BY BOBBY MOHR
The scene is a press conference within the confines of a Salamanca hotel. The date is October 7, 2010, and the two men sat behind the table to answer questions for a swarm of journalists have only been world champions for three months. The first is tall, gangly even, with bushy eyebrows to match a scruffy beard and the haircut you might see on a 10 year-old boy. The other is only slightly shorter and crisply manicured. He’s handsome like the knight of a folktale, his long hair wet back and parted neatly. Man number one is fiercely Catalán, born in the city of Barcelona where the blue of Mediterranean Sea kisses the work of Antoni Gaudí. The colleague to his left is ten months his senior and hails from the sun-scorched earth of Seville in the south, the region of Andalusia. He will know the old Spain of daring matadors and flamenco dancing well. One plays for Barcelona; the other, Real Madrid. They are a contrast that shares just one thing in common - La Roja. The pair wouldn’t have known it then, but they would become center back partnership at the EURO 2012 in less than two years’ time for the reigning world and European champions, Spain.
As the conference kicked off and the questions began to come, so did a request for the Barcelona player. “Could you answer the question in Catalán?” a Barcelona-based journalist asked. “En Catalán?” Gerard Pique repeats, “Sí.” In his native tongue he rattles off a paragraph of short sentences and pauses momentarily to conclude before politely asking if the press would also like the answer in castellano, the Spanish taught in schools. It’s then when the second player, Sergio Ramos, interjects. “En Andalz? Tell him in Andalusian…” he prods, before remarking that the journalist is clearly troubled to understand castellano. At this Pique joins the room in a bashful laugh, but Ramos doesn’t so much as break into a smile. He simply shrugs and allows the press conference to continue when the murmurs die down.
Sergio Ramos will know more than anyone that “Andaluz” is not a separate language as Catalán is, but more or less an accent from the south, and later that day clarify on Twitter that he was only having a bit of fun. Yet you wouldn’t have assumed that by his stoic expression. A tweet can save face in hindsight. It’s almost as if his beaming brown eyes were saying “this is the Spanish national team, not the national team of a region. Use the language we all understand.”
Whether or not it’s nationalism, personal feud, or club rivalry, Spain’s Ramos and Pique haven’t always been buddy-buddy. In a February 2013 interview with The Guardian, Ramos had this to say about his Barcelona counterpart – “I don’t go for a beer with him when he’s in Madrid.” But the status of the two’s relationship has been cordial for the sake of the national team said Ramos. “Pique and I had differences but now the relationship is good… It’s about professional commitment.” However, the Madrid man also said “I’m not necessarily talking about friendship and nor is that vital.”
On more than one occasion Ramos has admitted that if he didn’t play football, he’d have been a bull fighter. I don’t think I’m alone in saying that with his often rash decision making, he’d have been gored by now had he gone down that path. Nevertheless, it hasn’t prevented the once most expensive youth transfer in history from inheriting Raúl’s capote routine on the pitch after the capture of a major trophy. But Ramos the footballer and Ramos the torero are in one in the same. Sergio Ramos’ remarkable athleticism is a tool the Real Madrid man uses to exercise a certain showmanship in all that he does, a flamboyance if you will. The trade of a matador, half athlete half performer, in many ways suits the characteristics of Real Madrid. First and foremost Real has a job to do, gore its opponent. But secondly and oftentimes overvalued is the aesthetic emphasis that fans and administration demand. It’s a means of setting apart the way they do football from everyone else, a facet more than one manager has lost his job over in the last two decades at the Bernabéu.
The pitfall of Ramos is that even though he often plays the bull fighter, he is almost just as likely to play the bull that sees red and then subsequently sees red if you follow. His robust personality is the sharpest of double edged swords, cutting an image of his highest highs and lowest lows. For example: Sergio Ramos’ exemplary leadership manifests as he scores in both Champions League finals he’s participated in. Here we have the highs. Next example: Sergio Ramos strikes national team colleague Carles Puyol in the face in the process of being sent off as Barcelona demolish Real Madrid 5-0 at the Camp Nou. Those are the lows. Apart from Fernando Hierro and one other, Sergio Ramos is the highest scoring Real Madrid defender of all time at age 30, but he’s also the most sent off player in the history of La Liga (21 times and counting).
Real Madrid’s recent home match against Villarreal, a match I saw from the third terrace of the Santiago Bernabéu, was ‘Ramos incarnate.’ After giving up a penalty (his third of four for club and country this season) at the end of the first half for an obvious handball, the defender took responsibility and scored the equalizer with trademark snap header at the back post from a set piece just moments after the break. The match finished at 1-1. The Spanish Football Podcast called the game “Sergio-Ramosy,” and that it only could have been more so if he’d seen a red card at some point. For Sergio, the combination of bravery and honor can be the perfect recipe for heroics, but also ingredients for a meltdown. It’s a cauldron of passion and loyalty that, though often times mishandled, is prone to boil over for better or worse. Jekyll and Hyde? Triumph and tragedy? Playing with his heart on his sleeve? However you want to analyze the Sergio Ramos personality complex, there’s a reason when you think of Lisbon, you don’t think Cristiano Ronaldo; you think Sergio Ramos. When you think of Milan, you think Ramos. And if you don’t already, when you think of Real Madrid, you should think Ramos. When Iker Casillas lost his starting spot with the national team, who inherited his captain’s armband in a team flush with former World Cup and EURO winners? Sergio Ramos.
