Tab Ramos: From Uruguay to Spain and Everywhere in Between

Charlie Stillitano stood across from Tab Ramos and was taken aback. The guy he was about to introduce as the N.Y./N.J. MetroStars’ (and Major League Soccer’s) first player was no longer the scrawny teenager he remembered from St. Benedict’s Prep.

“What struck me was how strong he was at the press conference,” said Stillitano, the MetroStars’ (now Red Bulls’) first general manager. “How physically he was a man.”

Stillitano, like most Americans, had watched Ramos on the National Team for the previous five or six years. But as a New Jersey native, Stillitano still had the image of the high school prodigy with a boyish face, whose speed and technical ability had dominated state play for years.

Now, the tree-trunk thighs and developed upper body were clearly noticeable, made apparent by five years of play at Figueres and Real Betis in Spain, and another year at Tigres UANL in Mexico.

“He was a man, a real professional,” Stillitano said. “Not the little innocent kid. He was ready to take on the challenge as the first player in MLS.”

It was a challenge Ramos seemed destined for from birth in Uruguay. His father played with CA River Plate in Montevideo and also coached at fourth-division Huracan.

“There was always soccer at the house,” Ramos recalled. “The influence comes from that. My mom was always a soccer follower. I can always picture Mom, if anybody asked, her in the kitchen with soccer playing in the background.”

It was a lifestyle that continued even after Ramos and his family moved to New Jersey a few weeks before his 12th birthday. He quickly ingratiated himself into the local youth soccer scene in the Newark/Kearny/Harrison area, even playing with future fellow National Team member John Harkes.

“Tab stood out right away,” Harkes said. “His upbringing in Uruguay, his skill he had on ball, it was completely different.

“Don’t’ get me wrong, Kearny had individual talent, but certainly with Tab, his skill set on the ball was probably a step ahead of most of guys at that age group.”

It was only a few months ago that Harkes was able to relive those days, when someone gave him a DVD of one of his and Ramos’ games, apparently shot by a parent, from when they were 13 or 14.

“Looking back on it, it was pretty interesting,” Harkes mused. “He certainly was comfortable on the ball.”

He was comfortable enough to make his debut with the U.S. Under-20 National Team at 15 in 1982, lead St. Benedict’s in Newark to the New Jersey state high school championship in 1983 and get drafted by the New York Cosmos in 1984.

While sounding prestigious, the North American Soccer League was clearly in decline, and Ramos spurned the Cosmos to attend North Carolina State instead.

It was a choice that would ultimately lead him to Spain, with UNC coach George Tarantini using his contacts to get Ramos a look from CE Sabadell.

With the Seoul Olympics looming, Ramos returned to the United States, where he remained as a residency player for the U.S. Men’s National Team, also spending time on the New Jersey Eagles and then the Miami Sharks in the semi-pro American Soccer League.

After helping the United States qualify for and compete in the World Cup in 1990, the country’s first appearance in 40 years, Ramos’ brief experience in Spain paid dividends. The contacts he had made while on trial with Sabadell resulted in an offer from second-division Figueres.

“I had an offer from a Dutch first division club, Roda JC,” Ramos said. “Back then, the Dutch league had a couple of teams that were pretty good, but I didn’t think it was the right choice. Besides, my goal was to play in Spain.”

In his first season with Figueres, Ramos scored five goals, the club climbed from 12th to seventh place and he earned a four-year contract. By the middle of Ramos’ second season, Figueres had climbed into contention for the second-division title.

“Valencia, Espanyol and Albacete made offers, but I didn’t want to move in the middle of season,” Ramos said.

Figueres finished third, but by then, the interest from Valencia and the other teams had cooled. However, Betis “came in and made offer. Betis was a great move.”

From a town of 50,000 in the far northeastern corner of Catalonia in the far northeastern section of Spain, Ramos was now playing in the Andalusia capital of Seville, a port city of 700,000 near the Atlantic Ocean.

He helped the club climb to the first division by 1994, but it was also the year of the most severe injury of his career, when Brazil’s Leonardo elbowed him in the face during a second-round match at the World Cup. Leonardo was ejected and missed the rest of the World Cup. Ramos had to leave the game with a fractured skull and missed the next five months.

Ramos had led the United States into the second round of the World Cup and troubled Brazil in their knockout game, leading some to speculate that Leonardo’s elbow was intentional. Ramos’ performance, like that of his many other U.S. teammates, earned high praise.

But by the time he returned to Spain, Betis had added several other foreigners, and with him it had more than the three it could field at any one time.

Additionally, by the time he was able to play again, Betis was contending for the first-division title and finding his way into the lineup was an increasingly difficult task.

“I already had an offer from Tigres. I did speak with U.S. Soccer that when MLS started, I asked if there was any way we could structure the situation where I could come back,” Ramos explained. “Obviously, I was 28, I wanted to play, be in the starting 11, instead of staying (at Betis), and I decided to move.”

With interest from Neuchatel Xamax in Switzerland, and an offer from Tigres, Ramos and his wife decided to return to North America.

“We just had our first child (Alex), we said, ‘Let’s go to Mexico,’” Ramos said. “It’s closer to home.”

(Alex Ramos entered Iona University this fall and is playing his freshman season at the New Rochelle, N.Y., school.)

Although both Latin cultures, Ramos quickly learned the differences between Mexico and Spain.

“The loyalty of the fans with the team,” Ramos indicated as the biggest difference. “In Spain, I always felt like the fans were hot and cold. If the team is doing well, they’re great. If not, it’s almost as if they’re behind the other team. It’s difficult that way. Spain was more difficult to play in.

“Mexico is the opposite. They love the jersey, love the club. Tigres has one of best fan bases in Mexico, one of the top three or four. They’re very loyal. Even though I already had a contract to come back to MLS, it was difficult. I loved playing for Tigres.”

But his own sense of loyalty and duty to the United States led Ramos back to his adopted home country in 1996, along with several of U.S. teammates: Harkes, Alexi Lalas, Brian Bliss and Paul Caligiuri among others, for the start of MLS.

“The reality is that we were all learning at the time,” Stillitano said. “It was nice to have him with us. The professional experience, candidly, was new to all of us.

“His innate ability, without question, and his time in Spain, Mexico, really made him a great player, a complete player.”