Sergio Ramos : Spain’s Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde

The familiar grin spread across his face, the green and white flag of Andalusia tied around his waist, a crown bearing ‘SR4’ on his head and the European Cup in his hands. The 4-1 victory for Real Madrid against Juventus in Cardiff put the finishing touch on the season for Los Merengues. The clubs 12th European Cup / Champions League success coupled with the La Liga title. The 15th medal for Sergio Ramos Garcia, one of the most decorated players in the game but one who also splits opinion.

Social media and mainstream press were awash with comment on the capture of La Duodecima. The first club to be repeat winners in the current format, Zinedine Zidane’s attacking machine destroying the renowned defence of the Bianconeri, Gianluigi Buffon’s potential last chance at victory, yet a large portion was saved for the Real Madrid captain.

With 83 minutes on the clock and with the game seemingly out of reach for La Vecchia Signora, an innocuous shove from Juan Cuadrado saw Ramos fall to the ground clutching his foot. Referee Felix Brych reached for his top pocket and brandished the red card sending the Colombian off twenty minutes after being substituted into the game. Dark arts at play, on one of the biggest stages in world football. Several camera angles could not prove a suggestion that Cuadrado had also stood on Ramos. Cheating to win? Bending the rules to your advantage? The verdict was unanimous, vitriol poured down on Ramos.

Whichever way he is perceived, whether a Madridista or not, what can’t be argued is the ability at his disposal. A footballing powerhouse, pace, strength, versatility and an eye for goal. Thrust into the spotlight as a teenager, playing various positions under several managers for the ‘team of the century’. Clocked at a running speed of 30.6 kph by FIFA, 143 caps for Spain, 521 appearances for Los Blancos. A man for the big occasion but who also has the record for most red cards in Real Madrid history with 22.

Ramos grew up in Camas, 10 miles from Seville in the Andalusian region of Spain. Elder brother, Rene played for local side Camas Juniors and would take his younger sibling with him to watch. One afternoon the coach invited the six-year old to join in with the under 8 team where he had to play under a former players name as he was too late to register. After two years he was snapped up by the Sevilla academy and soon fit in with the other schoolboys.

The academy staff immediately noticed the competitive streak in the 10-year old’s character, small for his age but would never shy away from a challenge. Following a growth spurt at 14 he was fast becoming the star of la cantera. Academy director Pablo Blanco described him as unique, having the ability to play anywhere on the pitch. Nicknamed ‘Schuster’ after the German great Bernd, he predominantly playing right wing or striker and although injury setbacks curtailed his appearances at age 15 he was ready to step up from the academy.

In 2003, Sevilla head coach Joaquin Caparros called the 16-year old up to first team training where he acclimated into a defensive role. The forceful teenager announcing himself during one of his first training sessions by taking out captain Pablo Alfaro. The competitive nature saw him gain the respect of his experienced team-mates and operating on the right side of the back four he soon found himself part of the reserve team. One year later, he made his La Liga debut, featuring as a substitute in a 1-0 defeat to Deportivo La Coruna.

Establishing himself as a first team player over the remainder of that season and the next he was the epitome of what Sevilla were trying to create. Caparros put a lot of faith in the club’s youngsters and was unafraid of watching them sink or swim in the first team. Ramos’ ascension had not gone unnoticed, the Spanish press speculated big clubs were circling and a €27m bid from Real Madrid saw him move to the Spanish capital that summer. Not only a record transfer fee for a Spanish teenager it was also the first time a defender was signed under the Florentino Perez regime. The Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan faithful were up in arms, animosity at his departure that would be voiced each time he returned.

Within twelve months Ramos had gone from making his Sevilla debut to signing for arguably the biggest club side in the world. The 18-year old still maturing as a player and person arrived at Real Madrid’s newly opened Valdebebas training base that summer joining a squad featuring Iker Casillas, Roberto Carlos, Zinedine Zidane, Raul, Ronaldo and David Beckham. The Galacticos had gained its newest member.

