"If you were president of Real Madrid, would you have let Sergio Ramos go for free?" Sergio Ramos was asked. There was only the slightest hint of a pause -- the flash of a smile, too -- and the reply was rapid.
"I'd have renewed his contract for life," he said.
But Sergio Ramos is not the president of Real Madrid; Florentino Perez is. And that question was asked in May 2019. Eighteen months on, there has still been no contract extension, no renewal and no agreement. No real sign of one, either. Instead, his deal has run down -- all the way down to the final six months, the end in sight. On July 1, Sergio Ramos -- club captain Sergio Ramos, the man who has played 666 games and won 22 trophies with Real Madrid -- can go wherever he wants, for free. For the past week, he has been allowed to talk to whomever he wants.
The thing is, the person he really, really wants to talk to isn't in a hurry to talk to him. Not on his terms, anyway. Not yet. Conversations are instead carried out in public, but by proxy. There is a lot of pride, and a lot of politics, too. Sides are taken and stories told, but no solution found. A line has been crossed. Ramos is in his 16th season at the club; now he has just six months remaining on his contract at Real Madrid.
He also has no offer to continue, or so it goes.
In the end, this may be nothing, and the smart money says it probably will be. For some watching this play out -- and "play" does sometimes seem like the right word -- there's a certain fatigue, a sense of deja vu, a "so what?" They've heard some of these slightly tawdry tales before. And even now, even this late in Ramos' contract, it feels likely that for all the talk, he will end up renewing and staying at Madrid.
But this quite isn't like previous times, not least legally, and for it to have even reached this point is quite something.
After all these years -- Ramos is 34 now, having joined at 19 -- it would feel odd seeing him anywhere else. For him, especially. For Zinedine Zidane, too. Ramos, Lucas Vazquez and Luka Modric are coming towards the end of their deals. None have reached an agreement yet: there are few concerns with Modric, Vazquez turned down the first offer and then, there's Ramos. Zidane wants them all to stay -- his captain especially. "It's for the good of everyone," Madrid's coach said. "We want it to be sorted out as soon as possible."
Normally a player over 30 would only be offered a one-year extension, but the word from Real Madrid is that they have offered Ramos a two-year deal, taking him to the age of 36. According to the club's version of events, Ramos would be offered the same terms as he is currently on -- between €12m and €13m per year, after tax -- minus the 10% reduction applied to the entire squad because of the financial crisis.
The word from Ramos's camp is that no, they haven't. According to this version of events, he has not had a proper offer at all. There's a suspicion that the club aren't that keen to keep him. Having reached this point, Ramos reportedly told Perez in the team hotel just before the turn of the year that he would now listen to other clubs (as if he hadn't before). Many of Real Madrid's rivals across Europe are keeping an eye on this, if only because they would be mad not to.
That day at the end of May 2019, when Ramos said that if he was Perez he would give Ramos a lifetime contract, he also said that they were like "father and son." He said that Perez had always shown him "special affection", that they "love each other a lot." He also admitted, though, that things had not been right, that he had been upset at how he felt treated. And much as he claimed "confrontation brings love" -- and asked "who hasn't fought with their father?" -- theirs has been and remains a difficult relationship.
That day, Ramos was at the Bernabeu to publicly announce that he was staying. Earlier that season, there had been a confrontation between him and Perez after the Ajax game, which he had missed through suspension. "Pay me and I'll leave," he had said. Soon after, he had asked Real Madrid to let him go to China, for free. Perez blocked it, just as he had blocked Ramos's attempt to go to Manchester United in 2015.
Back then, the threat of Ramos leaving had been real, very real. A strategy had been drawn up. Ramos had pushed although when it came to it, he couldn't push it over the line. But Madrid had just lost Iker Casillas, Real's captain, and Perez could not afford for Ramos, his vice-captain, to go as well. Ramos had gone into a meeting ready to walk, his argument prepared, determined to force an exit. But Perez, under pressure but still in control, wouldn't let him.
It was the two men head-to-head, no one else -- Jose Angel Sanchez, Real's director general, and Rene Ramos, Sergio's brother and agent, were not allowed in -- it was long, lasting hours, and at times it was angry. A lot was said, and a lot of it wasn't pleasant. Pérez told Ramos that he could not let him go and would not let him go. Just, no. Say what you like, you're not going. Madrid was all Pérez had and no one was going to put that at risk. There were promises, but there were also threats.
In 2015, Ramos had two years left on his contract, as he had in May 2019, and felt he had little choice but to back down: he knew how this would be sold -- how it was already being sold, in fact -- and couldn't listen to his fans whistling him to a sad, bitter end. He had too much to lose and wouldn't be allowed to win.
In return, he got a new deal and the crisis ended with a new contract, as they so often do. If Ramos had to back down, Perez also had to step up, almost doubling the defender's salary. It hadn't been his initial aim, despite what so many assumed since, but it was a good outcome. With time, it was even better. There is no doubt that it was the right one, in fact. For everyone.
Ramos is 34, but he remains as vital as ever; he's probably the best captain the club has ever had, someone who symbolises Madrid like no one else. He is an authority figure, more powerful than any player. More powerful than anyone at the club, in fact -- except Perez. If anything, Ramos has been a better player since and has won more than he could ever imagined. As captain, he's lifted two league titles and three European Cups.
What he has not had is a new deal, and the scars (and distrust) remain. In some ways, the divide has deepened. In May 2019 -- when again, the power was with the president who could force him to honour his contract -- Ramos noted that he and Perez just needed to "sit down and speak to each other, not let others interfere." He said one of the errors was the "entorno," the surroundings: that swirl of politics, noise and interest.
Two years on though, the noise remains. The difference is that this has entered a phase it hadn't reached before: the final stage, the last six months. And so, the story gets told by each side -- with the media as mouthpiece -- and two proud, powerful men don't quite come together. "I didn't like the fact that the story slipped out," Ramos said then. And he knows exactly why and where it did. Just as he does now. Just as they do too.
And so, there are stories of Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain, of Ramos and Lionel Messi becoming teammates somewhere. And so, there are contradictory versions of events. And so, different men are to blame, depending on who you read or listen to. And blame does matter. The narrative does, too -- to both sides. And so, there is stalemate, for now.
Most players over 30 get only one year; Ramos has earned more, he rightly believes. He has been offered more, Madrid say. Not just because of what he has been but what he is, still arguably their most important player. He has earned the right to expect a good offer from Madrid and to listen to offers from elsewhere. Whether any of those will be as good as this is another issue, in a world where COVID-19 has forced cuts upon everyone, described by Perez as "our ruin."
All of which leaves them in a standoff that shouldn't have come this far, but has, for many reasons. A solution now requires a shift; someone has to give. These aren't men who enjoy giving way, but they needn't move an especially long way.
There's still that inescapable feeling that all this might ultimately prove irrelevant and that Ramos at any other club remains unthinkable, all this just a way of temporarily avoiding the inevitable, the only thing that makes any sense. There is a Spanish phrase that seems apposite at this point: they are men who are "condemned to understand each other."
There is another easy solution, one Ramos himself identified that May day in 2019 when he proposed a contract for life.
"I'd play here for free," he said.