Sergio Ramos arrived at Real Madrid with his parents as a teenager. All of 19, he was a promising youngster coming in from Seville. On Thursday, he walked in at Valdebebas, in Real Madrid City, with family " his parents, brother, wife, four kids " as a 35-year-old. Acutely aware of the place he has called home for 16 years, Ramos bid goodbye. In those 16 years, he won 22 trophies, made 671 appearances and scored 101 goals. And this relationship, could well have continued.
After the family photos, club photos, posing with the trophies, Ramos made his way to the press room. "I have never wanted to leave Real Madrid. I would have liked to stay here many more years," he said sat alongside club's director of institutional relations Emilio ButragueÃ±o. "In recent months, the club made me an offer of one year, with a lower salary, and I want to emphasise that money was never a problem. I wanted two years for continuity, for me and my family. There was never a financial issue. When I finally decided to accept the offer of one year and a lower salary, I was told the offer had an expiration date that I was not aware of."
There was no club president Florentino Perez to clarify. The same man who stood alongside Ramos and made the Andalusian his only Spanish signing during his first tenure. A tenure in which the focus was on the Galacticos. Ramos wasn't one, despite arriving on a ¬27 million fee " record for a Spanish teenager. Yet.
He debuted alongside Iker Casillas, Roberto Carlos, David Beckham, Ronaldo, Raul Gonzalez against Celta Vigo. Incidentally, two of them " Casillas and Raul " also captains, spent 16 years as well at Real. Their exits were more bitter than what Ramos had to sit through.
"Fecha de caducidad", a best before date, was the overused term during the press conference. Ramos and Real Madrid had been negotiating for months. The club wanted to offer a year's contract with a 10 per cent pay cut. Ramos, agreeing to the pay cut, wanted two years. The central defender didn't react in time and was out of wiggle room. Ironically, a man who made a habit of scoring late goals, is leaving because he was late in agreeing to his contractual negotiations.
During the negotiations, Ramos revealed he told the club to "plan without me". And they did. On 28 May, Real Madrid signed David Alaba from Bayern Munich. Meanwhile, in the Ramos camp, the interest from other clubs waned and then he was not included in the Spain squad for Euro 2020.
Any position of strength that Ramos could have had, was lost. By then, it was too late. "No one told me there was a fecha de caducidad. I thought it was part of a negotiation like many others. I don't know why there's a fecha de caducidad without notifying me. Maybe I misunderstood but I didn't know. I was surprised. They told me there is no longer an offer. They said: it's over."
And so it is. And it has been long time coming. Ramos wanted to leave for Manchester United in 2015 but was eventually persuaded to stay on a five-year deal. In 2019, Ramos sought to leave for China on a free. Perez asked for a transfer fee and eventually offered a contract extension until 2021. On the third time of negotiations, Perez didn't budge, and Ramos lost out. Something that cannot be said for his time at Real Madrid.
In photos: Sergio Ramos' 16 years amid highs and lows
Two words that can be associated with Ramos are passion and noise. The embodiment of it, a special highlight for the player and club alike, came at the Estadio Da Luz in Lisbon. Ramos leaped highest, between string of bodies, to meet with a Luka Modric corner, and found the back of the net. The timing, and context of being a goal down, makes it even more exhilarating. 92:48. A special moment that is tattooed on his left leg and hand. He took it all in with his hands on his ears to take in all the noise, the adulation.
It helped inspire a comeback win for the elusive 10th Champions League crown. La Decima. And the song, "como no te voy a querer¦ por decima vez!" or "how could I not love you¦ for the tenth (Champions League)". And for good measure, three more came in four years. Having gone 12 years without even making the final, four titles came in five years all spurred on by that Ramos header. For a club accustomed to trophies, where title-less seasons lead to managers getting the sack (sometimes even when they do), this barren run was an embarrassment. Until Ramos leaped highest.
Real Madrid is a unique club. At the Bernabeu, it is not just about winning, it is equally important to do it in style. 'Madridismo' as the term came to be known. It is your chest-thumping, brash, aggressive, in-your-face attitude to winning. Ramos is a 21st century image of that. No surprise then that Ramos thinks he would have been a bullfighter if not a footballer.
"Values matter and the key value of this club is commitment, doing everything to win," Zinedine Zidane had said once. "Ramos, our captain, epitomises that better than anyone. He has that commitment, he has nobility."
As Real Madrid look to move on, the club would probably not face the same "crisis" they did when Cristiano Ronaldo left, and the goals dried up. There is decent cover in central defence in the form of new-signing Alaba, Nacho Fernandez, Raphael Varane and Eder Militao. But what the team is likely to suffer from is the leadership on the pitch: to be able to instill a sense of fear into the opposition and the belief to win from any moment for his own.
His trajectory has seen him play leader in defence, club captain, World Cup winner, back-to-back European Championships winner, Champions League winner and then the first to lift back-to-back European Cup trophies.
During the 2019-20 title-winning campaign, when football returned, he played a crucial role with his penalties and decisive goals. In the past season, with injuries and COVID-19 ruling him out, he was the boldest and loudest voice at Estadio Alfredo di Stefano. His expression told a story of someone deeply motivated to win even when at loggerheads with the club.
His career at Real Madrid saw him take on coaches (Jose Mourinho), rule out ones he didn't want (Antonio Conte), and take on the president head on the way he did during the 2015 and 2019 contract negotiations. To still be able to continue until 2021 tells you about his importance to the institution and his defiance. A modern-day Norse god, a Viking. Someone who goes into a game as if it's a battle and isn't afraid to get dirty.
26 red cards tell you that quite clearly. No one has more in Clasicos, LaLiga, Champions League, for Spain and Real Madrid. None cruder than a two-footed hack of Lionel Messi, in the infamous manita, which was followed by a shove in the face of Xavi Hernandez and Carles Puyol. Everything is part of "Brand Ramos" as he called it on Thursday.
So, for 16 years, Ramos who was all about fire, noise, passion and getting into the face of opponents, goes out with a ceremony attended by the suits at Real Madrid, his teammates on holiday or busy for their respective national teams and an empty Estadio Santiago Bernabeu. Like the under construction Bernabeu, the club goes into re-construction mode to find a leader, an inspiration, a warrior.