Most players swap shirts at full-time but Sergio Ramos and Mesut Ozil swapped theirs 45 minutes earlier. In a tense Bernabéu dressing room last Sunday, José Mourinho decided to make a change and words were exchanged. Although Real Madrid were 3-1 up against Deportivo La Coruña, Mourinho was not particularly pleased with what he had seen. Ozil was taken off and Kaká was sent on for the second half. Sitting not far from Ozil was Ramos. When the German took his shirt off, Ramos put it on underneath his own.
No one would have noticed had it not been for a photographer from Marca. Just about visible on Ramos's back, peering through his own shirt was: Ozil, 10. It was meant as a gesture of support but, given the context, you could be forgiven for seeing it as an act of subversion. Here was a challenge to his manager – and a very public one, too.
Called by the club's president, Florentino Pérez, Ramos was swift to explain the gesture on Twitter. Ozil, he explained, is a good friend. He had long since promised the German that he would dedicate to him his first goal of the season and he had a feeling the goal was going to come so, taking advantage of Ozil's substitution, he chose to put his shirt on, ready to reveal it when he scored. He was fortunate that he did not; the fallout from a gesture made before 80,000 fans and in front of his coach would have been nuclear. It was pretty damaging anyway. Ramos, one of the club's captains, had chosen to show his support for Ozil – the man, with him, most singled out by Mourinho since results turned against the side. His explanation convinced few. You could almost hear him squirming. This was another glimpse of internal relations and it did not make happy viewing.
On the eve of Madrid's Champions League match with Ajax, there were few questions about the game, while there were a dozen about Ramos, Ozil and relations. The story moved from the pitch to the dressing room. For Mourinho and some supporters that said more about the media than their manager: many see a vicious press campaign against the coach. He has not played the Spanish game and he has not succeeded in getting them to play his game either, unable to charm or control the media as he did elsewhere.
Everything that happens at Madrid is magnified; the pressure is intense. It is a political club managed by a political coach and reported on by a political media. Mistrust is inevitable, normality far from easy. People see agendas, some genuine, some imagined. It conditions the atmosphere but the flashpoints and tension have been real. Relations are strained between coach and captain. A Spanish dressing room is harder to manage than an English one. Players who have won the World Cup playing a different way under a different manager and alongside players from the other side of the club divide are not so easily coaxed.
During pre-season Mourinho complained at the way his players had spent their summers. Madrid drew with Valencia and lost at Getafe. A set play was their undoing. "We can't work on them any more than we do," Mourinho said, shifting the blame to his players. Some of them did not appreciate being blamed, nor that Mourinho washed his own hands of responsibility. Madrid then beat Granada. Cristiano Ronaldo scored that day but did not celebrate: he said that the reason was that he was "sad … and the club know why".
When Madrid were beaten in Sevilla, leaving them eight points behind Barcelona after five weeks, Mourinho said too many of his players were not focused on football. At half-time he hauled off Angel Di María, who was treading a fine line with the referee, and Ozil. "I made two changes at half-time," he said, "but I could have made seven." Then he delivered the most devastating of conclusions: "Right now I don't have a team." That message was not digested well by his squad and the impact was greater still. For the following game, against Manchester City, Ramos was left out. Mourinho called it a technical decision. Others saw it as a punishment and of the wrong man: it was Di María, not Ramos, who was at fault for the goal. What many observers did not see at first was that Ozil had been left out too, such was the focus on the centre-back. And at about the same time, the rumours appeared. Ozil was forced to deny he was living the high life. At half-time against Deportivo, Ozil, who had been given a first start since Sevilla, was singled out again. Mourinho emerged from the tunnel and sat on the bench a few minutes before his team came out for the second half, wearing a serious expression and leaving them in the dressing room. Meanwhile, Ramos was pulling on Ozil's shirt. A photo appeared and suddenly every detail was pored over, right down to the order the players boarded the team bus – Spaniards at the back, Portuguese at the front.
But Madrid won 6-1 against Deportivo. Last season there were confrontations after Real Madrid drew in Santander early in the campaign. When the season came to an end, Madrid had racked up a record 100 points. It can often feel like Madrid are only a couple of bad results from an explosion but it is rare that they string together two bad results in a row. "If Ronaldo's sad and he keeps scoring goals, fine," Mourinho said. He even noted that Ramos had played well – since he had left him out.
Much is made of unity creating good results but it can work the other way round. Sometimes it is the good results that bring unity. For Madrid, few results expose flaws like losing to Barcelona; few hide them like beating Barcelona.