Football Features

Sergio Ramos: Spain’s ‘Forever Man’ will not go quietly – he has more history to make

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 16:38, 9 September 2019 | Updated: 15:37, 12 February 2020

With his 167th cap for Spain against the Faroe Islands, Sergio Ramos has equalled a record.

Ramos’ latest appearance for his national team moves him into the top 10 players with the most caps in international football history. The defender is now level with Vitalijs Astafjevs of Latvia, and his own compatriot Iker Casillas. And yes, that also means he is the joint-highest appearance maker in the history of the Spanish national side.

Just say that number again, 167. That is plainly absurd. Ramos has been playing international football basically non-stop since his debut in March 2005 when he came on at half-time in a 3-0 friendly win over China.

He was just 18 then, and was the youngest debutant for Spain in over half a century (his record would later be broken by Cesc Fabregas).

Ramos’ time in the Spanish national side has seen him experience the highs and lows of the game. It’s hard to imagine now but Spain were basically a joke when Ramos debuted. They hadn’t won anything besides Euro ’64 when they were the hosts, and despite the talent in the team their ability to wrench a loss from the jaws of victory was pretty astounding.

So yes, Ramos was there that night at Windsor Park when David Healy went supernova and downed Spain with a hat-trick. He was there during the controversy over Luis Aragonés’ racist remarks about Thierry Henry, and then, yes, he was there when Spain turned into a juggernaut that would dominate international football for four remarkable years.

Ramos has been a Spain player so long that there’s two distinct phases to his international career; at first he came through as a buccaneering right-back. In his youth, Ramos was absolutely fearless.

He still doesn’t seem afraid but watching him rampage up the right-flank with the size and speed of a charging buffalo was a sight to behold. His skill on the ball made him a deadly weapon when in attacking positions too; he could bend it like Beckham if the need arose and opposing full-backs found him to be a true handful.

Truthfully Spain were at their best when Ramos was a right-back. With Carles Puyol, Carlos Marchena and later Gerard Piqué controlling the middle of the pitch, Ramos added an incredible steel to the right. He could defend like a centre-back if they needed him to, but when they sent him forward they knew he could mix it with the rest of Spain‘s high-powered attack and had the athleticism to provide a constant outlet.

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It was a phenomenal trio in 2010 because Piqué played with a kind of serenity and almost telepathic reading of the game which was the perfect compliment to the more manic and athletic awesomeness of both Ramos and Puyol.

Couple this with the ever-reliant Joan Capdevila at left-back and you can see why Spain won the World Cup with five straight clean sheets and just two goals conceded. The style of football was pure Barcelona but it owed a great deal to the likes Ramos and their defensive prowess.

Puyol was kind of a forerunner for Ramos; the Catalan had also begun his career as a rampaging right-back before being moved into the middle where he thrived. So it seemed only fitting that when injury and age began to take Puyol out of the picture, critically so for Euro 2012,  Ramos (who had amassed 92 caps by the age of 26) became Spain‘s permanent centre-back.

And this is when the modern story of Ramos begins, the era that most people think of when they think of the Spaniard. Ramos’ phase two began seven years in and he and Piqué (who was just one year younger but had less than half the caps Ramos did) formed a formidable duo in the heart of defence.

They were never friends, due to both of them being permanently immature and obscenely fond of their clubs Barcelona and Real Madrid, but they worked as a duo with Piqué as the reader and Ramos the reactor.

Spain won Euro 2012 with Ramos as vice captain, assuming a leadership position next to his captain, friend and club-mate Casillas. It all looked like the good times were going to continue; but Ramos more than anyone should have known that things go in cycles. He was there when it was bad before, and so he should not have been surprised that it went bad again.

Not that he could have done anything about it, mind you. Spain just got old. Key parts of the squad weren’t refreshed and even though Piqué and Ramos was as formidable a defensive duo as you could find in international football, Spain‘s midfield was always the heart of their side. They couldn’t handle the decline of Xavi nor the lack of another goalscorer to take David Villa’s place.

