Sergio Ramos returned for Real Madrid on Saturday but the bigger question is whether he is back for good.
After two months out with a knee injury, Ramos played an hour in Madrid’s win over Elche, with the plan to blow away the cobwebs ready for a start against Atalanta in the second leg of the Champions League on Tuesday.
His availability should be a significant boost for Madrid, who have a 1-0 advantage from last month’s first leg in Italy and will be confident of being Spain’s first, and perhaps only, survivor in the tournament’s quarter-finals.
And yet Ramos’s reemergence has been pinpointed less as a boost to his team than a bolstering of his case to stay, every week he was absent another blow to his hope for a contract extension beyond the summer.
Madrid president Florentino Perez has reportedly offered Ramos a two-year deal with a 10 per cent pay cut or a second option, the continuation of his current wages but for only one more year.
Ramos wants two more years on the same wages, with the possibility to add a third.
“There is a lot of uncertainty,” Ramos said on Thursday.
“I would like to be able to say something but there is nothing new. I’m only thinking about coming back from injury and to finish the season in the best possible way. There is nothing new about the renewal.”
Ramos’ pedigree is not in doubt given he is probably the greatest defender of the modern era, certainly the most successful, and while there have been lapses in recent years, his contribution to Real Madrid is still considerable.
When they marched to the La Liga title last season, Ramos was their most important player.
“I hope the Ramos thing will be fixed as soon as possible,” Zinedine Zidane said last week.
But he also turns 35 at the end of this month and a parting this summer would offer immediate relief for a club now seeking financial recovery.
– ‘Relationships for life’ –
Real Madrid’s revenue last season fell by almost 50 million euros, a figure that is expected to worsen again for the current season, when the absence of fans will have lasted an entire campaign.
There has been a political tension too between Ramos and Perez, a power battle that has erupted in moments of crisis. Neither will want to lose face in this fight.
But perhaps most importantly, Real Madrid find themselves again facing a question of how to evolve, of where the balance lies between retaining current stars and making space for new blood.
Ramos is the embodiment of that debate, the most iconic and charismatic figure of an era almost gone, who is also the most outspoken and most expensive.
For him, the discussion is about performance.
“Santiago Bernabeu said there are no young or old players only good and bad,” Ramos said. “I can perform for three, four or five more years, if my body supports me.”
And it is also about respect. “I would like to leave with a clear conscience,” he said. “I want to go out through the front door.”
For the club, there is a wider concern about a lack of change, a stick that Zidane has been regularly beaten with this term when results have taken a turn for the worse.
If they want to fund a move for Kylian Mbappe or Erling Braut Haaland this summer, sacrifices will have to be made.
But there are warnings against shuffling too soon, Luis Suarez’s goals for Atletico Madrid a reminder that Ramos could be a gift for a rival, if not in La Liga then the Champions League.
Ramos himself pointed to Cristiano Ronaldo as an example of a split that benefitted nobody. “Cristiano and Real Madrid both lost,” Ramos told Ibai Llanos on his Twitch channel last week.
“I wouldn’t have let him go because he’s one of the best players in the world and he would have helped us win.
“There are some relationships that have to be for life.”