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After 16 seasons, 671 games, 101 goals and four Champions Leagues, walking in a teenager and walking out a legend, a comic book captain who embodied the club like no one else, Sergio Ramos’s farewell wasn’t the way he had planned. Not least because he hadn’t planned to depart at all.
Almost the first thing he said as he took his seat in the press room at Valdebebas for the last time on Thursday was: “I would like to say that I never wanted to leave Real Madrid. I always wanted to stay here.” A brief event had already taken place: a couple of short speeches, a few forced smiles and some applause in front of maybe 20 people. But now the room was virtually empty: just Ramos, Emilio Butragueño, the press officer, Carlos Carbajosa, a cameraman and a TV with a Zoom screen on it. Florentino Pérez, the president, wasn’t there. “It might have been good for him to be,” Ramos said, a little pointedly. “He’ll have the opportunity to speak if you have more questions.”
It is not an opportunity Pérez is likely to take up publicly, and one question lingers above all: how did it come to this? In terms of the basic mechanics Ramos answered that, effectively admitting that this time he had misplayed his hand during contract negotiations with the club, not realising as much until it was too late. If there was a phrase that recurred it was “fecha de caducidad”: a best before date. There was a deadline and Ramos and his brother and agent, René, missed it, or never believed it would really matter – not for a player of his status. In different circumstances, it might not have done.
According to Ramos, who had said in 2019 that he wanted to retire at Real and would “play for free”, this wasn’t about money; it was about the length of the contract. The club offered him a one-year deal on his existing salary, minus 10% because of the coronavirus crisis. He wanted two, for stability’s sake. Rejecting that “wasn’t a definitive no”, rather “part of the negotiations”. He also admitted to telling Real to get on and “plan without me”. That wasn’t a declaration of departure either, he insisted; it was a way of saying that “no one is more important than the club.” Not even him.
In the meantime, Real signed David Alaba. Interest in Ramos from other clubs appeared in the media. Details filtered out, but inside nothing much was happening, silent but for the sound of the clock ticking. There was no second offer for Ramos who because of injury barely played in 2021 and was ultimately left out of the Spain squad for Euro 2020, his hand not exactly strengthened. There was no improved offer and barely any communication, just mutual distrust. When he finally went back to Real to say, OK, he would accept a single year, the offer had been withdrawn.
It could have been put back again had they wanted to, which Ramos suspected they never had, but the response was cold. “It’s not on the table any more, and that’s it,” he said. Onda Cero radio had reported a March deadline but Ramos claimed: “No one told me there was a fecha de caducidad. I thought it was part of a negotiation like many others. I don’t know why there’s a fecha de caducidad without notifying me. Maybe I misunderstood but I didn’t know. I was surprised. They told me there is no longer an offer. They said: it’s over.”
And so it was, after 16 seasons. It felt sudden but it had been coming, and not just all spring. In 2015, Ramos told Pérez he wanted to leave for Manchester United but Iker Casillas had just gone in traumatic fashion and the president wouldn’t release him too. If Ramos left, Pérez said, he would be forced to follow him. When it came to it, Ramos lacked the nerve to force it through. That proved a good thing: now the captain, he lifted the Champions League for the next three years in a row. But in 2019 Ramos ask Pérez to let him leave for China on a free. The president publicly said he couldn’t do that, invited any suitors to offer a fee and eventually handed Ramos another extension.
It wouldn’t happen again. This time there was no way back – in part because of those times. Ramos talks about him and Pérez as “father and son” and says “in families there are arguments”. But the relationship had been strained, two men of status and power who were implicitly (and sometimes explicitly) a threat to each other, those struggles played out in public and via proxies in the press. Those episodes have not been forgotten when there are better moments to remember. “I will hold on to the last embrace [Pérez] gave me,” Ramos said, repeatedly insisting that he did not want any confrontation now.
There is a lot more to hold on to. Twenty-two trophies, for a start. Plus a World Cup and two European Championships. More Spain games than anyone else, at 180. And yet Ramos’s significance is not just about that; it’s about the symbolism, what he represents.
For more than a decade, that was Real Madrid – an idea he internalised himself – and it will not feel the same to see him anywhere else. He admitted, incidentally, that he has nowhere to go yet. “Values matter and the key value of this club is commitment, doing everything to win,” Zinedine Zidane once said, summing it up. “Ramos, our captain, epitomises that better than anyone. He has that commitment, he has nobility.”
At one point in his farewell, Ramos referred to the “Ramos brand”, to accepting everything that comes with him, the fact that he does everything “full on”. There was something almost Homer Simpson playing Max Power about that – a little silly – and yet it kind of fits, too. He is almost a cartoon figure. From the kid with the Claudio Caniggia fixation to this latest incarnation as a Viking, like some Norse god, there’s the taste for the absurd and the epic, driven by some sense of duty. Or better still, destiny. And no club seems attached to an idea of destiny like Real Madrid.
“People know me well because I have not created a role that I play; this is me,” Ramos has said, although it can feel like a role too. The grand gestures. The status. The self-consciousness, which is more playful and less serious than people think and yet also somehow very serious still, a figure built by the media as well as by himself. There was that Pananeka penalty, redemption writ large. And yes, the shithousery too. He has more caps than anyone, and more red cards as well.
There may be no one with his force of personality, his leadership, chest puffed out, that sense of performance, of responsibility as a very visible badge of honour. Few project the idea of going into battle quite like him, standing there in ring before everyone. During lockdown, his was the voice you heard echoing round grounds, even when he wasn’t playing. Especially when he wasn’t playing. All of which underlines why the end felt so strange, so unlike him: a quiet, empty room. This time, he did not look so powerful, so imposing, like this was his stage.
For so long it has been, somehow in control as if able to bend those big moments to his will, and purely by will. Ramos Time. Never more so than in Lisbon; that header with the clock at 92.48 in the 2014 Champions League final might just be the most significant single moment in Real history.
Ramos has a tattoo on his ribs. “I am the master of my own destiny,” it says. Not this time, he wasn’t, unable to get there before the final whistle blew.