculate as Spain kept five clean sheets in their remaining six games, inspired by the death of Antonio Puerta, his childhood friend in the Sevilla academy. He still wears the No.15 for Spain in homage to his fallen friend, for whom it was a lucky number.
“Puerta’s death had a huge effect on him,” Radio Marca editor-in-chief Rafa Sahuquillo, who has interviewed Ramos many times before, tells FFT. “He struggled to cope initially and always resolved to dedicate any Spanish titles to his great friend. It was his way of having him right by his side in the biggest moments.”
If any international tournament sums up Ramos’ consistent excellence for his country, it’s Euro 2012. Alongside Gerard Pique at centre-back – despite the rumours, they actually get on just fine and appreciate each other’s will to win – Ramos led a backline which conceded only once in six games.
Spain’s death by a thousand passes mantra was at its zenith, but it was the defender’s clear head in the semi-final shootout with Portugal (opens in new tab) that summed him up. Ramos knew that keeper Rui Patricio liked to dive early, and resolved to chip a Panenka down the middle. So sure was he of the idea that he didn’t practise it the day before, and only told room-mate Jesus Navas of his plan. It was classic Ramos – classically thought out, but with a pantomime villain flourish.
“It’s an iconic image and perfectly reflects the type of person we’re dealing with here,” says Sahuquillo. “It’s evidence of who he is, what he can do and the confidence he has in himself. Remember, this is a semi-final against a team that would go on to become European champions four years later. It’s his defining moment in a Spain shirt.”
Though Euro 2012 remains Ramos’ last international success, as a new generation less used to winning has taken root, he has since arguably become European club football’s greatest clutch player.
Beginning with that Panenka, Ramos has become Madrid’s big-game player. It was he who scored at 92:48 of the 2014 Champions League Final – a tattoo commemorates the time on his wrist – to force extra time and eventual success against Atletico Madrid (opens in new tab), having already struck twice in the semi-final against Bayern Munich (opens in new tab). He was man of the match and netted against Atletico again in the 2016 final – the first of three successive Champions Leagues as skipper... yet another record. So decisive is he in such moments that Noventa-y-Ramos (Ninety-Ramos) has become the Spanish answer to Fergie Time.
Ramos’ addiction to winning and breaking records serve as a route validation, both internal and external. The 26 career red cards, including a record 20 in La Liga, are symptomatic of a player on the edge. Ramos didn’t intend to dislocate Salah’s shoulder in 2018, rather than merely letting Liverpool’s (opens in new tab) best player know he was in a game.
“F**king hell, how people have paid attention to the Salah thing,” Madrid’s exasperated captain moaned days after the final. “All that’s left is for [Roberto] Firmino to say he caught a cold because a drop of my sweat fell on him.”
Of course, such hubris isn’t easily forgotten. When Madrid were knocked out of the following season’s Champions League in a 4-1 Bernabeu capitulation against Ajax (opens in new tab), with the suspended Ramos in the stands after picking up an intentional yellow card in the 90th minute of the first leg, the collective outpouring of schadenfreude was amplified to say the least. Not least because Amazon cameras were filming his every move for an upcoming documentary.
Having two spot-kicks saved – one of them an attempted Panenka – in a Nations League draw with Switzerland last November elicited similar amusement.
“We’ll miss him, and characters like him, when he’s gone without a doubt,” says Marca’s Sahuquillo. “He’s different and that’s what makes football special. The public will never forget who Sergio Ramos is because he’s a leader, a competitor like no other. You either like him or you don’t, but whether things are going well or not for Madrid or Spain, you can’t deny he’s doing what he can to get the most from his team.”
With trophies harder to come by at international level, breaking appearance records is a controllable achievement. His naked ambition to break new ground is laid bare in The Legend of Sergio Ramos, Amazon’s second documentary on the Blancos skipper (opens in new tab). Sometimes literally, given that he appeared shirtless at training, posing as if a piece of Renaissance sculpture amid Storm Filomena’s record-breaking 50cm snowfall in the Spanish capital in January.
Ramos makes no secret of his desire to continue until he is 40 and appear at the 2026 World Cup, his sixth – and yes, another record. “I have an internal fight against my age and against my body which I’ve won and I’m going to carry on winning,” he says. Or as former Real Madrid forward, head coach and general manager Jorge Valdano has noted, “I’m convinced that Sergio believes himself to be immortal.”
Such avarice isn’t without its increasing detractors, though, even in Spain. So obsessed has Ramos become with breaking the international appearances record, he played a half in March’s World Cup qualifier with Greece when he had a groin problem – an injury he exacerbated playing the last few minutes against Kosovo six days later. Winning those unnecessary caps cost him more than a month of the season, and with it, the chance to appear at Euro 2020 itself.
“Ramos is so immersed in his own legend as a record-breaking footballer without an expiry date that he’s showing signs of losing contact with the real world,” wrote Carlos Prieto in El Confidencial. “Reality is going one way and Sergio Ramos the other.”
This season, he has missed more than 30 games through injury or COVID-19, more than any other campaign. All of which begs the question: will we really see a 40-year-old Ramos at the 2026 World Cup?
I love summer! 😜💪🏻 ⛄ ❄️ pic.twitter.com/HEq9DBabJwJanuary 7, 2021
“This season may have changed that – his level has gone down a bit, he caught COVID and has had more injuries which all take its toll,” says Sahuquillo. “I do wonder whether next year’s Qatar World Cup will now be the last we see Sergio Ramos in a Spain shirt.”
Whether he makes it beyond Qatar or not, Ramos won't stop chasing immortality. Assuming he returns to boss Enrique's post-Euro 2020 squad, it seems inevitable that the international appearances record is his to lose. It’s certainly debatable whether we’re witnessing the greatest player in Spanish football history.
“Oof, that’s a tough one,” concedes Sahuquillo. “What I would say is that he’s the player who’s had the biggest impact on the seleccion, in terms of the character he brought from such a young age, and to carry on through to where he is now, still as a guaranteed starter, when fit. He’s on the podium for sure. He represents the sort of Spain we want to be. We want to be winners, we want to lead – in life as well as football.”
In the end, Shakespeare’s Iago could never stop. Addicted to the dark arts he so readily embraced, the scheming antagonist was a force of chaos whose malice was both unnecessary and compelling. He chose silence, incarceration and exile rather than explain his motives. Yet without him, Othello doesn’t stand up as a play.
You wonder whether the footballing Iago, a pantomime villain with a pathological determination to hold back time, can ever leave behind the sport he loves. Ramos will seethe from the sofa this summer while watching his team-mates play in his stead, unable to comprehend why he isn't there. Qatar 2022 will be his motivation.
Now, aged 35, he must also look for a new club, at an age where most would consider hanging up their boots. As with Spain, he did not get to be master of his departure at Real Madrid. The summer of 2021 has potentially robbed him of two emotional goodbyes.
In arguably The Legend of Sergio Ramos’ most revealing moment, Ramos’ mother, Paqui, asks her son what he’ll do when he stops playing football one day.
“Mum, the thing is, this seems like being forever,” he replies. Paqui pauses and looks her son up and down.
“Nothing lasts forever, son.”
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Andrew Murray is a freelance journalist, who regularly contributes to both the FourFourTwo magazine and website. Formerly a senior staff writer at FFT and a fluent Spanish speaker, he has interviewed major names such as Virgil van Dijk, Mohamed Salah, Sergio Aguero and Xavi. He was also named PPA New Consumer Journalist of the Year 2015.