Wesley Sneijder's off-field behaviour was questioned; Mesut Ozil was always out partying until late; Arjen Robben was forever injured; and Angel Di Maria was greedy. They were all greedy, in fact. Greedy and often ill-advised. None of them cared about Real Madrid, and they didn't respect Madrid, either. The Santiago Bernabeu was a better place without them, and besides, they'd left because they wanted to, not because anyone had encouraged them to go, still less pushed them out. Or so the stories went.
The players said differently. "Wesley has no intention of leaving Real Madrid," Sneijder's agent announced during his final days at the club in 2009. "I didn't want to go," Robben admitted in the same year. "I was certain I was staying at Madrid, but then I realised I didn't have the faith of the coach, of the bosses," Ozil insisted four years later. "It was never my desire to leave," Di Maria claimed last year once he had gone. Robben complained of "lots of lies," and Di Maria noted, bitterly, "I wasn't to someone's footballing taste."
This week, as the story broke of Manchester United's interest in signing Sergio Ramos and his desire to depart, the newspaper La Razon ran a front page with a picture of the defender celebrating a goal. "Respect the shirt!" the headline demanded. An editorial accused him and his brother and agent, Rene of hawking himself around Europe "for a few euros," a money-grabber whose commitment to the cause was in question. He is, they said, a player who didn't even have any real offers from anywhere -- actually, he did -- but still sought to hold his club to ransom.
It was a blunter, more open version of a narrative line followed for some time in certain, familiar sections of the media. Ramos read it and believed that he knew what, or who, lay beneath, suspecting that lines of communication would lead back to the Bernabeu. The author of the editorial is close to Madrid president Florentino Perez, and his editorial line is as clear as it is relentless. The club suspect that Ramos has (also) used the press to strengthen his position, with his version of events expressed in papers critical of Real's upper echelons. Much of the media line up in trenches, playing their part. This is a battle in which sides have been taken and the front line is drawn in a predictable place. That alone affects how things go.
Speaking on Radio Marca, former footballer Pedro Riesco, now an agent close to Rene Ramos, said: "At the moment, with everything that is happening, it is hard to see Sergio Ramos staying at Madrid. Sergio is a symbol of the club and has nothing to prove [in terms of commitment] to anyone, but so much that is being said [against him] is manipulation, an attempt to discredit him by the de facto spokesmen who act like puppets saying that Sergio does not respect the badge, that he is a money-grabber..."
The mutual distrust does not make reconciliation impossible, but it does make it more difficult. A mental image keeps popping into the mind: Perez apologetically holding a bunch of flowers hurriedly bought at a late-night petrol station. The way this will end remains uncertain. It is hard to judge what Ramos would do if -- and it is a gigantic and improbable if -- Madrid suddenly offered him an enormous contract, closer to the €10 million a year that media reports say he wants.
The damage done is significant, and much of it is irreversible. Equally, to judge this as simply a means of getting a new contract out of Madrid is wrong; it has gone well beyond that, and Ramos' desire to move is real. It is equally impossible to know what would happen if Madrid refuse to sell except that, in theory, Manchester United would also refuse to sell David De Gea.
What is clear is that this battle will be partly played out in public and is one that might well get nasty. It already has, in fact, and the anger is real; the tension, too. Price matters. So do personalities, and so do power and popularity. That means that propaganda also matters. More importantly, the point is that the story repeats itself: the origins are familiar and some of the tactics are too. We have been here before. This is not just Ramos; the parallels with other players and the reaction to them are striking.
When players leave Madrid, there might be the standard statement expressing gratitude for their services and wishing them all the best for the future, but the real sentiment and the real substance usually lies elsewhere. Those who depart Real Madrid are rarely celebrated or afforded a fond farewell. It is rare even for their passing to be seen as simply the normal consequence of life in football; instead, it is as if it needs to be justified somehow, as if someone has to be to "blamed." It is as if it is necessary that not only have they gone, or are about to go, but they are somehow guilty, too.
When the character assassinations begin, and whether they are cause or consequence of the departure, is open to debate. But there is certainly self-interest at play and the idea that these attacks are cynical and sought; they serve a purpose. Players who grow powerful are particularly mistrusted at the boardroom level; equally, that very power requires the club to act with care and cleverness. Cunning, in fact.
Of course, few of the attacks or counterattacks are open. Nothing has been said by Madrid or Ramos, for example; a door is always left ajar, the opportunity to deny and wash hands clean. Instead, they have come from those unofficial de facto spokesmen on both sides that Riesco talked about.
When Real Madrid sold Claude Makelele in 2003, Perez was quoted in France Football as saying that he was "no good in the air" and rarely gave a pass "more than three metres." "We won't miss him," the president added. Madrid subsequently began a three year trophyless run, their longest in half a century, while Makelele joined Chelsea and won two Premier League titles, two League Cups and the FA Cup. In his second season, Jose Mourinho called Makelele the club's player of the year. He was also included in the 2005 FIFPro XI. Perez learned not to speak out in those terms again and certainly not to make a purely footballing judgment that could rebound against him. But the justifications continued.
