Ramos’ longevity for Spain and Madrid is impressive but he isn’t slowing down

    Graham Hunter is a Barcelona-based freelance writer for ESPN.com who specializes in La Liga and the Spanish national team.

Sergio Ramos is a freak. It’s impossible to deny that fact.

Now, Sergio, if you’re reading this, I mean it in the most complimentary way. Not a hint of denigration or disrespect.

But facts are facts.

We live in an age when players are gasping for respite, a breather for their tired limbs to regenerate. Not only that but the merest pause from the endless, vicious cycle of: train, prepare mentally, play, recuperate, train, prepare mentally, play, etc. so that creative players can regain sharpness of instinct and even little flames of inspiration and daring. They all fear their sparks of genius vision and invention will be extinguished.

The evidence that we are squeezing more out of our elite footballers than they should be giving is not only staring us in the face, it’s adopting an aggressive “Why don’t you care?” expression. In recent days there were reminders — futile, I’m sure.

– UEFA Nations League on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)
– UEFA Euro 2020 qualifying on ESPN+: Stream LIVE games and replays (U.S. only)

Kevin De Bruyne, a mere stripling at 29 compared to gnarled veteran Ramos (34), warned: “I’ve played flat out for two years, but nobody listens to the players. It worries me sometimes. Your body is screaming out for a rest but nobody listens to the players.”

Then, after Spain’s flat and creativity-starved 1-0 win over Switzerland, 23-year-old Pau Torres admitted that the players have felt the strain of a three-game week for their clubs followed by a midweek friendly in Portugal and then this test against the disciplined, athletic, hard-pressing Swiss. Then there was the 7,600-kilometre round trip to Kiev, for a match against Ukraine, to be faced and suffered.

It really is nonstop for these guys.

Mental and physical tiredness against the Swiss cost La Roja those split seconds where an invented action, a brilliant piece of sharp passing or an individual skill properly separates truly top-class players from those who are truly giving their top effort. “But there can’t be any such thing as tiredness when you’re playing for your country,” Torres said.

Then you have Arsene Wenger arguing, while promoting his imminent autobiography, that “the next game changer is neuroscience.” Why does he put forward this idea? According to Wenger, “Because we are at the end of the improvement of physical speed.”

Rate him or not, one of the modern era’s most successful and epoch-changing managers believes that, athletically, elite football is already operating at absolute maximum — pedal to the floor. With the needle steadily edging into the red zone, if this were a car, you’d slow down and find your nearest mechanic.

But not Ramos.

His stated aim, despite his 35th birthday coming in March, is to lead Spain at the European Championship next summer, do the same at the postponed Tokyo Olympics in autumn 2021 and then captain La Roja to the Qatar World Cup in 2022. All the while, no doubt, inspiring Real Madrid to another La Liga title and winning back-to-back Champions Leagues.

These remarkable objectives from a remarkable man need putting in context.

First, Ramos’s voracious hunger and stamina. From his debut match for Spain (at 18 he became the country’s youngest debutant for 55 years), of all the 17 players used that day, only Joaquin is still a professional footballer. Ditto his debut in a World Cup: the 4-0 thrashing of Ukraine in Germany 2006. Of all starters and substitutes who played that afternoon, only Cesc Fabregas has lasted this long as an active pro. Even if you take the starting XI from the first international final he won, the 1-0 defeat of Germany at Euro 2008, only he, Fabregas, David Silva and Andres Iniesta are still in the game.

And the subject of this man’s trophy lifts is important.

Ramos has won the World Cup and two European Championships for Spain, rewriting history, but that didn’t sate him as it did others. While teammates, greats at that, silently slipped away — Iniesta, Iker Casillas, David Villa, Jordi Alba, Pedro — Ramos powers on.

For his club, the trophy list is gargantuan. Four Champions Leagues, five La Liga titles and a cupboard full of other medals that lesser men don’t even get a sniff of.

He still isn’t satisfied.

Return our focus to international football and the history he’s made outwith lifting trophies begins to explain Ramos’ perpetual voracity Regardless of these difficult, unpredictable times, should international football continue as intended, by Euro 2020 Ramos will overtake Egypt’s Ahmed Hassan, who is at the top of the all-time appearance list with 184 caps. Of all the players in the top 10, only one (Mexico’s Claudio Suarez) earned his caps in a shorter time than Madrid’s captain.

