Up 1-0 in the 81st minute against Italy last week in the most recent round of World Cup qualification matches, with Spain on the verge of some measure of revenge for a 2-0 loss from the European Championships months earlier, Sergio Ramos stabbed the ball from Eder inside his own box. After consulting the line judge, the referee overturned his original call of a Spain goal and awarded Italy a penalty. Daniele De Rossi subsequently tied the match, which ended 1-1. It was Italy’s only shot on target the entire match.
Following the match, we asked “What has happened to Sergio Ramos?” It was critical to be sure, yet we understood the sentiment. But as Ramos himself noted, anything he does on the field receives extra scrutiny despite his world class credentials. But this fact is also unavoidable: it was the fourth penalty that Ramos gave up in 12 matches this season. Ramos has also scored three goals in the same time. In a 1-1 draw against Villarreal in September, he both gave away a penalty and scored the equalizer.
His highlight reel rivals any of his defensive contemporaries, as his attacking ability puts him on a shortlist of players who most embody a modern defender. The same recklessness makes him a frustrating defender but enthralling overall player, and Ramos is a significant figure for this exact reason - regardless of the broad spectrum of how one rates him. He simultaneously holds Real Madrid records for most red cards and most goals by a defender. Barney Ronay described watching him play as alternating between “stabbing yourself in the eye with a skewer” and “purring with pure pleasure” at his quality, while differentiating the Good Ramos from the Bad Ramos (which inspired a retrospective of his 21 career red cards). Luis Suarez called him the best defender he’s ever faced.
Ramos was signed by Real Madrid as a 19-year-old from Sevilla in 2005 for $30 million, a then record for a Spanish teenager. Originally a box to box right back, his move to center back for the 2009 season transformed him into the modern day Sergio Ramos. Every hero needs its villain - or in this case, the opposite was true. Ramos and center back partner Pepe emerged as a key figures during the height of Real Madrid’s rivalry with Barcelona. Perhaps nothing represented the intensity of that era than Ramos’ red card for kicking Messi during a 5-0 loss (but of course, now he’s a key figure in bringing together the two sides for the national side with team meetings held in his hotel room). No one could escape the combustible nature of those Real Madrid sides. Seemingly a perfect defensive anchor for a Jose Mourinho side, his relationship with the Portuguese manager fell apart in the 2013 season, with neither side shy about sending verbal jabs across countries.
Perception turned under Carlo Ancelotti during Real Madrid’s Champions League run in 2014. In that sense, the Champions League has represented Ramos’ redemption. He scored two goals against Bayern Munich in the semifinals and added another in the final against Atleti two years ago. Again versus Atleti, Ramos became the first defender to score in two Champions League finals, and calmly slotted home Real Madrid’s fourth goal in the penalty shootout, and was named UEFA Man of the Match. Following Real Madrid’s UEFA Super Cup win against Sevilla to begin this season, Zidane praised him as “the difference.” This after a performance in which Ramos gave away a penalty, then scored the equalizer in the 93rd minute to send the match into extra time. The combination must surely be labeled as “The Ramos” after its most famous practitioner.
Ramos suffered a knee injury in Spain’s following match against Albania that will keep him out a month. It is significant portion of the season to miss with Atleti and Real Madrid tied on points atop La Liga, and Sevilla a point behind (although one weighted league table puts fourth place Barcelona ahead in the standings). But outside of a match against Athletic, the other three matches are against sides in the bottom half of the table. Ramos would presumably return against Atleti on the weekend of the 19th.
Ramos’ absence presents a chance to see his value beyond the passing, tackling, or goal scoring. Pepe and his replacement Raphael Varane are also both excellent individual players, and this may be the time for the 23-year-old Varane to fully showcase his ability. But the numbers tell their own story: Pepe and Varane have allowed 44 goals in the 40 matches they’ve been paired together. As Rob Train notes, Pepe and Ramos work as a pair. Ramos and Varane work. Ramos is Real Madrid’s glue, regardless of his reckless moments.
And you wonder how Ramos’ game will age as his athleticism wanes. For starters, he may have beat Eder to the ball years earlier. He will surely take less chances with his tackling, but his skill on the ball combined should keep him at the top level for at least another half decade. Whether that’s at Real Madrid, or Manchester United, or Chelsea, or Liverpool, is another story.
Last week was a difficult time for Spanish center backs. In addition to Ramos’ injury, Gerard Pique announced his retirement from the side in 2018 owing to a jersey controversy. The duo laid the defensive foundation for Spain’s Golden Age; Pique played in the center with Ramos on the right during their 2010 World Cup winning run. The two were paired at center back for the 2012 European Championship. Each center back has faced criticism in their own way. Despite his penchant for the dramatics, Ramos’ value is told in the organization, the leadership, the way he handles criticism, and the little things that don’t necessarily win or lose a match as obviously as giving away penalties or scoring off headers, but are essential in keeping a backline and team moving forward throughout an entire season.