"I remember it as a dream come true, the chance to play in the most important game there is when you're growing up." There were 18 minutes left when Sergio Ramos was sent on to the pitch for his first Seville derby. He was 17 years old, only four games into his seniour career, and he had a job to do: don't let Real Betis striker Dani move.
Sevilla were a man down away at the Benito Villamarin, outnumbered on and off the pitch. It was tense, tough, hot -- the way the derby is meant to be -- and he did exactly as he was told. Not least because he hardly needed to be told. This was just him.
It was time for a little intimidation, a kid taking it to the man. No fear, not from him. He was a teenager, unknown, but he didn't care. Instead, Ramos did what Ramos does. What he would do over and over in a unique thousand-game career that's still not finished, now back where it all began. That was Feb. 2004. This Sunday evening at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan, 18 years and 28 major trophies since his third and last derby in May 2005, twice the age now, he will play another one against Betis, the rivals he was raised with. This summer, that kid came home.
"I would recommend it to anyone," he says.
"Sevilla saw me born, it formed me, made me a footballer in the first place and I always had a feeling inside that was Sevilla. I wanted to live this, to close the circle. I wanted to come home, for the people here to have the same affection for me that I had for them. I had options elsewhere, such as Saudi Arabia, but I had a debt to the club, my parents, my grandparents, Antonio Puerta and Jose Antonio Reyes. It was an emotional decision, a passion. Once the chance to go to Sevilla became real, I didn't even think about anything else. There are things that money doesn't move, only feeling can."
"It could have gone well, it could have gone badly, but if you take a decision with your heart, it will always be the right decision," Ramos adds.
Ramos is 37 now, and if a lot has changed, a lot hasn't. Starting with him. "Back then, I would sweat in interviews; now I can lean back and enjoy it," he says, putting his hands behind his head like a man taking life easy. "But I still live football the same way; I have the same mentality I came into Sevilla with. I have had the chance to win a lot and learn; the only difference between me now and 20 years ago is the experience. But I still get up every day and want to win, as I always did."
That interview line may not even be entirely true -- the one where he posed wearing nothing but a well-positioned pair of boots hung round his neck showed that he had guts, even then. And besides, there is a reason he is the only one left from that derby day, a reason he returns not just having played lots of games but having won every trophy there is, a World Cup and European championship winner, the captain who lifted the European Cup, the most capped player in Spain's history; something in him that is still there and always was. His is the triumph of character as well as quality, different from the start.
Look at the line-ups from that first derby and feel the nostalgia wash over you, another era: Denilson, Julio Baptista, Dani Alves, Alfonso, Dario Silva. Even Joaquín has finally bidden farewell. Gone now. Jesús Navas is still there having been away and come back, it is true, but he was a teenager then and didn't play. Ramos did, his way.
If Ramos became the ultimate comic book captain, something almost cartoonish about him, it is because he always was. "He was a sinverguenza, in the best possible sense," says the Sevilla goalkeeper that derby day, Esteban Suarez. Sinverguenza doesn't translate all that well. It means he had no shame, no fear and no doubts. He was a scoundrel you wanted in your team, tough as old boots. Chest out, all proud, he wasn't going to back down for anyone.
On Thursdays, Sevilla would play full 11-a-side games in training and the kid called up to join them was fierce, ultra-competitive and not scared of anyone. He would fly into the veterans as if they were opponents, as if they played for Betis.
"I had Pablo Alfaro, Javi Navarro, Dario Silva, Renato, players who acted as my godfathers, who taught me: they showed me what you have to do and what you don't, although all players have their own personality," Ramos recalls. "Every older player has a role to play with the kids. I had that from them and that legacy is one that I have to pass on to the younger players now."
Alfaro and Navarro were absolutely lovely guys, perfect "parents," one former player insists; they were also hard as nails, a living example of making the most of everything you have. Joaquin Caparros, the coach, was tough too, all blood and thunder. He took Ramos to one side and told him never to shy away, never to let the seniour players push him about or intimidate him, as if that was ever going to happen. Quite the opposite.