Ramos, over his career, hasn’t done injuries. That’s not to say he’s utterly immune — just fantastically robust. Nor does Ramos pick and choose when he plays for his country. If Spain want him, he’s there. Tired? Sore? Family commitments? Rather be fresh for his club? Can’t be bothered with the trip to the Faroe Islands, Moscow or Minsk? Those ideas, according to Ramos, are for wimps.

He’s the all-time winningest footballer in international history, having overtaken his friend and colleague Casillas, and he’s the top-scoring defender in the vast history of football nations pitting themselves against one another.

And he isn’t slowing down.

In the past two years, aged from 32 to 34, Ramos has played 108 matches for club and country. In that time, both Spain and Madrid have developed a distinct Ramos dependency. It’s not that Real Madrid simply cannot win without him, it’s that they lose an essential aggression, competitiveness and self-belief without their leader.

Look at the debacle against Manchester City in the away leg of last season’s Champions League round of 16. Without Ramos by his side, Raphael Varane made horrible mistakes, and once they were 2-1 down Madrid utterly lacked the chutzpah, the “We’re not beaten until the stadium floodlights are switched off” attitude with which Ramos bristles.

Compare that to how he almost single-handedly bullied all domestic rivals out of the way until Real Madrid won the title after La Liga’s restart. Ten matches, nine wins, one draw, during which their 34-year-old central defender scored six times — including the only goal in consecutive victories over Getafe and Athletic Club.

Nor should anyone overlook his record of big goals in Champions League finals. When Madrid were about to lose to Atletico Madrid in the 2014 Lisbon showpiece, Ramos didn’t just score the most dramatic of added-time equalisers. No. He told me that he was thinking of his recently deceased grandfather as the minutes ticked away. Thinking to himself, “I can’t, I won’t let this match finish this way.” And he didn’t.

From that day to this, Madrid haven’t found someone to replicate the Ramos effect. Cristiano Ronaldo was cut from the same cloth but when, if, Ramos ever departs this team, it’ll be hell on earth to find anyone with the same mix of extraordinary talent, athleticism, technique, character and sheer, naked will to win.

It’s the same for Spain. In his past 17 internationals, and please remember we are talking about a defender, he’s scored nine times. He’s their most potent striker. And while Luis Enrique has some productive scorers scattered throughout his squad, if Ramos doesn’t hit the net, La Roja often struggle and look dry in front of goal.

Throughout his career he’s taken 31 penalties and missed just three. Most importantly, though, he’s scored 22 consecutively for Madrid and Spain since he last failed. He is metronomic from the spot.

The key thing to understand about Ramos is that he’s a buccaneer, someone from times gone by. He’s an adventurer, a rascal, someone who lives life to the absolute limit; someone who sees horizons where others see walls and boundaries; someone who, when young, truly wanted to be a bull fighter; a man who’s always wanted not just to win but to tilt against the odds, the bigger the better; and he’s someone who simply loves the training, playing and competing involved in football.

Recently, he told UEFA: “I’m full of motivation. You have to reset every year and start from scratch; to live each triumph, every trophy win, as if it were a completely new thing. I think it’s very positive to continue enjoying football like this, without looking back, without stopping to think what you have done or achieved. This is how it feels like there is a whole life ahead of you when your body is trying to tell you that you can’t do it any longer.

“In principle, just so long as I’m as full of inspiration, pride and hunger, then I’ll treat the World Cup in Qatar as another challenge. I want to play in it and increase my number of caps. If I can make it to 200 appearances for Spain then all the better.”

They were born just two months and 990 km apart in 1986, but when you see Rafa Nadal hurting, fighting, recovering lost causes, equalling title winners who, perhaps, were thought to be slightly more conventionally talented than him, try seeing Ramos instead. Two peas in a pod: Spanish, proud, aggressive, athletically brilliant, perpetually inspired, self-motivated, deaf to both critics and those who say, “Not this time, he won’t be able to …”

Two fabulous freaks: men who are easy to admire, impossible to ignore and who give meaning to the whole idea of sport as a means to test the boundaries of what human beings can reasonably achieve.

Source: Read Full Article