By Juan Arango,
There were players in football history that marked an era we never realize wehn they do it, but when you realize it, they are ready to reach the football stratosphere. Let’s go to October 29, 1994 and then-coach Jorge Valdano decides to call a lanky 17-year old kid to the first team. Who would have ever imagined that a young striker that came over from the broken Atlético Madrid youth system would make such an incredible splash at Valdebebas and mark an era of Spanish football. Maybe there is little use for my wordiness, but Raúl’s bio on the Real Madrid website says everything I have to say…
Former Atlético Madrid president Jesús Gil y Gil always referred to Raúl as his “bete noire”. He was the boogeyman that haunted his old team. Time and time again he rubbed in Colchonero faces the fact that they let him go. His first-ever Madrid derby he taught Gil y Gil a lesson he would have taught again and again. Raúl scored his first-ever goal as a professional as Valdano took an even bigger gamble when he replaced Emilio Butragueño with his young protegé. Raúl also start his first ever match against Atlético and would use Butragueño’s number 7 in the process.
He also gave fits to Madrid’s eternal rivals- Barcelona. He is second all-time only behind Alfredo Di Stefano with 15 goals in all competitions. Even in the twilight of his Madrid career he was able to give the Blaugrana a scare of two, as was the case in his last appearance at the Nou Camp when he missed a header on goal after coming off the bench for Cristiano Ronaldo.
Sixteen years later, the circle becomes full and Raúl will receive one of the biggest ovations in his career as he says farewell to the team that saw him evolve from “Babystar” to “Pichichi” to “El Gran Capitán”. He was not only the biggest star on the team but he was also an oasis of stability in a sea of absolute mayhem. He supplanted the ever-fading “Quinta del Buitre” and survived the first edition of the Galácticos and Florentino Pérez. Despite changes surrounding the club at all levels, Raúl was still there producing and contending for titles individually and with club and country.
No one thought that when a 17-year-old kid that was coming from Madrid’s C team would become the symbol of a club that would have the same footing that players like Di Stefano, Puskas, Gento, Santillana, Butragueño, Sánchez, Sanchis, Juanito, and many more had during their respective careers with the Merengues. In the end, one of the biggest gambles of Jorge Valdano’s coaching career ended up being the biggest gift to Madridismo.
But 729 matches and 324 goals later, Raúl marked an era in Spanish football. His goals came in all shapes colors and skill levels. From pouncing on rebounds to heel flicks to cross-country jaunts past defenders, Raúl captivated friend and foe alike.
“When he plays, in his mind there is only the goal; it’s the football essence. Figo and himself are two great players although a bit overated; everytime they do something, you stand up over your seat”.- Thierry Henry
He was not one of those vocal leaders that challenged players on the field and behind the microphones. He was the type of player that instead gave a team that was always in the middle of a media storm some type of normalcy. Raúl was not the type of player that people saw on the front page of the tabloid rags looking for cameras and posing for the televisions in order to be seen in the perfect angle.
He cared to be perfectly angled when he found himself in front of goal and ready to spell impending doom on rival goalkeepers. That was the profile that he looked for. Raúl González Blanco marked His sense of timing and finishing was lethal. He was the nightmare of defenders throughout a 16-year career.
He also cared about his teammates and for the good of the team. That is why it was more of note to see the Madrid great perform when there was so much adversity.
When you talk to his former teammates they all coincide with one thing- he is a true leader and a true person. Fernando Hierro, much like David Beckham, attribute their success with Los Blancos to Raúl’s strength and desire to have sanity in the dressing room as a first step towards success. “He is also one of the few guy’s that if i ever have a problem i would go to him rather than my own mother,” said Hierro in an interview back in 2007.
Beckham attributed the success of the team that won the title back in 2007 to Raúl as well. In his farewell press conference, Beckham said that Real Madrid won because Raúl was “…a tower of strength for many people and for the team, and he’s been a person that a lot of people should look up to because he is very dedicated to what he does and what he believes in.”
This is a salute to a man that was respected off the field and was feared on it. A few years ago I wrote an article on the legendary Madrid striker as he was struggling to find his way back to his glory days. He suffered a significant cut in playing time as well as a serious knee injury in the process.
“He is a winner. He is inheritance of the Real Madrid”-Fabio Capello
But that was what told me more about Raúl than anything else. What tells you more about him was not his his trophies and goals throughout his career. What was most remarkable about the former Madrid man was his ability to rise from the ashes and be able to be a fundamental part of Real Madrid’s two titles back in 2006-07 and 2007-08. DUring this resurgence, Raúl scored 47 goals in 91 matches. It was amazing to see the legendary Pichichi start to scored at such an impressive clip.
Time after time Raúl was part of important goals throughout the season that saw the team fighting against two-time defending champs Barcelona and were able to slight them out in the final match of the season based on the head-to-head tiebreaker.
“I hope he doesn’t like travelling, Failing that we will stop him entering the country. Real buy these big players like Figo, Zidane and Ronaldo but I think the best player in the world is Raúl”- Sir Alex Ferguson
● Six La Liga titles (1994-95, 1996-97, 2000-00, 2002-03, 2006-07, 2007-08)
● Four Spanish Supercups(1997, 2001, 2003, 2008)
● Three Champions Leagues (1998, 2000, 2002)
● Two Intercontinental Cups (1998, 2002)
● One UEFA Super Cup (2002)
● Don Balón breakout player of the year (1995)
● Two-time Pichichi (1999, 2001)
● 3rd place FIFA World Player of the Year (2001)
● 2nd European Fooberller of the Year (2001)
● All-time leading scorer for Spanish national team (44)
● Part of FIFA 100 team
This is not a eulogy regarding the end of Raúl career. This is a tribute to a player that needs to be given tribute as he did a great deal for Real Madrid. Once again I am not looking at his departure to Schalke as a his career’s final resting place. I am looking at it as a place where he can continue to expand on an already grandiose legacy that many youngsters should emulate. Not by a longshot are we saying goodbye, we are just saying adieu for the meantime.
From the humble neighborhood of San Cristobal de Los Ángeles to the Santiago Bernabéu, he has become not just the pride of his hometown, but the pride of a country that has always looked for heroes to add to their football lore. I guess it is safe to say that he did a pretty decent job in doing so.