A theme that would continue throughout his career began in his second game, receiving a red card, the first at his new club. The subsequent suspension paved the way for a certain Jonathan Woodgate to make a less than auspicious Real Madrid debut. A mere 10 days later in his Champions League debut he received his second, lashing out at a late challenge in injury time against Olympiacos. He would receive two more red cards that season, four overall in his debut season.

Despite the usual revolving door in the manager’s office, Real Madrid secured their 30th and 31st league titles consecutively. Ramos aided the cause with five goals in each season along with three more red cards, his first important goal coming during a colossal El Clasico tie at Camp Nou. A Ramos header put Los Blancos ahead 3-2 and though they were clawed back by Barcelona the point would prove vital in the title chase. The winning goal five games later against fourth placed Valencia kept their Catalan rivals at bay. It wasn’t until the end of the season when the title was decided on a head-to-head record that the goals took on such importance.

That summer saw Ramos as an ever present in the Spanish side that won the Euro 2008 tournament, their first since 1964. Spain coach Luis Aragones, no stranger to controversy himself questioned the discipline of Ramos during the tournament with rumours of a bust up between the two being played down. Despite this he played every minute for La Roja, dedicating the win to his late friend and former Sevilla teammate Antonio Puerta who tragically collapsed and died on the pitch 11 months earlier. Ramos was subsequently named in the FIFA and UEFA teams of the year for 2008.

The following season saw his stock rise at Real Madrid, named as one of his four captains in an unorthodox approach by then manager Manuel Pellegrini. A fruitless campaign saw a second-place finish and a straight red card in the Madrid derby for a hack on Sergio Aguero, the tenth of his career. The seemingly unstoppable Spanish national side captured their first World Cup in South Africa in the summer of 2010. Ramos still only 24 years old, was part of a back four that conceded only two goals, also clocking up 31 rampaging runs from the right back position. His lung bursting drive and energy now placing him firmly in the upper echelons of modern day footballers.

It all came crashing down to earth that November though in front of 100,000 baying fans at Camp Nou. Barcelona systematically tore Real Madrid apart in a 5-0 humiliation on the way to their third consecutive title. A cynical hack at the left leg of Lionel Messi during injury time followed by a confrontation with his Spanish compatriot Carlos Puyol saw Ramos dismissed. It was the ugly challenge on the Argentine maestro Messi that highlighted his petulant side, with an estimated 400 million people watching worldwide. The villain of the piece was cast, equalling Fernando Hierro’s club record of ten red cards despite playing 264 games less.

The next season was more than eventful, red card number 13 came again in El Clasico, an elbow to the head of Sergio Busquets confirming that. During his 300th appearance for the capital club Ramos saw red again, an ill-tempered game seeing the further dismissals of Mesut Ozil and manager Jose Mourinho. A storming display in La Liga saw Los Merengues reach 100 points and their 32nd league title, scoring 121 goals in the process yet the main disappointment came in the Champions League. Chasing their 10th European crown they fell at the semi-final stage to Bayern Munich in the worst way possible, the dreaded penalty shootout. Fourth man up, Ramos’ kick was high, wide and anything but handsome. The Bavarian giants had secured their place in the final on home turf, though the penalty Gods would not smile down on them for a second time.

Spain repeated their European Championship success in 2012 with Ramos putting his penalty nightmare behind him converting a Panenka spot kick past Portugal’s Rui Patricio in the semi-final before a resounding 4-0 dissection of the Azzurri in Kiev. Iker Casillas lifting the Henri Delauney trophy the end of four years of success for La Roja, the life cycle of this squad was over.

With Carlo Ancelotti at the helm, league form stuttered with local rivals Atletico supplanting them in the table. By December of 2013 Ramos reached 18 red cards, incredibly averaging a dismissal every 20 games. Number 19 was almost as predictable as it was inevitable, during a visit from Barcelona. A match of epic proportions with a Lionel Messi hat-trick giving the Blaugrana the victory in a seven-goal thriller. The game would turn in the 63rd minute. Ramos had already had a spat with Dani Alves before half time, clipped Neymar’s heels as he bore down on goal. Another El Clasico early bath with Messi dispatching the subsequent penalty.

