Why football needs villains like Sergio Ramos

Why football needs villains like Sergio Ramos

BT Sport pundit Rio Ferdinand captured a widespread mood when he claimed that Sergio Ramos should be ashamed of himself after he conspired to get Juan Cuadrado sent off during the 2017 Champions League Final clash between Juventus and Real Madrid in Cardiff.

The former Chelsea man received his first yellow card minutes after entering the field of play and shortly before an altercation with Sergio Ramos saw him red carded for a second bookable offence in the 84th minute.

Cuadrado had played a mere 20 minute cameo during the Champions League final, having come on as a substitute in Juventus’ 4-1 defeat. Sergio Ramos had initially dispossessed The Colombian wide player with a typically strong sliding tackle near the touchline before the Juventus winger jumped up and rushed to take a quick throw in.

In the process, Cuadrado appeared to tread on Ramos’ foot as he looked to collect the ball prompting a theatrical reaction from the controversial World Cup-winning defender.

Replays suggested there was minimal contact between the opponents in a coming together that occurred under the nose of the linesman. It is par for the course for the Andalusian arch villain.

Speaking post-match on BT Sport, Rio Ferdinand criticised Sergio Ramos for engineering the sending off. “Ramos will be embarrassed. When he sees the tomorrow he’ll be embarrassed,” said Ferdinand. “If my son watched me do that – I’d be embarrassed to look my son in the eye.

Certainly, there was no such reflection from Ramos as he celebrated with his teammates, the trophy and his children after the final whistle on a Cardiff pitch packed with support staff, VIPs, media and well-wishers.

The 31-year-old from Seville is the first captain to win back-to-back Champions League trophies in what was his second European triumph. “We had a date with history, we really wanted to win and we managed to achieve what no-one has ever done before – win two Champions League finals in a row,” Ramos told Spanish journalists after the final.

But set against that latest achievement and a career that now boasts 18 major honours for club and country and a raft of personal awards, for a player likened to the great Paolo Maldini for his tactical flexibility by former Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti, is a long list of on-field incidents with opponents and officials. They ensure that Sergio Ramos holds the less flattering distinction of being the most sent off player in Real Madrid’s history.

Sergio Ramos may have won the Champions League and La Liga titles  three times apiece, the World Cup and two European Championships with Spain, but when the 31-year-old was sent off for the 22nd time in his Real Madrid career for a lunge on Lionel Messi in the April 2017 El Clasico it ended a run of a full calendar year without a red card for the combustible character. The only surprise was that it had taken Ramos so long to revert to type.

Signed by Madrid for €30m from home-town club Sevilla as a teenager in 2005, he has since won 13 club trophies including two Champions Leagues, three La Ligas, and the Copa del Rey twice. He’s also scored 68 goals for Los Blancos, a fine haul for any defender. And especially so when 18 of his last 21 goals have come when Madrid have needed his intervention, having fallen behind or in being held by opponents in crucial games. And his most memorable goal for Real Madrid paved the way for his side’s tenth European Cup win.

Add in the 2010 World Cup and two European Championships won during 143 international caps with Spain, and it is clear to see that Sergio Ramos’ CV stands comparison with the very best in football history.

However, to his detractors it is the trail of 22 red and 176 yellow cards (picked up at a rate of almost one in every three games for Real Madrid) that speaks most eloquently to Sergio Ramos’ character.

Personally, though, I consider myself to be a fan of the rugged Andalusian taking the view that high achieving villains, especially of the pantomime variety, are just part of the rich tapestry of the game.

This is because villains (those players we all ‘love to hate’), like heroes add to the debate and bring colour and drama to the game. And in the round, I happen to think, they’re not a massive issue.

‘Baddies’ like Sergio Ramos add rather than detract from the enjoyment of the game. As fans we all enjoy railing against the cynicism of a sly foul, I think. It can be viewed as a guilty pleasure as long as it doesn’t spoil the game.

I would also apply similar comments to diving or simulation as some like to call it. And since I am on a roll, I might as well discuss that too.

Diving incidents get a real tailwind of controversy whenever they occur. However, as a general phenomenon, diving isn’t perceived to be a significant problem at all. If anything, diving incidents can also add a talking point and an element of drama to the action – they sell newspapers, promote web clicks and fuel pub and workplace discussions. I have even seen a dive galvanise opponents to raise their game, through a sense of injustice, and seen teams get a goal off the back of an attempt to cheat them.

In context, I think this so-called ‘gamesmanship’ is more good than bad when viewed in the round. With the proviso that it isn’t too frequent an occurrence, spoiling the spectacle of the game.

For fans though, it is a problem that’s significance they tend to overplay.

Certainly, within football, I don’t think people think of it at all. Certainly not in the way a fan does.

Some players ‘go down easier than others’. In terms of opponents, players (and officials) know who they are and try to ensure they are not on the wrong end of a decision. For players it is a specific problem in the heat of a game. But it doesn’t have any wider resonance.

Occasionally, when writing a next opponent report I will mention the likelihood of a player ‘going down easily’ or looking to win a foul – just as I’d assume my opposite number on the other team’s staff would do the same.

The thing about diving is that it is hard to consistently con referees. When you have a reputation as a player that does this then the likelihood is that you will find decisions going against you as the officials over-correct or err on the side of caution, assuming the worst. And this may be the situation Sergio Ramos now finds himself in after red card incidents for opponents in Cardiff and against Celta Vigo during the successful La Liga title run-in in May 2017.

A bit like a special set-piece routine, a dive or a sly act of deviousness is something that needs the element of surprise to be effective. Habitual offenders seldom get the benefit of the doubt in any challenge.

Cheating if anything is party to football’s equivalent of economics’ law of diminishing returns. The more particular players and teams cheat the less likely they are to receive a positive outcome relative to the cost of their efforts expended. It is more likely that rampant cheating will create a deleterious effect upon other aspects of their game such as their concentration levels.

But of course, there is also a plea of mitigation for players, for managers, for officials and for fans caught up in the heat of the moment of a game’s flashpoint. The incredible speed of modern football has to be taken into account here. As such, there are a lot of challenges in a game that are not clear cut as a good tackle, a foul or a player seeking an advantage by diving. And in the heat of battle players do things they wouldn’t countenance in everyday life. Such is their hard-wired will to win.

It is hoped that technology might be the all-seeing eye that foils all cheats. But we have seen significant recent evidence of this in May’s FIFA U20 World Cup tournament in South Korea after a Video Assistant Referee controversially awarded a penalty in the group game between Uruguay and Italy.

Just because a player goes down and the cause is not an obvious foul it doesn’t necessarily mean that a player has dived either. Sometimes a players momentum at speed or loss of balance at a critical point will take them down.

Some challenges are neither a foul nor a dive. They inhabit an eternal grey area.

As for Sergio Ramos, there are those that love him, those that hate him but for fans everywhere he remains a lightning rod conducting controversy wherever he goes. Even at this late stage in his career.

The Irish Independent writer Dermot Corrigan perhaps best sums up the situation with the player when he says: “We will definitely miss Sergio Ramos when he does hang up his boots. For better or worse, football is just more fun when he is around.”