So the 2014 World Cup was a disaster and Euro 2016 wasn’t much better but did mark a momentous occasion for Ramos himself; with Iker Casillas dropped the Andalucian (who at this point had 132 caps) finally assumed the captaincy.

First unofficially, but soon after the tournament he was the official captain. He had to play over a century of games and wait until he was 30, but Ramos was the leader of his country at long last.

He had been made skipper of Real Madrid in 2015 following Casillas’ departure, so as with him assuming Puyol’s centre-back role it seemed fitting he’d do the same for Casillas’ captaincy.

Truth be told, by 2016 he had become a genuine leader. Growing into the centre-back role he only really adopted four years previously, Ramos’ dynamic style of play was equalled by a dynamic personality. Ramos was the kind of captain who could inspire team-mates in part because he himself was so individually impressive. He could match strikers for pace and power and his ability to make perfectly-timed last-ditch interventions had only grown with age.

By 2016 he had won two Champions League titles with Real Madrid. His reputation as a big game player, solidified by years of performing for Spain, had now been expanded to include being a big game scorer. Ramos was the first player to score in and win the Champions League and Club World Cup semi-finals and final within a single year, doing so in 2014.

Somehow Ramos had combined the rampaging nature of his earlier right-back years with his centre-back role. In the 2016/17 season he scored 10 goals for Real Madrid, in 2018/19 it was 11.

He was getting older and yet more prolific. Of course it helped that he was starting to take penalties. For Spain, too, he had begun to be looked to as the regular spot-kick taker. His unerring confidence, outstanding technique and mastery of “the Panenka” made him a deadly proposition from 12 yards.

The 2018 World Cup – Ramos’ first as full-time captain – was a disaster of Spain‘s own making. They were among the best teams heading into the tournament but the Julen Lopetegui debacle, where he was sacked just one day before their opening match, ruined them.

Without their brilliant coach, Spain got worse with each passing game at the World Cup culminating in a miserable elimination to Russia on penalties, although it is worth noting Ramos coolly slotted home from 12 yards.

After the tournament, Piqué retired. This meant that Ramos, who once played in a perfectly structured defensive unit was now playing with a rotating cast of people whose skill-sets may or may not mesh well with him, and Jordi Alba, the brilliant but error-prone wing-back.

But this year, the emergence of Mario Hermoso (first of Espanyol, now of Atlético Madrid) looks like it could provide Ramos with an ideal partner. Hermoso is nine years younger than the Spain legend, and will hope to soak up and learn what he can from his captain. And Ramos should definitely have a lot to teach him.

This is a defender who has played for over a decade at the international level. When he made his debut for Spain, Hermoso was 10 years old. Football has changed around Ramos and he has managed to keep up.

Ramos the record holder will, fitness-permitting, become Spain‘s most-capped player in a month when Spain play Norway in their next qualifier. Then should Spain qualify for Euro 2020 then the endlessly entertaining Andalucian will be able to play at least seven more games (four qualifiers, three group games) to leave him on 174 caps.

That puts him just two-shy of Gianluigi Buffon’s European record of 176 caps, a total you can see Ramos matching even if it’s just with some friendlies.

And beyond that, Ahmed Hassan’s world record 184 caps for a men’s international side is just a further eight caps away. At 33, is that really a target Ramos could possibly pass up?

It’s not like Spain have a centre-back beating down the door to get involved the way Ramos brought a firm end to Michel Salgado’s international career back in 2005 with his dynamic displays.

Moreover, Ramos is the kind of man who sees a challenge and rises to it. A spectacular individual and a rugged defender who, even as his powers may be waning, still has the force of personality to make himself a relevant presence in world football.

His latest game with Spain, where he equalled Casillas’ record, saw him both score the first goal from the penalty spot and then absolutely fail to pick up Florin Andone as he pulled a goal back for Romania.

Ramos is an impossible record-setter who does both good and bad in a unique and inimitable style. He is Spain‘s forever man, and he’s surely got some more history yet to make.