It was a simple yet telling line. At the recent Ballon d'Or gala, Sergio Ramos was asked about Real Madrid's tumultuous season, about setbacks and struggles, about possibilities and outlooks. "It's about how you finish, not how you start," Ramos said to Spanish radio station Onda Cero (h/t AS).
Specifically, he was referring to the collective, to Real Madrid as a team. And he had a point.
Twelve months earlier, when he attended the same event, Ramos and Madrid were rampant, their excellence unmatched around Europe. Concurrently, his club's great rivals, Barcelona, were gripped by institutional turmoil. Yet six months down the line, it was Barcelona and not Madrid who were basking in the ultimate triumph, the Catalans' finish infinitely more meaningful than Madrid's start.
It's this that Ramos was getting at, and yet his line felt extremely relevant on a personal level, too.
This has been a difficult season for Ramos in a number of ways. Before it began, obvious friction between him and the club saw a cagey transfer/contract-renewal saga unfold, one riddled with deep mistrust on both sides that still seems to linger now.
Next came a frosty relationship with former manager Rafa Benitez. Then came injuries that have persisted. Then came form struggles.
Evidently, all hasn't been well, and while some may point to Ramos' inclusion in the FIFA/FIFPro World XI to suggest the contrary, each year the selection of that side is merely a reminder that many of the world's elite footballers don't watch a lot of football. Indeed, how Atletico Madrid's Diego Godin continues to be shunned is spectacularly baffling.
Together, these factors have left an uncomfortably altered feel around Ramos, the sensations now different.
For much of the current decade, the defender has been Real Madrid's heart and soul. More than any of his team-mates since the departure of Raul in 2010, Ramos has embodied the traditional essence of Madrid, his character to a certain extent aligning with elements of the club's history and identity.
In that sense, Ramos will never match Raul, but still, there's been something in that idea and in him. He's been fierce and loyal, passionate and committed, a heart-on-sleeve type who's been unaccepting of anything less. That's not to say he's been flawless in that time; he hasn't. But it has meant he's been somewhat unique, a player who's carried with him something else. Something more.
But not so this season.
In 2015-16, Ramos' struggles have mirrored those of his team. His season stop-start, his performances often unconvincing, the Spaniard hasn't been the on-field marshal we've grown accustomed to. Against Atletico Madrid, he needed goalkeeper Keylor Navas to bail him out. Against Celta Vigo, he was unusually passive. Against Barcelona, his positioning was chaotic. Against Villarreal, his positioning was puzzling. Against Valencia, he was ineffectual.
When you consider the aforementioned factors behind that form, it's entirely understandable. Yet such form has also seen Ramos feel more like just another player than a point of difference. More like a necessary component than a emotional leader or standard-bearer.
For Real Madrid, reversing that is now key; they need Ramos to be their heart and soul again.
Now under the management of Zinedine Zidane, Madrid look different in a way that's impossible to ignore, as though they're in the beginning stages of a revival. Happier, freer, unshackled, they've instinctively bulldozed their recent opponents, altering the complexion of their season and the mood that surrounds them.
Most notable has been the change in demeanour, but systemically, there have been changes, too. In attack, they've looked fluid and more potent; in midfield, their structure has looked better. And yet you sense the success of their revival will be determined elsewhere.
So far this season, the men from the capital have taken just two points from a possible 15 against last season's top six. With unerring consistency, major rivals have exposed a soft underbelly, Madrid taking on a flat-track bully existence in the process. If the club is going to lift trophies this season, it's this that must change.
And they need a turning point in that regard, a moment that symbolises an internal shift.
Just imagine what a desperate, last-minute, game-winning tackle in a Madrid derby could do for the psyche of Zidane's side. Or the effect of a gut-busting sprint to clear a ball off the line in a tense Champions League tie. Or how a none-shall-pass rearguard against Barcelona could galvanise them. Or how a colossal defensive sequence could fortify their belief.
These are the moments Real Madrid need, and they're the moments you envisage Ramos being central to—the chest-thumping, primal-roaring, ferocious, expression-wearing Ramos.
Until this season, he's been the club's heart and soul. Madrid need him to be so again.