Ramos’ reputation for scoring important goals truly started against Bayern Munich in the semi-final second leg at the Allianz Arena. Holding a slim 1-0 advantage, Ramos scored two goals inside the first twenty minutes. Two headers from set pieces, rapidly becoming his trademark. A brace from Cristiano Ronaldo and an emphatic 5-0 aggregate win provided them with a date with destiny.

The final in Lisbon would see the two Madrid clubs go toe to toe. Atletico from the industrial part of the city, near the Manzanares river against the slick, bourgeois empire from the financial district. A Diego Godin header looked to have decided the tie but deep into injury time it was the head of Ramos to the rescue again. Truly coming into his own as a leader and one of the key players he rose highest to a Luka Modric corner to plunge a dagger into the hearts of Los Rojiblancos. As extra time began Atletico Madrid were visibly drained, three more goals from Gareth Bale, Marcelo and Ronaldo sealing La Decima with a somewhat lop-sided score-line.

Ramos was named the fans man on the match and headed to the World Cup in Brazil in the top tier of world’s best players. However, a nightmare performance in the opening game in Salvador against Brazil saw the defensive pairing of Ramos and Gerard Pique torn apart in a 5-1 drubbing. Defeat to Chile in the second group game left Spain facing an early return home, a 3-0 win over Australia little succour for the defending champions.

The 2014/15 season was the calm before the storm, Ramos going a full season with no red cards. A second-place finish and semi-final Champions League exit saw the end of Carlo Ancelotti. The appointment of Rafa Benitez always looked temporary and it wasn’t until Zinedine Zidane stepped up from Castilla that the Real Madrid juggernaut got back on track with Ramos named as captain of both club and country.

Two yellow cards against Las Palmas took the total Ramos red card count to 20, his suspension ending in time for a trip to Camp Nou. Normal service resumed in El Clasico with Ramos receiving his marching orders, sliding through the back of Luis Suarez. This mattered little with Ronaldo scoring the winner two minutes later and simultaneously ended Barcelona’s 39 game unbeaten streak. A second Champions League final victory over Atletico Madrid via penalties this time outshone another second place La Liga finish. Ramos cancelled out a Juanfran goal, prodding home from what seemed an offside position. Any previous penalty misery was further put behind him, coolly slotting home in the shootout leaving Jan Oblak rooted to the spot.

The celebrations in Cardiff the following May was the culmination of a season full of trademark Ramos moments. An extra time Super Cup win against former side Sevilla saw Ramos force the final 30 minutes with a last second goal. The league game later in the season though would further intensify his villainy in the eyes of the Sevillistas. Cameras appearing to show Ramos spit at Iago Aspas during the Celta Vigo league game went unpunished as did a forearm to the head of Atletico Madrid’s Lucas Hernandez in the Champions League semi-final.

Gerard Pique took to social media to question whether the capitals team received preferential treatment from the officials, something that Ramos did not take too kindly to. Stating he expected this sort of thing from Pique, insinuating he was classless. This was feverishly lapped up by the Spanish press as the national team’s centre half pairing traded blows on social media. The tense relationship between the two can be traced back to 2010 when Ramos interrupted an interview with Pique whilst on national duty, the two players becoming the modern-day face of the Barcelona and Real Madrid rivalry.

The more deep-rooted tension is saved for the fans who used to sing his name in Andalusia. A Copa Del Rey match at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan saw Ramos take out his frustrations. His every touch booed, disgusting chants aimed at his mother were answered when he scored another Panenka penalty, he stared down the Biris, hard-line Sevilla ultras, ears cupped in celebration. Later he would issue an apology to the fans, perhaps the ‘act now, think later’ mentality that has come to encompass a lot of his career.

No matter the achievements sometimes the nature of football fans is to remember the bad, the red cards, the late tackle, the missed penalty. A player can be a ‘legend’ with the club but will he be regarded as one of the games greats?