The headline on the front page of yesterday's Diario AS, one of Madrid's two daily sports newspapers, said it all: "NEITHER RAMOS NOR MADRID" with a blank space left for the headshot of Sergio Ramos among the 24 pen pictures of the Spanish players selected to play in this summer's Euro 2020 tournament.
It’s the first time that the Spain national team will play in an international football tournament finals without a player from Real Madrid, or “Madrid”, as the team is referred to in Spain. The news has sent shockwaves across the country as well as generating a lot of glee in Catalonia – home to Real Madrid’s eternal rivals, Barça – where traditionally the feeling about the national team is ambivalent at best.
The Barcelona-based newspaper El Mundo Deportivo had photos of Ramos and Spain coach Luis Enrique – against a funereal black background – on their front page separated by a "EURO BOMBA" headline. Ramos, Spain's spiritual leader for more than a decade and Real Madrid's captain, had an animated phone call with Enrique on Sunday night after being told he was left out of the squad, which denies him the chance to surpass Egypt's Ahmed Hassan's record of 184 international appearances.
Ramos has a social and sporting status in Spain that is unrivalled, and is evocative of the nation’s mystical bullfighters of the last century. Remarkably, he is Spain’s top international goalscorer currently playing football with 23 goals, four more than Enrique’s first choice No 9, Álvaro Morata, which tells its own tale about one of the key deficiencies of Enrique’s squad.
Ramos, however, can have few quibbles about being discarded: he has only played three games since January with Real Madrid, one of them when he was overrun by a rampant Chelsea attack in a second-leg Champions League semi-final earlier this month. Last February, he had his left knee operated on. In March, he turned 35. Enrique couldn’t gamble on his fitness. Ramos is on the outs, too, with Real Madrid’s president, Florentino Pérez, in a stand-off over his contract renewal.
Enrique's exclusion of Nacho, Real Madrid's utility defender, who has been in imperious form at club level in the absence of Ramos over the last four months, has infuriated the Madrid-based press. According to Marca columnist, Roberto Gómez, it is "the biggest injustice since Enrique took charge" in 2018. Other Real Madrid stars omitted by Enrique include injured pair Dani Carvajal and Lucas Vázquez as well as the out of form: Isco, once the golden boy of Spanish football, and Marco Asensio.
Enrique’s squad announcements are always a novelty. He likes to throw curveballs. Obstinate and surly by nature, he is his own man. It took rare courage for him to leave Real Madrid for Barcelona in 1996, which made him one of the most high-profile players to cross Spain’s great footballing divide. He ended an eight-year career at Barça as captain. As the club’s manager, he won the treble in 2015.
It was notable that Joaquín Maroto, Diario AS's most veteran Spain national team reporter, commented on the fact Enrique is a socio (member) of the member-owned Catalan club, hinting at an element of morbo, or needle – albeit unfounded – in Enrique's squad selection. Politics is never far from the surface in Spanish football debate. Barça's Sergio Busquets replaces Ramos as captain.
What is striking about Spain's squad composition is that Manchester City supplies more footballers than any other club, four from 14 players provided by foreign clubs. The players are Rodri, Èric Garcia, Ferran Torres and Aymeric Laporte, who has quit France to play for Spain; although Rodri is the only one who will likely start Saturday's Champions League final.
It highlights a malaise at Real Madrid, who won four European Cups in the last decade. It is no longer the dominant force on the continent. The club is bleeding power and money. For the first time in 40 years, it failed to buy a player in the summer transfer market last year, as it haemorrhaged income due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
According to CIES, the Swiss-based football research institute, its squad value is two-thirds that of Man City’s. Club president Pérez refuses to give up on his dream of a European Super League, which he sees as the only way Real Madrid can continue to compete with the might of Europe’s two state-backed clubs, City and Paris Saint-Germain, and the English Premier League’s other big guns.
Meanwhile, at the European Championship finals, Spain will enter as one of the outside favourites, as they cling to memories of an impressive 6-0 win over Germany last November in the Nations League. An improbable tournament victory would be history-making, as no other country has won it four times, although it would be a bittersweet feeling for madridistas.
Spain’s squad for European Championships
Goalkeepers: Unai Simon (Athletic Bilbao), David de Gea (Manchester United), Robert Sanchez (Brighton)
Defenders: Pau Torres (Villarreal), Eric Garcia (Manchester City), Aymeric Laporte (Manchester City), Diego Llorente (Leeds), Jordi Alba (Barcelona), Jose Luis Gaya (Valencia), Cesar Azpilicueta (Chelsea), Marcos Llorente (Atlético Madrid)
Midfielders: Sergio Busquets (Barcelona), Rodrigo (Manchester City), Thiago Alcantara (Liverpool), Pedri (Barcelona), Koke (Atletico Madrid), Fabian Ruiz (Napoli)
Forwards: Gerard Moreno (Villarreal), Ferran Torres (Manchester City), Adam Traore (Wolverhampton), Alvaro Morata (Juventus), Dani Olmo (RB Leipzig), Mikel Oyarzabal (Real Sociedad), Pablo Sarabia (Paris Saint-Germain)