"Every morning when he comes in, every time I see him, I feel like kissing him. Every day, you want to go up to him and say 'Thanks, Sergio.'"
At Valdebebas, Real Madrid's training complex, they knew. Daily they were reminded of that moment walking through the door again. In the autumn of Carlo Ancelotti's first season in charge at Madrid, the Italian coach had doubts about Sergio Ramos; by the end, he did not and never would again. Those words were said by a member of his staff, but belonged to them all. How different things would have been without him. A single second can rarely have meant so much.
In those days when Ancelotti was not sure, a friend told him to be patient, reassuring him that when he really, really needed Ramos, he would be there. In Lisbon, in the 93rd minute, he was. Ramos leaped to head the equaliser against city rivals Atletico Madrid in the 2014 European Cup final. 92.48, the clock said: numbers Ramos now has tattooed on his skin and that every Madrid fan, staff too, has seared into their minds.
The gratitude never diminished. It's still there now, three years on. If anything, it's grown deeper, the identification with him more complete. It is over a decade, after all, and he is the captain now. They have watched him grow up there, in the public eye.
Ramos arrived at the Bernabeu aged just 19, the most expensive teenager in Spanish history. Madrid made a hostile bid, paying his buy-out clause to take him from Sevilla, and the fall-out was huge, as witnessed by ever return to the Sanchez Pizjuan. In the dressing room, he sat between Roberto Carlos and Zinedine Zidane, who is now his manager. The pressure was always high and has never really abated.
"If you learn at other clubs you learnt 10 times as fast here," Ramos says. The word he uses next is hostia; a blow, a beating, a hit. "When you get hit, you get hit hard here," he says. "You grow and learn that. You have to learn how to manage those kind of situations; you have to make sure that what you say and do does not have any negative consequences for your team. At Real Madrid, you learn that the education here is not just on the pitch. It is as a person too."
He has come eventually to say more than anyone else, virtually a spokesman for the club, those constraints and care not always been clear, but somehow better for it. "I think people know me well because I have not created a role that I play; this is me."
If that is the public persona, unusually honest and surprisingly direct, invariably fronting up to the cameras in the worst moments; privately, he led too. His voice was heard. He was the man who stepped forward, confronted some and defended others, driven by his personal sense of justice. It was Ramos who challenged Mourinho most, for example. And remember him wearing Mesut Ozil's shirt beneath his own.
Ramos has often felt set upon; sometimes he has been right, sometimes he hasn't. There have been doubts too. Some had more than just doubts and Ramos had his detractors. Among them were important ones: inside the club, at the very top of the club even. Among certain groups of fans. A decade at the Bernabéu feels like a long time; it reached the point where it felt like too long. Ramos was ready to go. Not just "ready" -- for a while he felt sure that he had to go.
Yesterday, he admitted that he had been "close" to Manchester United. Closer even than most suspected: he walked into a room in China determined to leave and walked out again, hours later, having been persuaded to stay. It had been long and tense at times -- voices raised and accusations made -- and the outcome was not as he had planned nor as he had announced when he headed in, alone. It would be fair to talk about him being forced to stay, in the short-term at least, but in the long run it could hardly have turned out better. That moment has not been entirely forgotten but it is gone now.
That summer turned nasty at times, seeming to reach a point of no return from which somehow they returned. Maybe only Ramos could have done. He was lucky and so were they. He admitted that there was a problem with the club's president, Florentino Pérez, and he was effectively blocked from going. Had Iker Casillas not already gone, his departure might have been possible; without Casillas, he became the captain. The armband felt like it fits him better, like he had always worn it. Casillas wore it before then but inside, Ramos was already the captain.
There's satisfaction for him in leading, not just in his own performances but those around him.
"There are always players who need guidance. When I was young, I let people advise me. I listened and I learned. I still do, in fact, because you can always keep learning," Ramos says. "But it is true that as you gain experience, that too is a kind of rank and you guide them as players guided you when you were younger. It's not the same when you're 20 as when you're 30."
If the captaincy reinforces that, he insists: "I think it is the way I am anyway. I like to take responsibility, to be a leader, to have authority. Being captain is an honour although it is true that my personality was like that anyway." Asked what he offers the team now, he says: "Experience, values. I have been here a long time: I know what it means to have this badge on your chest."
He has shown others, too. In Lisbon, especially. Those detractors have been won back. Everyone has fallen for him. How could they not? There's something almost absurdly epic about him: a little comic book, this action man always there in those moments. "There's a goal or two in there," he smiles. "Not just in Madrid's history, but in my life."
That goal in Lisbon rescued them. He had already scored twice in the semifinal. Others have followed, of course. He scored in the final in Milan. And this season there have been more goals than ever before -- including the last-minute equaliser in the clasico and a last-minute winner the very next week. He has scored 10 times, a defender with a "striker's soul." His words. He even scored a late own goal in Sevilla, which was somehow so very Sergio.
Ramos arrived at the very end in Lisbon but it turned out to be just the start. Casillas kissed him, grateful and relieved after the mistake that had given Atletico the opener. Ramos took over from him and has lifted the European Cup, the World Club Cup and the European Super Cup as captain. He would have lifted the league title trophy too, if there had been one to hand to him in Málaga. Now, he has the chance to score in a third -- third! -- European Cup final and lift another.
You can think Ramos is lucky, but it's more than that. There's something about him that symbolises Madrid, even if he did start at Sevilla and did come close to moving to Manchester. Something in the way he is, the way he and they see themselves. Whether others see them that way is a different matter; as is whether others see other characteristics, other defining qualities.
"Values matter and the key value of this club is commitment, doing everything to win," Zidane says. "Ramos, our captain, represents that better than anyone. He has that commitment, he has nobility."