An injured Sergio Ramos is smiling.
The defender, so long the bullish captain propping up Real Madrid’s winning teams, has done it all. World Cup, European Championship, Champions League, La Liga, and Copa del Rey trophies have punctuated his 18 years and counting at the top level.
And then this. When the 37-year-old left Paris Saint-Germain for Sevilla in September, he returned to the city where it all began. A beautiful homecoming, it may seem, but things aren’t always that simple in soccer. Sevilla’s ultra fan group, the Biris Norte, were among those unhappy seeing the man who once left them return. Now he’s a regular in coach Diego Alonso’s lineup, although currently sidelined with a muscle issue, and enjoying himself.
Love him or loathe him, Ramos is often at the center, dragging Real to glory against Atlético Madrid in one Champions League final to squashing out Liverpool star Mohamed Salah in another, scoring a decisive own-goal against old-time rival Barcelona this season before nearly heading in a winner versus Los Blancos three weeks later. Currently in La Liga’s bottom half, Sevilla saw his still-burning desire to win and wanted him.
Just who is the real Ramos, though?
“People have certain perceptions of you because they always see you on television, in an interview or photograph, where we tend to be more serious or direct,” Ramos, sometimes flickering into a wide grin, tells me during a press conference. “But I consider myself a very easygoing person.
“I understand people can have a different idea of me. But they don’t know me; they haven’t lived with me or had a meal with me or walked around the park or had a day in the cinema with me. So, they don’t know what kind of person we (I) are.
“The only thing they get is what they see. I try to give my best on the pitch. But that doesn’t mean at the end of the game, whatever happens on the pitch doesn’t stay on the pitch. I tend to have a good relationship with everybody. Maybe people could be surprised when they get to know me.”
Free signing Ramos is not the only experienced character to wind up in the Estadio Rámon Sánchez Pizjuán again. Another familiar face, 37-year-old Jesús Navas, also costed nothing in transfer spend and runs down the right wing all day. Croatian Ivan Rakitic, like a naturalized Sevillista, completes the déjù vu feeling by setting the tempo in midfield.
“People say the second attempts are never that good, but in Jesús, Ivan, and Sergio’s instances, I think we can prove something different,” says the vice president, José María del Nido Carrasco. Sevilla, canny with transfers, is used to making such deals work more often than not, and this particular trio has some stature.
More telling is the club’s selling strategy, however. That has distant roots, first notable when the late José Antonio Reyes departed for Arsenal in 2004, much to supporters’ frustration. Sporting director Monchi led the way for two decades, overseeing a Sevilla that continually sold and rebuilt. Now he’s applying that know-how to Europe-chasing Aston Villa.
“From selling José Antonio Reyes, we got three or four players. If they hadn’t performed, nobody would have understood this policy,” adds del Nido Carrasco. “We wanted fans to understand our sales policy was to pay off debt and improve sports performance. Then, the team started to win, and we achieved sports success. So we managed to get people to understand the growth was due to selling off players.”
It’s been far from perfect this season, with Sevilla off the pace in the league and risking a Champions League exit. Still, the one to succeed Monchi, director Victor Orta, envisages a crystal ceiling where the side can eventually reach Champions League semifinals and regularly make the competition via a top-five finish in La Liga. That may be a way off, but the Europa League—which it has won a record seven times—is the one Sevilla loves and could still win again this term.
Despite learning from Monchi, Orta uniquely combines sporting perspectives from Russia, England, and Spain in the role. He’s a character, too, jokily suggesting a Ryder Cup tournament format involving teams from the Premier League and La Liga. He also respects English soccer’s physicality, admiring its better television rights and money distribution and lamenting its less strict regulations on spending compared to clubs in Spain.
It’s easy to become consumed by the work, fretting about whether Youssef En-Nesyri has an off day, whether Lucas Ocampos forgets his shooting boots, or if the highly-rated Loïc Badé slips up at the back. That’s the whirlwind life he’s looking to embrace, though—as he did with former Uruguay coach Alonso, in whom he saw something unique that others may have missed and decided to hire the coach whose Uruguay disappointed at the last World Cup. He first met him at a barbecue when Alonso was still a player.
“When he started to talk, he started to talk like a coach,” Orta recalls, adding, “It was like a tick in my mind—I’m going to follow this person’s career because it was impressive. When he starred at a small team, Bella Vista, there were 15 games, where he had to win nine to avoid relegation. He won 11. I thought, ‘Wow, it’s happening.’”
Alonso—the latest in a high coach turnover—is leading the charge. There are few more significant soccer figures in Spain, let alone Sevilla, than Ramos, however. The number four could miss the frenetic derby match with Real Betis, a rivalry made for figures like him.
Still, the Nervión side will be drawing on his experience the longer the season goes, especially if there’s silverware on the line, and hopes he can usher in the next generation of Sevilla winners in his place. In many ways, Sevilla’s future success depends on what has come before.