James Lawton: Winning the only thing that matters for Sergio Ramos
Gareth Bale may have provided a promissory note for the 2018 World Cup, one he sadly cannot deliver personally. But then maybe he will understand that for all its force and exquisite timing, for the moment it has the status of a leaf blowing rather forlornly in the Russian wind.
Yes, of course, football always retains the capacity to redeem itself.
Bale reminded us of this in the Champions League final which might otherwise have lingered only as a source of pain and bitter controversy.
The World Cup, as it happens, has a knack for finding a saviour, sometimes in the unlikeliest places, perhaps even in the shadows of The Kremlin.
Back in 1986 in Mexico City the ultra-cynical Diego Maradona proved this when he followed his historically notorious Hand of God with one of the finest goals any of us are ever likely to see.
Four years after being ruthlessly kicked out of the World Cup of 1966 by Portugal and Hungary, Pele reclaimed God-like status in Mexico.
Germany’s march to international prominence, which in the next few weeks could see them join Brazil as world leaders with five World Cup triumphs apiece, launched their empire in 1954 against allegations that their final dressing room was littered with drug paraphernalia.
So, it goes, shame and glory, the worst of financial opportunism and corruption, even rigged draws we are told by no less than Michel Platini, random thievery and pay-offs, and then, from time to time, the glories of, who knows, the ultimate hand-to-hand duel in Moscow, between the greatest players of their generation, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.
The difficulty right now on the approach of the game’s most important tournament in arguably the world’s most powerful and ruthless bandit state, with another in 2022 in one of the most lucrative, if joyless, patches of desert under a burning sun, is that optimism is in no position to hold the floor.
A significant part of the problem, and hugely for some of us still trying to remove the sour after-taste of Sergio Ramos’s manoeuvre on the shoulder of Mohamed Salah, which, interestingly, would have been ruled illegal and dangerous in the rigorous but not notably namby-pamby culture of Judo, is that we put so much faith into that Champions League final in Kiev.
Too much, we discovered before the end of the first half, when Salah, who trailed so much achievement on his way to the Ukraine, left weeping, hopefully only a temporarily broken man, and football’s second most significant tournament lost, along with the nerve of Liverpool’s goalkeeper, its potential to provide a superb foretaste of events in Russia.
Bale’s bicycle kick of technical and artistic perfection – debatably the best European final goal since his now departed manager Zinedine Zidane put Bayer Leverkusen to the sword at Hampden Park in 2002 – will not be easily forgotten.
But then nor will his post-game self-advertising, along with that of a Ronaldo with a much more practiced eye for the main chance.
If we needed it, it was the latest confirmation that all the trophies in the world, all the grace notes of exalted achievement, in the end inevitably level off against the terms of the next opportunity, the next contract, the next prompting of an opportunistic and money-ravenous agent.
Yet for now it is the action, and almost as much, the demeanour of Ramos which is the hardest to shake.
Some pundits, and most nonchalantly the new manager of Derby, Frank Lampard, and his fellow TV panellist Rio Ferdinand, kissed off the incident as an unmalignant happenchance of a physical game.
In such circumstances it is all the harder to believe that there is a sufficient level of honesty in football, in the assessments of some of its greatest players and beneficiaries who draw fat fees for their frequently tired failures of convincing passion and proper analysis.
Which planet were Lampard and Ferdinand occupying, you must wonder, when Ramos maintained his version of a half nelson on the much frailer Salah until after the moment of impact with the pitch?
Or when, just to show that he was, as befitted the Real Madrid player with the worst disciplinary record in their fabled history, not overcome with repentance over Salah’s fate he side-swiped Loris Karius in the face with his elbow.
That was a move he pulled on Atletico Madrid’s Lucas Hernandez in last year’s Champions League semi-final and when it went unpunished, when his total of red cards was not swollen beyond its current 24, there were as many shrugs as cries of outrage from the Atletico fans.
Sergio Ramos, no one doubts it, is a superbly gifted and knowing defender. But he is also a one-man repository of the theory espoused by the legendary gridiron coach Vince Lombardi, who declared: “Winning isn’t the important thing, it is the only thing.”
Ramos might have worn that statement on a placard hanging from around his neck as he scarcely took a backward glance at the player whose year of brilliant fantasy had been badly maimed if not destroyed utterly.
Some say the sight of Ramos laughing lightly with a linesman a few minutes after Salah’s heart-wrenched leaving was quite unrelated to the fact that he had changed so profoundly the balance of what until then promised at the very least an intriguing game.
If this is so, Ramos must have the reflective powers of a pigeon-stained statue.
But who really could seriously believe that of a man who, despite his horrific disciplinary record, is widely seen as one of the best and most intuitive defenders in football history, a Paolo Maldini or Bobby Moore with the addition of the devil’s horns
One man, unless he is a Pele or Maradona or, maybe a Messi or a Ronaldo producing more than they have done before at this level, doesn’t make a World Cup and that will be something to remember if Salah does appear on the opening day in Russia to brave the tackling of Uruguay defenders (and good luck with that brave pharaoh.)
There no doubt are many possibilities, including a Messi supported by the fine talent of young Paulo Dybala, a Brazil recovered from the humiliation suffered in their own land four years ago, the German scent of history (and Ronaldo’s) and a bruised Paul Pogba mad for redemption in the shirt of third favourites France.
Those of more delicate constitutions must also face up to another prospect, however blood-chilling. It is that the man holding aloft the trophy will be the captain of Spain, Sergio Ramos.
If there is a way, fair or foul, you just cannot bet against him finding it.