In one session at the very start, young Ramos clattered into Carlitos. A veteran who was 10 years Ramos' seniour in his third spell at the club, Carlitos was the kind of man you respect. He confronted the teenager. What did he think he was doing? Who did he think he was? They squared up, the usual thing. The veteran warned this kid: there would be words in the dressing room. Well, ok then. When the session finished and they headed back inside, Ramos approached him, chest out: so, about that word... Carlitos backed off saying it was all a joke, just messing around.
Battle one, won.
There would be many more. "I remember his debut in Coruna," Esteban says. "He makes these two tackles. Not out of control, not a kid who doesn't know how to go in, no. An announcement: 'I am Sergio Ramos and this is what I do.' He had incredible physical strength, technically he was very good. He would stay behind and practice free kicks, penalties, and everything. And personality; he learnt from Pablo and Javi, who were very important for him, but that character came as standard. When kids come through the academy at Sevilla there's a special daring about them. Set yourself a target and just do it. He was brave, fearless."
Soon he was gone, moved to Real Madrid for €27m. 18 years later, when most have walked away entirely, nothing left to win, nothing left to give, he is back. A symbol, his impact goes beyond the field, never more relevant than this weekend, which is everything in this city.
"Ramos is on a different level, he is one of the most important sportsmen in Spain's history, a World Cup winner, like Navas, who came through our youth system," says the Sevilla vice-president Jose Maria del Nido Carrasco. "There's a phrase that says sequels are never any good but this time the opposite is true, with him, Navas and Ivan Rakitic. He and Navas were raised by the Utrera road [where Sevilla's training ground is], and it is important to have people like that who feel Sevilla, who have the values of the academy, who understand the idiosyncrasy of the city and club, who know what Seville is, what the derby is. They can educate the other players, showing them what this club means."
And that is related, Del Nido Carrasco says, to what the other team means, to this the most special rivalry in Spain. "We're extroverts. Sevilla is a passionate city, expressed in its culture: in the April Fair, in Easter week, in football. And it is a dual city. Sometimes you ask yourself what Sevilla would be without Betis, what Betis would be without Sevilla? We have almost 100,000 season ticket holders between us. If there was only one team, would it have 100,000 season ticket holders? Would it be Madrid or Barcelona?"
Del Nido Carrasco adds: "Perhaps not, perhaps there would not be the same passion if there was just one team. Maybe it would only have the 40,000, 50,000 we have each now. Sevilla is very important for Betis and Betis is very important for Sevilla. The passion here is created by and lived through the rivalry; that's what gives both clubs such huge followings; it is as if they were a religious belief, a way of life. This is a city that needs the jokes, the talk, the banter."
"It's more than just a game; it's emotional, sentimental," Ramos says. "It's a game when the result lasts four or five months, until the next time when you get the chance for revenge. It's a game that represents all the good things that football is. I remember the excitement when I played my first. When you're in the academy, it's always the most important. Sevillanos are a bit special. To understand the way we live, you have to be from here. They say we're mad, but the link between the city and the team is deep. There's an essence here; Sevilla smells different, it has a special colour. We feel it. This is a city that is divided in two -- and my family's case was always on the red and white side."
He had lived surrounded by it too. As they say in Spain, Ramos had suckled on Sevilla, been raised on it; and if players have departed, Navas aside, others remain. He has been and gone and come back, reunited with them. "I have good friends at the club still, people I have known for a long time," Ramos says. "I celebrated from a distance when they won. I left a side that were mid-table and come back to one of the biggest teams in Europe; that growth is the path we have to keep following. I have won a lot and all that's missing for me was the chance to win something with Sevilla."
"It's a lovely feeling to come back, to see them every day. It's one thing to say 'that's my home,' another for it to genuinely be your home again, to feel that the Pizjuan is your ground, that this is your badge. There are few things to compare with the way I feel each day when I get to the training ground. To see the same lady in the laundry who was there 20 years ago, to feel that this is home, comforts your soul," says Ramos.
"Whatever else you can experience elsewhere, that is special. I wanted to come back and build my relationship with Sevilla above all. I feel at home, I wanted to finish it with my fans, my home, my family. I can die a happy man now. Sometimes to grow you have to go but you never forget where you are from, never forget your roots, never feel shame for who you are."