“Looking at the result, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t force the booking,” revealed Sergio Ramos about his late yellow card following Real Madrid’s 2-1 win over Ajax in the first leg of the Champions League round of 16 last year, giving one of the most costly post-match interviews in recent memory. While Ramos took the deliberate card to refresh his card count for the rest of the tournament, UEFA suspended the centerback two matches for his admission. The rest became spectacular Champions League lore: Ajax, on their way to breaking out in Europe, dominated Real Madrid 4-1 in the second leg at the Bernabeu. The loss was described as the end of a Real Madrid era that had won three consecutive European titles. But there was another small, perfect detail snuck in for Ramos detractors: not only had he faced an immediate comeuppance for his overconfidence, but he had also been filming a documentary about himself throughout the 2018-19 season. You could feel the glee from Twitter considering how Ramos was already perceived by rival fans.
The final product, called The Heart of Sergio Ramos, released as an 8-part series on Amazon in September (any discussion of intentionally getting a yellow card is conveniently left out of the final product). The original timing of the documentary seemed opportunistic considering Real Madrid’s dominance in Europe. Yet the team struggled in all competitions and finished third in the league, 19 points behind Barcelona. A run of matches from late February to early March went: a 3-0 loss to Barcelona to get knocked out of the Copa del Rey, a 1-0 to Barcelona in the league days later, then the 4-1 loss to Ajax the following midweek. Ramos probably would have preferred to document the glory of titles, but the constant losing added an extra layer of truth to what could have been a contrived celebration of perfection - however truth is defined within a contained, controlled setting of a self-produced documentary.
Does one remember the controversies surrounding last year at Real Madrid, with the season cursed before it even began with Julen Lopetegui getting fired from Spain on the eve of the World Cup for agreeing to replace Zinedine Zidane as manager? The squad was defined by who wasn’t there, without Zidane or Cristiano Ronaldo. The documentary feels their absence as Lopetegui attempts to invigorate a listless attack reliant upon Karim Benzema and some mashup between Vinicius Junior, Isco, and Lucas Vazquez. He was inevitably sacked and replaced by Santiago Solari, who would also get sacked months later (in watching the squad personalities interact throughout the documentary, it’s laughable to think how any manager less than one of the greatest midfielders could ever command their respect).
There are traditional beats that these sorts of documentaries hit to humanize their subject: an emphasis on family and home life, scenes showing the joy of winning trophies and the anguish of losing, a voice-over explaining to the audience how “you think you know me, but not really.” While we as critics and audiences think we want to see the break-through of public persona to find the “real” person, there is also comfort in candy and performance. His wife is a famous television host, after all - Ramos is built for this sort of storytelling and artifice.
But if there was any athlete who needed to tell their own story considering the gap between how they’re perceived and how good they actually are, it was Ramos. What do we think of, when we think of Ramos? He holds the La Liga record for most red cards. He is the most carded player in the Champions League, in El Clasico, and for Spain. He acknowledged his image following a clash with Raheem Sterling, accusing the England winger of using Ramos’ perception to act up and attempt to get him sent off.
Yet who also knew of Ramos as an active, and apparently natural storyteller and content creator? He’s shown filming episodes of another documentary where he interviews past Real Madrid captains to gain leadership insight. His Spanish identity is also emphasized throughout. Episodes are dedicated to proving that Spain has the best horses, to flamenco, and to his childhood in Seville, all alongside a Real Madrid exceptionalism and pride that a Spanish side rule the continent. If the goal was to present a fuller picture of Ramos past the caricature of his behavior, then unfortunately, even those who dislike Ramos may be surprised by his articulate dedication towards being an athlete. Far from the red cards and antics, could Ramos actually have a mind for story?
The documentary also signals an acknowledgement of an end, that these sporting days are numbered. But Ramos has arguably never been more effective, or perceived as highly by supporters, than today. I wondered four years ago how Ramos would age once his athleticism declined, but that failed to consider his on-field intelligence and sense of leadership in controlling the tone of a match (the antics and cards are then just tools for how he tells his story during play). Revisions of Ramos’ career are taking place in real time. His aggression in defending open space combined with his on-ball ability makes him an ideal centerback for this current pressing era, yet he was playing this style years before pressing came into our conscious. Maybe it wasn’t on Ramos, but it was us who needed to catch up all this time.
Interestingly, the final moment of the documentary belongs not to Ramos, but to Zidane’s voice, signaling his return. We may never know whether the gamble worked. Real Madrid were two points behind Barcelona in the league, and down 2-1 in the Champions League to Manchester City heading into the second leg when the season was suspended. Ramos received a red card in the first leg following a last ditch tackle on Gabriel Jesus. Disappointing to those who hold onto perception, it was his first red card in over a year.
If nothing else, Ramos’ documentary stands as an archive of how athletes told their own narratives in the pre-pandemic days. With the discourse in the relationship between supporter and athlete continuing to evolve, one would think that upcoming stories would focus on a player’s common humanity and less on individual achievements. Not that the content will stop - Kevin Durant recently announced the upcoming release of his executively produced documentary about basketball in his hometown (Durant, like Ramos, has been an active shaper of his own story).
These forms of self-mythologizing documentaries are interesting not so much in the traditional metrics of the form - we don’t expect to see the next Errol Morris here - but in terms of how each piece fits into the larger ecosystem of athlete storytelling. It is a modern genre, born out of a democratization of filmmaking tools and social media, and one whose rules are still growing and being written today. And these pieces continue to live and evolve after their release: in a budding rivalry built out of lockdown boredom, Ramos told Ajax to look at the scoreboard when the Dutch club tried to troll him for last season’s loss. If we weren’t aware of it before, Ramos is too savvy to lose a Twitter battle against a team account.
We also must consider how the quarantined context under which we watch content shapes our relationship to the work. A documentary of short, bingeable episodes is geared towards an infinite timeline with nothing to do, as we probably overlooked its initial September release due to the excitement of the start of the European season. Ramos said that this was his chance to pause and look back on his career. And whether it’s a reflection of how much we’re interested in Ramos or miss soccer, the wins, losses, and theatrics show what we once had, and long for now.