We believe in this holistic notion; we have to. But there are players like Sergio Ramos who are there to remind us about the glitch in the system.
The beauty of football lies in its ambiguity, inextricably woven into the tapestry of the world’s game.
Any two sets of eyes can see the same pass, assist, shot, goal, tackle, save or questionable refereeing decision and come away with a different experience, meaning and narrative. There isn’t a singular way of playing the game, nor is there a singular type of player who succeeds. A traditional, clinical no. 9 can lead the Premier League in goals one season then a short, skinny, Egyptian winger can break the league’s single-season goal scoring record.
At the same time, many styles have enthralled fans and won trophies alike. Many styles have bored neutrals and incensed fans alike. The game, then, lends itself to endless conversation, filled with passionate debate and dismissive claims to run clubs better than those who do. It makes refereeing a thankless job, one that no sane man or woman ought to ever sign up to do… if it wasn’t for that love of football.
In 2018 the world is oversaturated with takes yet malnourished on nuance. It’s like eating candy for every meal. Unfortunately, not every situation can be satiated with a few candy bars. Vegetables don’t taste nearly as good, but they’re necessary. Nuance doesn’t win many headlines or spark many debates, but it is almost always closer to mining the truth.
The Cloak and Dagger
After the Champions League Final, there has been no subject more debated in its ambiguity than the incident between Sergio Ramos and Mohamed Salah.
When Ramos clutched Salah’s arm (or the other way round) and pulled him down, collapsing all of Salah’s weight on a vulnerable shoulder, Liverpudlian and Egyptian hearts sunk. In that moment, dreams were in peril.
Liverpool fans would have done their best to talk themselves into beating mighty Real Madrid without the Ballon d’Or favorite, but it became readily apparent in the minutes thereafter that it had become increasingly less likely as the no. 11 exited the pitch in tears.
In the Salah-sized hole down the right flank, Liverpool regularly cleared balls to where Salah should have been to lift pressure off his team. But, with the system switch in his absence, Real Madrid were able to continue attack after attack.
Egyptian citizens are in the same position now as their Scouse counterparts, living and dying with every vague medical update on their boy wonder ahead of Egypt’s World Cup opening match against Uruguay on June 15.
Visceral, reactionary bile towards Ramos wasn’t an unfair reaction for whoever felt it. Those feelings aren’t unique, rather quite widespread.
What Ramos did was closer to a dirty play than a clean one, easily. In the context of his reputation, it’s not unfair to assume cynical volition. That’s what a current grand total of 233 yellow cards and 24 sending offs will earn you.
When Ramos’ name is googled with “total cards”, the first link to be churned through the search engine’s algorithm is AS’s “Ramos: Most cards in La Liga, Champions League, with Spain…”. Bingo. That kind of cynicism is earned.
Ramos knew what he was doing, even if he didn’t specifically set out to sprain a ligament in Salah’s shoulder. It was a clearly malintented manoeuvre. He knew what he was doing when he made contact with Loris Karius’ head with his elbow. Both actions were carefully veiled in feigned ambiguity. It didn’t appear explicitly dirty at first glance, because this is a player with enough experience in the dark arts.
It’s not dissimilar to how Ramos knew what he was doing when he threw himself to the floor, a simulated masquerade of false pain over his face, mirroring the real emotions he inflicted on Salah.
It’s infuriating to see this type of behaviour continually rewarded at the highest levels of football. But that’s not changing anytime soon as it’s simply part of the game.
As Liverpool’s loss grows farther in the rearview mirror, the disdain for Ramos won’t be forgotten. His face will incite that visceral anger for a long time; fans will hold him personally responsible for the team’s failure to win the Champions League.
But Ramos is not a unique player, though he is currently the most successful of defenders who traffic in some of the skills he sharpened in the shadows. It’s difficult to argue with four (!!!) Champions Leagues, four La Liga titles, two European Championships and a World Cup.
Sometimes, often actually, karma doesn’t come around to the perceived bad guy. And, as painful it may be to admit, Liverpool fans would love their own Sergio Ramos. Just look at the deification of Jamie Carragher, Luis Suarez and all of those Steven Gerrard meaty derby tackles we all love.
For Liverpool in their most recent Champions League Final, there was no Carragher, Suarez or Gerrard. There wasn’t a Graeme Souness, a Tommy Smith or even a Craig Bellamy.
If Liverpool had a modern incarnation of any of the above, would they have won on the day? That’d be an unfair, sweeping generalisation, but, it certainly wouldn’t have hurt their chances.
Unfortunately, Liverpool fans will be without closure on what could have been one special night in Kiev. Unfortunately, for all of eternity, a litany of what ifs will live on. Most unfortunately, these hypotheticals don’t matter in history. In this existence, there are no trophies for alternative planes of reality. Liverpool lost, and poetically cruel, it was Ramos’ hands lifting the silverware.
Liverpool’s young team needed to learn if they were to come of age.
Remember, they weren’t expected to be in that match. They vacillated between wholly impressive and frustratingly naive in their maneuvering through the group stages, and their qualification to the knockout rounds was still up in the air heading into the final match day. Then, they sold someone believed to be their best player in January.
Also, remember the squad isn’t exactly a veteran one. Jordan Henderson and Gini Wijnaldum are 27, Dejan Lovren is 28, James Milner is 32 and then the rest of the core of the squad is 26 years old or younger. Next season, Naby Keita, 23, and Fabinho, 24, will be infused into that nucleus.
This team is staying together.
Maybe, to pull positive takeaways from the disappointment in Kiev, they needed this result to take another step. Maybe, instead of being a one-hit wonder, this hardens the group, and manager, into a club that is competing in the Premier League and Europe year in, year out.
Another key brush stroke that helps make the mural of football is actually the opposite of ambiguity. At the end of every season there are winners and losers. We love football because we perceive it to be a meritocracy.
The best players rise to the top of the game and the best teams deserve to win. We believe in this holistic notion; we have to. But there are players like Sergio Ramos who are there to remind us about the glitch in the system.
This is where the ever-important nuance makes an appearance. Incredibly, it can be both. Football both thrives in ambiguity and as a meritocracy, because there are multiple truths about the game we hold so dear.
The nuanced case of Sergio Ramos is that it was yet another dirty challenge that ended Mohamed Salah’s Champions League Final, but, infuriatingly to non-Madridistas, he is a winner and a player that every level-headed decision-maker in football would dabble in some dark arts of their own to have.