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Why Sergio Ramos’s departure sends an important message to Raphael Varane

Real Madrid’s greatest ever defender joins yet another list of legends that didn’t get the send-off they wanted. Where do we go from here?

Real Madrid Tribute and Farewell to Sergio Ramos Photo by Helios de la Rubia/Real Madrid via Getty Images

These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts — are now a regular thing. All previous editions can be found here.

Sergio Ramos leaving Real Madrid as his contract winds down, without getting the two-year extension he wanted, will go down as an important moment in club history, not only for the significance of the player leaving, but for the message it sends to any superstar who grows old at the club: You do not run the show here, regardless of what your name is. The power lies with the club itself. If Ramos and Cristiano Ronaldo don’t get to end their Real Madrid careers on their own terms, then no one will. And it’s not just them, by the way, it was also Alfredo di Stefano, Raul, Iker Casillas, Fernando Hierro, Fernando Redondo, and many others. Ramos could’ve been, and many prophesied he would be, the exception to the rule. He wasn’t. Even the immortals are subject to the unwritten laws.

Ramos also saw his leverage deteriorate, to the point where he was, in negotiation terms, the desperate one. That would’ve been unthinkable back in October given his freak fitness levels, leadership, and the drop-off the team suffered without him both defensively and offensively. Without Ramos on the field, the team lost one of its cojones.

As the months wore on, the perception changed. In November, Ramos had a muscle fiber tear. In January, he tore his meniscus. In April, he suffered a muscle injury. In May, it was ruled he’d miss whatever was left of the season due to tendon issues. Ramos missed 35 games in the 2020 - 2021 season. The club had to learn to play without him, and it did. Ramos, in the few games he did play, was good, but it was also apparent he had lost a step, unable to keep up with attackers in transition the same way he did during his peak.

The court tilted, and the ball rolled down from Ramos’s side to the club’s. And then it came down to simple business math: Real Madrid decided it needed to allocate its salary to younger players, and did not want to end up in the waiting game that Ramos put them in. Ramos wanted two years. Real Madrid countered with one. Ramos did not respond, and the club didn’t persist, and instead chose to move on. By the time Ramos caved, it was too late.

Some fans argue that certain cases have to be dealt with outside the business lens — that there needs to be some sort of empathy when it comes to dealing with delicate matters like Casillas, Ramos, and Raul. There is some merit to that general sentiment. But the club held on to Casillas for five years past his peak; and Raul seven years past his. Most legends stay too long, and rarely do club and player part exactly at the right time. These things are tricky to juggle.

I would argue that if there were ever two players that earned the right to have maximum leverage it would be the greatest player in club history, Ronaldo, and the greatest defender in club history, Ramos. Florentino Perez has always relied on principles, not emotion. Part of his success comes from the ability to look at everything with numbers rather than sentiment. But that has its perils, too. Florentino has strengths and weaknesses — the latter being his scathingly bad sense of PR, and his struggle with grappling a proper sporting vision.

In theory, there is nothing wrong with the refusal to give out long-term contracts to older players. In reality, it’s sound, pragmatic. But part of the problem with putting humans into an algorithm is that it doesn’t account for freaks like Ramos and Ronaldo.

But there is another side of this coin: The player has to make an effort too. Both parties played hardball. From the club’s perspective, they had to endure playing without their captain in two of the last three Champions League exits. They saw Ramos talk about playing in the Olympics — further mileage on an ageing, wounded body — before suffering multiple serious injuries while going under the knife. He would’ve returned next season a step slower. A 2-year contract would’ve taken him to thirty seven. The club was well within its rights to tell Ramos ‘sign for one year, and if it works, we can extend again’.

Fans wanted a Ramos farewell tour, a proper tribute in front of a packed stadium. That was, in many ways, difficult to do given that neither club nor player knew if he’d be a Real Madrid player next season, and no one planned for Ramos’s last game in a white shirt to be the 2 - 0 loss to Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

Ramos is still good enough to stay and be a Real Madrid starter. He’s good enough to start on any team even at 35. Moving on now is reasonable too. Both can be true. But many fans are not upset at the timing of the separation; but rather the way it took place.

In today’s exit press conference, Ramos was bursting with emotion. At one point he said: “It would have been nice if the president was here alongside me.” Ramos reiterated several times that he didn’t want to leave Real Madrid, and that he didn’t know Real Madrid’s offer had an expiry to it. That was telling — even embarrassing. The disconnect that has to happen between the club and player, and in this case, his agent and brother Renee Ramos who has to interpret the contract, that the detail of an expiry was missed, is striking.

Even if Real Madrid wanted to move on from Ramos and build a more youthful squad — something they’re entitled to do — there was a sense that they had no interest in pointing out to Ramos that there was an expiry at all, but rather, slide it in the contract without pointing it out verbally. That reads as an unhealthy relationship without regular dialogues and trust — one without follow-ups and communication.

There is another chapter to this sad story which hasn’t arrived yet: Raphael Varane’s future has yet to be sorted, and as I reported last week, he has yet to decide what he’ll do, and is leaning towards a move away from the club, per source. The David Alaba dominoes extend beyond Ramos. Alaba walked in, at the same age as Varane, and is immediately paid (much) more. Varane wants to feel valued, the same way Ramos did.