When Perez returned as president in 2009, Sneijder and Robben were shown the door to fund a new project, led by Cristiano Ronaldo -- a signing already secured by outgoing president Ramon Calderon -- and Kaka. Some were not happy, and manager Manuel Pellegrini, soon the victim of a campaign against him that he suspected came from within, later admitted that he had not wanted to sell either player. Nonetheless, the headline on the front of Marca on the day they left ran: "Well sold." Yet at the end of the season, which Madrid finished empty-handed, Robben and Sneijder faced each other in the European Cup final, each hoping to finish as a treble winner. Robben's Bayern won the double; Sneijder's Inter won the treble. Their Holland reached a World Cup final. Arsene Wenger joked that it would be a good idea to hang around at the Bernabeu and pick up players dumped by Madrid.
Opportunistic? Yes, of course. And some of the criticism was unfair and aggressive, too. It is also undoubtedly true that the media have on occasion unjustly attacked the club, president and players while defending others come what may. Just ask Mourinho. But it also helps to explain in part the pressure, the politics and the propaganda, the machinations, some of which are barely even hidden, and the way that departing players have not been allowed to just leave with a deal done or a hand shaken. It also sheds light on why others felt "invited" to leave. Gonzalo Higuain, for example. "There was a campaign against me," he said, not entirely without justification.
Fans chanted "don't sell Ozil" at Gareth Bale's presentation, although that particular swap proved Perez as right as others proved him wrong: Ozil struggled in England, and Bale won the Champions League. Di Maria didn't exactly improve at Manchester United after having won the European Cup for Madrid, although Madrid won nothing without him. But rather than taking that as a sign that sometimes you get it right and sometimes you don't, those sales still had to be justified, and lessons learned for future sales, too. So, players set to depart or players the club wanted to depart -- problem players or those getting too powerful or asking too much -- found themselves under attack, sometimes in a way that was personal and unpleasant, with columnists and pundits wading in: this guy's not professional, this guy doesn't sleep, he's out until all hours. It did not matter that it was not true.
On one level, fans are at the centre of all these actions. Often player and club are actually after the same thing -- the sale -- but they do not want to be seen to be the one pushing for it. No one wants to be the bad guy, judged for it or held to account. There is a reason one side seeks to portray Ramos as not truly a Madridista and a reason he and other players seek to portray themselves as exactly that. There is a reason clubs insist on the buy-out clause: not only is it a lot of money but it is also the perfect excuse -- "there was nothing we could do." Fans are judge and jury, so they are given a story. Sometimes it is true, sometimes it is not. Even if the information is correct, the interpretation might not be. One man's telling of the truth is another man's cynical leak.
Contract negotiations are often the detonator. Players have a habit of talking about faith and affection when they are really talking about money, although the salary is always symbolic as well as financial. At the same time, the player who asks too much or investigates his potential options elsewhere is rarely portrayed simply as a professional negotiating a better deal and seeking the best for himself. There is a kind of "how dare he?" feel about it, and he becomes a mercenary. There can be no easier accusation to throw. Certainly none fits the fans' mindset better and few stick better. When has a player ever "requested" a salary? He always "demands" one. It's all about money, critics say.
The ill-advised player is another easy narrative: Ozil has been poorly advised by his dad, it was said. Many of the attacks on Ramos this week have been levelled at his brother.
Makelele wanted a new contract, Di Maria wanted a new contract and Ramos wanted a new contract. Soon the figures emerged, figures that normal people can barely imagine and clubs do not want to pay if they can avoid it. The players are immediately called money-grabbers. Meanwhile, they might have taken it to be symbolic of some deeper rejection instead of just a business decision. The accusations that quickly emerged (and where they emerged) helped convince them that there was more to this than just a salary issue.
Ozil wanted a €2 million rise. When Di Maria left, Perez said that the Argentine had demanded to be the club's highest earner after Ronaldo and that Madrid had signed James only after they knew that Di Maria was going. Soon after arriving in Manchester, Di Maria wrote a letter saying that was not true and that, as far as the timing was concerned, the opposite was the case: James did not come because he went, rather he went because he knew James was coming. As hints go, it was not a subtle one. Di Maria also said Madrid had sent him a letter telling him not to play in the World Cup final. He tore it up on the morning of the game.
Now the stories say that Ramos wants €10 million, more than anyone except Ronaldo and Bale. It might be true, but where do the figures come from? Where, counter the clubs, do the stories of interest from other big clubs come from, with their implicit threat?
Last week, Barcelona presidential candidate Jordi Majo said that he had been offered Ramos. However, he admitted, the offer had come neither from Ramos nor from his agent, who told the media that it is entirely untrue. So, if it is untrue, where had it come from? And why? What purpose does it serve, if any? You can be drinking, out on the town, injured or greedy. But flirting with Barcelona is the worst crime of all.
And so if Ramos does go, it becomes easier to swallow and easier to sell, explained away. It will be nobody's fault but his. Real Madrid, they will say, will not so much have lost a great player, vice captain, winner of the decima and a man who has given 10 years' service. No, they will have lost an ungrateful money-grabber, an anti-madridista with so little respect for the fans that he offered himself to their greatest rival.