“I looked to the left and saw Zinedine Zidane, and to the right I saw Roberto Carlos,” said Sergio Ramos when FIFA.com asked him to recall his first day in the Real Madrid changing room. “That was really something.”
Eleven years have passed since then and now it is Ramos himself that newcomers stand in awe of, even if he looks away and laughs off that suggestion. The long-haired 19-year-old boy who took the train from Seville to Madrid is now captain of the team that will face AS Roma away in the UEFA Champions League Round of 16. And the player Ramos idolised to his left back then is now his coach, with Zidane set to make his European debut on the touchline.
“I was a boy from Seville with lots of hopes, ambitions and desire to get to the very top,” recalled the defender. “It took a few months before it sank in what being here meant. But I have very fond memories of all my team-mates; they treated me really well and I adapted superbly.”
There can be no doubt that Ramos reached the top. He has grown as a player, matured as a person, become a father of two and has an enviable trophy cabinet. He has taken full advantage of his 11 years at the club, yet neither fame nor silverware have changed his amicable character.
Ramos never refuses to sign autographs, greet anyone who approaches him, nor respond to questions, regardless of tensions, results or time constraints. He views everything football has given him as a privilege and is generous in giving back, despite the huge demands and pressure that come with his job.
“I’ve spent 11 years at the best club in the world and every day is a test,” the Seville native continued. “It’s not easy to cope at a club like ours. That’s why I’m proud and motivated to keep working to keep improving. You can’t live in the past here.”
Weight of history
True as that may be, his achievements must be respected, especially as he was preceded by bona-fide legends. Ramos inherited the captain’s armband at Real Madrid from Iker Casillas, who himself followed on from other big names such as Raul, Pirri [Jose Martinez Sanchez] and Jose Antonio Camacho.
“And Fernando Hierro, my idol,” added Ramos, who will turn 30 in just under six weeks. “I have a very good relationship with all of those guys. And they also give great advice.
“The captain should set the example in everything and offer support in every situation, he should be there for any problem a team-mate might have,” continued Ramos, who has been named in the FIFA FIFPro World XI six times. “That means you always have to behave appropriately. You have to try to be above reproach, to be the first one to step forward and be a focal point for your team-mates.”
Ramos bears the enormous responsibility the captaincy brings with pride and a smile, and in the Spanish national team he shoulders it alongside former club-mate Casillas. Together they have experienced everything with La Roja: good and bad, harmony and chaos, success and failure.
“I was fortunate enough to be at South Africa 2010,” said the versatile defender. “There is no joy that compares to winning the World Cup. It requires huge sacrifice, it’s very difficult. You need humility, hard work and a little bit of luck too. But obviously Brazil  left a very sour taste in the mouth.”
Spain’s first opportunity to make amends will arrive in just a few months at the European Championship in France.
“We’re the defending champions,” Ramos said. “I’ve had the great privilege of winning it twice and I’d love to do it a third time. Some important players have retired, like Xavi and Xabi Alonso, two central midfielders who defined an era and gave a great balance to the national team. But today we’ve got a good blend of veterans and young players hungry to do big things. We can be confident with the team we’ve got but we’ll let our football do the talking.
“I’m an optimist, I’m ambitious and I like to win every day,” Ramos concluded. “Whatever I won in the past is in the past, and I’d like to add a lot more titles to my collection. I’ll have time to appreciate what I’ve done in my career when I retire.”