Varane, just like any other veteran in his prime, will look at how the Ramos situation was handled. Do players really want to be a part of an organization that rarely gives their legends a proper send off? Maybe that’s overthinking it. Ramos’s fate is nothing new, and legends have rarely retired at the club, let alone at their peak. But in years past Real Madrid also didn’t have competition the way they do now. Clubs around Europe are flexing their financial muscle everywhere, and ‘prestige’ will only take you so far in luring stars.

The counter to that is, of course, many clubs who flex their money also aren’t run with a competent sporting vision; the grass isn’t always greener for players on the other side, and, as naive as it sounds, time heals all wounds. Everyone who left unceremoniously, including Raul, Casillas, and Di Stefano, returned to the club in some capacity. Ramos will too. People often ask: ‘How will Florentino ever recover from this?’ That question waxed hottest during the Super League debacle. Florentino triggered the exodus of Vicente del Bosque, Fernando Morientes, and Fernando Hierro in one go. He sold Fernando Redondo and caused riots in the streets of Madrid. He replaced Claude Makelele with David Beckham. He interfered with every sporting decision in his first tenure. He was unfazed by the Super League chaos. This is not a man who needs to recover from anything — he’s already at peace with the decisions he makes.

Florentino also builds the squads he dissolves. He signed a teenage Sergio Ramos for what was then a record fee for a Spanish defender. But he is oddly detached from the emotional bond he’ll establish with players, and that is in part how he’s been so successful financially. (As an aside, I’m intrigued to see how the ending will be for his most prized son, Karim Benzema.)

The big picture concern for Real Madrid now is that throughout the years, they’re not losing just legends. ‘Legend’ is almost a disservice to those players. They are more. Ronaldo and Ramos were characters and leaders. Marcelo, though still here, will be gone soon too, and he’s cut from a similar cloth. Ramos, by all accounts, was one that could keep everyone’s heads in check. He pulled the youngsters to earth, and elevated their belief on the pitch.

Past transitions at the club haven’t been pretty. When Redondo was sold, a layer of paint was peeled off. When Hierro left in 2003, even if moving on from him was the right thing to do, as ungracious as it was, the club didn’t find a vocal leader in the backline until Pepe was signed. Ramos later took the mantle. Granted, this current team is slightly better built than the one in 2004. Real Madrid have been hoarding young players for years, but I’m not sure any of them will turn into an alpha leader. Those traits are usually visible, even if latent, in young players. Raul had ‘it’ at the age of 17. Ramos had something in 2006. Maybe Odegaard will rise. Varane could become the spiritual successor now. All of this to say: Losing Varane now would be devastating.

And that’s where the decision to let Ramos walk would be highlighted as a supreme error. Losing both Ramos and Varane, the two iconic pillars of the dynasty, would be like ripping out the team’s oxygen supply. If the club had no guarantee that Varane would stay, they could’ve secured Ramos by ignoring the expiry. There will always be a solution, a work-around, to an expiry in the contract if the desire is there. This could have been avoided, or at least delayed, to see what Varane would do.

Of course, the club could just force Varane to stay against his own wishes, the way Inter Milan did with Lothar Matthaus in 1991 when the German wanted to sign for Real Madrid. The club will want to avoid losing Varane for free next summer though, and if he’s leaving, they’ll want the cash to sign his replacement this summer. Jules Kounde and Pau Torres don’t turn into free agents until 2024. They’ll both be on the radar immediately if Varane is sold. (Exploratory talks have taken place with both, per source. A Varane departure would escalate talks.)

(I also wouldn’t bet against the idea of the club holding on to Varane this summer despite not being completely happy, and then paying him what he wants next season in a more desired contract, hoping Varane will be coaxed and sold on the idea of being the leader of a new era.)

It’s worth noting whatever path is taken beyond this point will be difficult without Sergio Ramos. I went on several monologs about his greatness on the emergency Managing Madrid Podcast (we all took turns doing so). There will never be anything like him again in our lifetime. He was an alien, a different breed. He was single-handedly responsible for the greatest night of our lives in Lisbon. That will never be replaced, ever. He played alongside Zidane and Roberto Carlos, and stayed to play with Antonio Blanco and Vinicius Jr. It feels like a brother has moved out of the house. It hasn’t fully digested yet what has happened in the past 48 hours.

The margin of error without him now slivers thin. The club won’t be able to replace him, but they have to do their best from a sporting perspective to piece together what he brought to the table. Alaba as a ball-progresser from that left center-back role is promising — but he won’t have the command of the area that Ramos had.

I’m not ready to throw in the Varane towel yet, but such is the state of things that my fingers would be ready to type up the Varane tribute this summer. That would be devastating for the club and its fans. I will say: I’d love for an emergency podcast or article to be about an arrival, rather than a departure. That hasn’t happened often in the past three years, and given Carlo Ancelotti’s desire to trim down the roster, I’m not sure we’ll see it happen anytime soon bar some major surprise.

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