He is the villain of the piece, the man everybody loves to hate. If the football world were a pantomime, Sergio Ramos would enter the pitch swathed in a black cape and mask, basking in the boos and whistles of his incensed audience.
But the Real Madrid defender seems to revel in his ‘bad boy’ persona – and it is exactly that attitude that has made him such a favourite at Santiago Bernabeu.
Ramos was in the headlines once more on Saturday as he ensured Liverpool’s hero Mohamed Salah would not make any more impact on the Champions League final than he absolutely had to. Salah was the focal point of Liverpool’s bright start in Kiev, cutting in off the right flank and giving the Madrid defence more than a few headaches. And the way he was dealt with was classic Ramos.
Discussing the legality or malicious intent of the armlock the Spain international applied on his opponent is a futile exercise. It is the type of clash that occurs countless times in every football match on the planet, shorn of any clearly illicit contact that would have made punishing the defender simple for referee Milorad Mazic.
The only certainties in the matter were the unfortunate consequences for Salah: a damaged shoulder, early, tearful withdrawal and a World Cup in jeopardy. And for Madrid: a demoralised opponent and, inevitably, a third straight Champions League trophy. Ramos’ actions may not have won him a lot of friends in Liverpool or Egypt, but you cannot argue they are not effective.
Former France international Christophe Dugarry summed up the contradiction days after the final. “Ramos is an absolute genius!” he enthused on RMC Sport, responding to fellow ex-Bleu Franck Leboeuf who had asserted the defender’s actions were “tiresome”.
“He is one of those defenders who help you win titles, who make you come out on top. Okay, he is a cheat, he is dirty. But you cannot argue with his results!” Let his detractors plea for punishment through online petitions or file billion-dollar lawsuits : Madrid’s enforcer could not care less.
Ramos’ rap sheet is indeed a lengthy one. Aside from tangling with Salah, the centre-back also felled Loris Karius with a nasty elbow to the eye in Kiev minutes before the goalkeeper lost his entire head and gifted Karim Benzema the opener. His armlock on Salah had journalists scouring the archives for previous misdemeanours: sure enough, they found an almost-identical trick played on Dani Alves (admittedly, no shrinking violent himself) in the 2016-17 final.
One could also look back to 2010, when a hefty challenge from the defender provoked a cruciate ligament tear for Nacho Gonzalez that left the Uruguayan out for six months. An identical injury to that suffered one year later by Betis youngster Alvaro Vadillo, again during a scuffle with Madrid’s Ironman.
Not to mention the Clasico red card picked up by Ramos for a truly criminal kick on Lionel Messi. Fuming after seeing the young Argentine give him the slip, he followed Leo across the pitch and lashed out at his shins, in a hit that thankfully caused the star no lasting damage. “I did not mean to hurt him. I made a mistake, but I did not go in with the intention of causing damage,” Ramos said after that game. Sound familiar?
Those moments, which skip over infinite instances of simulation, cynical fouls and other misdemeanours, all paint an image of Ramos’ character. But there is another side. Four Champions League titles; four La Liga crowns; the 2010 World Cup, and back-to-back European Championships.
Ramos was at the heart of Spain and Madrid’s teams for each of those triumphs, even scoring in two Champions League finals to push the Blancos towards glory. He is not the biggest of centre-backs, nor even the most technically gifted – it is the player’s unique, single-minded intensity on the field that makes him such an asset to every side he graces.
That intensity and determination to win whatever the cost also means he is destined to be one of football’s fall-guys, a convenient outlet to direct one’s rage when everything goes wrong. But all of us must be honest, even Liverpool supporters: we would love a man with Sergio Ramos’ fire lining up for our team week in, week out. If he were on our side those boos would soon turn to cheers.
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