There are football moments a player will always remember, when the Gods smile and a story is written large in the annals of the sport.
For Sergio Ramos, such a moment was the 93rd minute of Real Madrid’s 2014 Champions League final win.
To recap, Real Madrid were 1-0 down to local rivals Atlético, with the referee’s whistle a whisper away from calling an end to the game. A moment when despair and ecstasy are two sides of a very thin line that can shift with a misplaced tackle, a tired clearance…or a last-minute goal. And so it was for Ramos, rising to meet a Modric corner to take the game into extra time.
Such was its impact, he has even considered commemorating the moment in fabric:
Believe me when I say that the thought of changing my jersey number to 93 has crossed my mind
Ramos had form. In 2006, he scored the winning header against Malaga in the 89th minute. But there were to be no further game-winning, last-minute headers until that Champions League Final.
Then in 2016, he did it again. Four times.
The first was the UEFA Super Cup final against Sevilla. A goal down (again). The 93rd minute (again). A Ramos header (again). Coincidence turned to belief and the Ramos legend was born.
He has gone on in that single season to score the equaliser against Barcelona in the 90th minute, the game-winning goal against Deportivo de La Coruña in the 92nd minute and the game-winning goal against Real Betis in the 81st minute.
All with his head.
That is the power of belief, confirmed by Ramos’s coach, Zinedine Zidane:
He is our captain; he’s the soul of this team. Ramos has this undying belief that he can change things even in the last minute.
Ramos has the necessary skills, teammates and tactical support, too, as this article by Om Arvind examines in depth. But even Arvind precedes his analysis with this:
Some put it down to sheer determination and willpower and there is definitely some validity to that theory. Football and sports in general are inextricably linked with self-belief and mental strength…
And it’s not just self-belief. The manager and players clearly believe, too, and the fans as well. And, presumably, the managers, players and fans of the opposition.
Throw in press coverage of the phenomenon and Ramos’s last-minute headers become an immutable force. The risk of conceding to him far greater than it would be without this wall of belief in the stadium, particularly when the clock ticks past 90 minutes and Toni Kroos steps up to take a corner.
So how does an opponent respond?
By acknowledging the phenomenon, you increase its power – you add to the Ramos mythology. But if you do not acknowledge it, if you do nothing, then you risk leaving Ramos and belief to operate unhindered.
This is the classic dilemma faced when encountering a football narrative. Do nothing and the narrative may takes its course. Acknowledge it and you risk adding to its strength.
So what can you do?
Spanish newspaper Marca even asked this very question in March 2017: what can teams do “to attempt to avoid the seemingly inevitable”? (Note how the phrase “seemingly inevitable” itself adds to the inevitability – the very act of talking about it increases the store of belief in Marca’s readers).
Based on three standard approaches to defeating the Moirai, the opposition has these options:
Do nothing to enhance the narrative
Never talk about Ramos’s belief, confidence, or other attributes over which you have little control. You can then at least minimize its influence among your own players and supporters.
You cannot deny the Ramos phenomenon, because he does actually score critical last-minute headers. It is no myth. Ramos is Ramos. And, anyway, there are too many people outside your sphere of influence who believe in his ability to do so.
But you might undermine this particular narrative among your own followers with silence on any psychological aspects of the Ramos threat.
Return the narrative to the controllable sphere
Focus on the Madrid tactics and positional play that allows Ramos to pose such a danger and find solutions, as many players and coaches suggest in the Marca article.
Build a competing narrative
This is perhaps least promising, since becoming “the team that stopped Ramos” is not particularly inspiring, given that he doesn’t score last-minute headers in every game.
Or keep your fingers crossed
Of course, there is another option – hope for the best. Sometimes it works, as it did for Bayern Munich in the 2016/17 Champions League quarter-final home leg.
Even if not everyone can believe it.