Having barely turned 26, Sergio Ramos was thrust into the unfamiliar role of playing centre-back for Spain at Euro 2012 due to Carles Puyol undergoing knee surgery.
Although the Sevilla-born defender was no stranger to playing for his country, having made his debut at 18, with this new positional change came a new challenge. In an interview with El Pais a week into the tournament, Ramos was asked if he was uncomfortable with this new role as a leader.
“Not at all, some people are born to be leaders. Little by little, you grow into these roles. Playing alongside veterans helps you grow, and when new players come into the squad, more is demanded of you. It’s no longer enough for me to just watch, listen and learn, I have to behave correctly, too. Knowing that you are an example to youngsters makes you responsible, and I’m delighted to take on that responsibility.”
It is this attitude that has led Ramos to turn out 99 times for his country. Bar a last-minute injury, he will become the youngest ever player to make 100 appearances for La Roja when Spain play Finland on Friday at El Molinon.
Ramos made his debut for Spain back in 2005 as an 18-year-old, in a 3-0 win over Chile in a friendly. He has taken part in every international tournament since then, playing a crucial role in Spain lifting the European Championships in 2008 and 2012, and the World Cup in 2010.
He began life as a swashbuckling full-back, aided by his experience of playing as a striker at youth level, whilst he can still deputise at full-back if needs be. However, Ramos is now a centre-back for club and country, a role he is well suited to due to his qualities as a leader, and the solidarity he has with his teammates.
Pablo Blanco, his Coach from his time in Sevilla’s youth academy, has said of him: “He’s always been a fighter. If a teammate ever got into a scuffle, he would go over to sort it out. He would come to his team’s rescue when they needed someone strong. His team-mates would say: Jesus, this man will really defend me.”
Ramos can back this up due to his physical presence, as Manolo Jimenez, the current Real Zaragoza Coach who worked with him in the Sevilla youth set up, has put it.
“He always marked his territory and would ruffle his opponents’ feathers. Sergio can punish you with every part of his body. In one action he can use his leg, his knee, his hip, his chest, his hands. When he goes up for a header with you, he takes you out in the process. It’s like being hit by a train.”
Yet even as a centre-back, Ramos has retained his attacking flair, which Del Bosque claims is as important as his defensive duties.
“He has the maximum responsibility in the team, in defence and in constructing the play,” the Coach said during Euro 2012.
Perhaps his biggest challenge in his eight-year international career has been having to form a centre-back partnership with Gerard Pique at Euro 2012.
There were question marks about whether it was wise to have two fierce rivals playing together at the heart of Spain’s defence, but Ramos, who has been portrayed by some sections of the media as being uncultured and a bit of a brute, showed the utmost maturity by making peace with the Barcelona centre-back.
Last month he told The Guardian how he approached the situation. “I grabbed Pique and we spoke: ‘Let's stop being little kids, let's stop being so unintelligent and unprofessional. We're two great players but you're not going to have a good tournament without my help and I'm not going to have a good one without yours’.”
Spain subsequently benefited from a centre-back partnership that only conceded one goal in six games in Ukraine and Poland, while Ramos’ Panenka penalty in the semi-final shootout with Portugal further cemented his status as a modern legend of Spanish football.
However, as he approaches a personal landmark this week, the Andalusian is insistent that his best work is not necessarily behind him.
“Making the 100th appearance will be a moment to enjoy at a personal level. For me it’s something to be proud of and a huge milestone personally. I hope that I can go down in the history of Spanish football. I hope that in the future I’ll be able to say I played a lot more than 100 games.”