León, Oviedo, Alicante, Logrono, and Getafe’s Estadio Coliseum Alfonso Perez all have one thing in common. They’re all places in which Gerard Pique has been whistled by home supporters during Spanish national team fixtures in the last eighteen months. Pique, a devout supporter of Catalonia’s fight for national independence from Spain, doesn’t have very many friends beyond the autonomous region’s western border. Not only do certain parties in Spain believe that the Barcelona defender therefore has a direct conflict in interests when he pulls on a Spain shirt, but Pique has a more mischievous side to him that certainly doesn’t help the situation. Since the days of Mourinho’s managerial reign in the capital, when the relationship between Spanish national team members that played for Barcelona and Real Madrid was seriously molested, the bond between the two sides has been fragilely mending. But if there’s one player that likes to watch the balance of peace teeter precariously on the knife edge on which it’s been set, it’s Gerard Pique.
After Barcelona won the treble in 2015 for the second time in their history and the team had traveled home to celebrate with their fans, Pique grabbed the microphone on stage and thanked Kevin Roldan, the recording artist that was in attendance of Cristiano Ronaldo’s birthday party after Real Madrid imploded against Atleti that February and marked a turning point that season for both Barcelona and Real (good for Barça, bad for Madrid).
When Real Madrid fielded an ineligible player, Denis Cheryshev, in their first Copa del Rey match of last season and were subsequently expelled from the competition, none other than Pique was quickest to the keyboard to tweet a row of laughing and crying emojis. It’s not an isolated incident. Prior to the Champions League draw this season when asked his preference of opponents on a Twitter Q&A, his response was well-rehearsed: “Easy group. The third place team from Italy in the round of 16. The eighth place team in from Germany in the quarterfinals. The fourth place team in England in the semifinal. Always return home.” It didn’t take long for folks to catch on that he was referring to Real Madrid who last season won their group with minimal effort, and then defeated Roma, Wolfsburg, Manchester City, and local rivals Atlético de Madrid on their second trip to the final in three seasons.
To take things a step further Real Madrid’s Alvaro Arbeloa, who many considered to be Madrid’s voice of reason and principal in the locker room between 2009 and May 2016 and former national team teammate of Pique, has in the past been quick to defend the club colors in the cyber war of words. He claimed that Pique was “obsessed” with Real Madrid. But Pique didn’t stop there. He labeled Arbeloa “el cono,” or “cone” in reference to player’s mobility or defending ability. Barcelona’s number three also established that “Arbeloa is not a friend, just someone I know.” In the meantime, it’s been Sergio Ramos, once again assuming a role of leadership, who has urged Pique to show a bit more respect and avoid “childish nonsense.”
One would think a player of Pique’s caliber, elegant and poised on the pitch, with a personal trophy cabinet that puts some clubs’ to shame, wouldn’t be the antagonist in such unnecessary situations. But whatever his stances on the subjects really are, he owns his character. Perhaps that’s why some were surprised this past week when he told reporters that a certain straw had broken the camel’s back after Spain’s World Cup Qualifying win over Albania and that he would retire after the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
For the match against Albania Spain were dressed in their away strip, an all-white kit that included pinstriped red and yellow Spanish flag piping on the sleeves. But someone with a bit too much time and a very keen eye was quick to point out that Gerard Pique had cut his off, presumably in some radical statement regarding Catalán nationalism. The truth was that Pique had cut the long sleeves off his jersey in favor of a compression shirt underneath, and the long sleeve version did not in fact include the red and yellow trim. “I always give everything on the field, but there are people who think it’s better if I’m not here.” He did however add that in a somewhat contradictory matter that it was not a heat of the moment decision and the choice to retire after the World Cup was premeditated.
What Spain will be losing is a world class central defender who has started in the last four international tournaments. Like every player that graduates from Barcelona’s la masia system, Pique is comfortable in possession and tactically bred to play the more possessive style Spain conquered the world with, even if they’ve never evolved from it. But at six feet, four inches (1.94m) he provides a potent aerial threat from set plays. Used as an auxiliary attacker when Barcelona hit the panic button, Pique isn’t a stranger to the goals. In fact, in Barcelona’s latest defeat to Celta Vigo 4-3, it was Pique that lead the charge back from 3-0 down, scoring two.
For whatever reason, however, even though Gerard Pique is a hometown boy, a supporter of Catalán independence, openly crusades against Real Madrid, and is a damn good player, he’s not emblematic at Barcelona the same way Puyol or Xavi were, or the way Messi and Iniesta are, the same way Ramos is for Real Madrid. Unfairly or not, through his own actions, Pique has been depicted in many circumstances as a bit of a troublemaker and therefore a scapegoat or subject of a witch hunt when he joins up with the national side.
In wake of the sleeve controversy, Barcelona television channel TV3, has released a partial interview in a program they are doing about Pique who claims his relationship with Sergio Ramos and others in the Spanish national team is very good. But even if it wasn’t would he heap that unnecessary attention on himself to say it wasn’t in an interview? Probably not
The two men that sat at the press conference back in October 2010, Pique on the right and Ramos on the left, would be made to line up that very same way at EURO 2012 at the core of Spain’s back line. Carles Puyol, Spain’s Tarzan-haired hero from the 2008 EURO and 2010 World Cup would be ruled out of the 2012 tournament through a knee injury, effectively shifting Sergio Ramos from his marauding right back position with the selection to center back. In six games of that tournament, which completed Spain’s historic treble of major tournaments, Spain only conceded a single goal. Since then, the Ramos and Pique partnership hasn’t been as stalwart. A group stage exit at the World Cup in Brazil and a shock exit to a hopeful Italy this past summer in the first knockout round has put the once mighty Spain in a born-again mortal position reeling for answers. Whether Spain as a whole is behind the learning curve or there’s still hidden unrest in the squad split down the middle of its center halves, one thing is known for sure. Sergio Ramos has assumed the armband while Pique has assumed his exit. And after the Russia 2018 is dead and buried, Spain will have a new center back pairing, one that with any luck will be less controversial.