With the 24 year old Lionel Messi waiting in the wings to add to his remarkable tally of Champions League goals, one would fully expect the South American to take over the record scoring berth. Barring serious injury or a cataclysmic loss of form, the jewel in Barcelona’s shiny crown will probably set the kind of record that will remain untouched throughout the ages. Yet as I always say, before the heroes of today collect their medallions, one must aim a curt nod in the shape of the heroes of yesterday. Well actually, I’ve never said that before. But I’m saying it now.
The icon that has evoked such words can be described with three important features: black hair, a wedding ring and of course goals. Goals and goals and, you guess it, more goals. 362 of them to be exact; 323 were netted in Real Madrid colours and so far 39 in the striking blue of Schalke 04. And he’s never received a red card. Known commonly as Raul, his real name is the effortlessly stylish Raúl González Blanco. After a brace of seasons in Germany, Raul is set to up and leave Europe – and a competition close to his heart, the Champions League – and earn his crust outside of the continent. The Spaniard will most probably be signing for a Middle Eastern club who will not only fold him a nice pay packet, but also sing a sweet swansong. And it’s one I’m sure we’ll all tap our feet to.
Raul was and is a fine striker. But that doesn’t do him justice. Perhaps the most predatory forward of the last 15 years, Raul was a black-haired, lean-figured sweating machine that was incidentally resplendent in front of the net. Never blessed with ounces of pace or extravagant, fancy-Dan skills, Raul showed his true colours with exceptional movement, pinpoint timing and a brilliant – almost God-like – eye for goal. He is the all-time leader in a competition he’s flirted with through the dawn of a new millennium, the Champions League, topping the board with 144 appearances while also topping the scoring charts with a sensational 71 goals. He was also the first player to score in two Champions League finals, against Valencia in 2000 and Bayer Leverkusen in 2002 (winning both).
As a cool as a cucumber, Raul was like an untameable tidal wave when on his game. Performances in the Champions League against Manchester United stand out, where Sir Alex Ferguson lavished praise on the ex-Madrid player, labelling him the ‘best in the world’. You can’t grow players like Raul. You can’t bottle them. You can’t teach their skills to others because what makes them that decisively bit more effective than others is as natural as an Eamon Dunphy outburst on Irish telly. It is inherent and can only be replicated by the lucky few who are born with such a gift. At 34 he still looks bloody young and cool in a Jesus Christ kind of way, with the iconic image of Raul’s being the wheel-away celebration where he kisses the wedding ring as an ode to his wife of 13 years. Growing up watching Raul ply his trade was inspiring yet also fearful; the man could kill a good game with a flick of the hips and a prod of the big toe. He is a grandiose chunk of our top European competitions history. And I cannot resist the chance to salute that chunk as it softly falls away.
His devotion to Madrid was second to none in an era where many Galacticos came and went for big money. While other walking price tags came and went with a seething ego often rendering their capacities vacant and ineffective, Raul – a man as woven into Madrid’s folklore as the famous white shirt he once wore – shone while others stars exploded. He worked his way up from their C team to their B team, all the way to donning the primary shirt of Madrid a preposterous 741 times for a man who was still only 32 when he left. To survive 18 years at such a topsy-turvy, often ill-ran institution – let alone hoist six Spanish titles and three European cups in the meantime – is no limp-wristed achievement. It’s a bloody tiger-boned one.
Humble and serene in a relaxed, calculating manner, Raul’s personal life is also scandal-free. Not that it matters. Yet somehow, one cannot detach themselves from their own morality – even in a game like football. Football talents and gongs cannot be tainted by off-field scandals, but it is human nature to feel attached to a man who lives his life off-field as he lived his life on it: with an elegant professionalism others could learn from. As an abase yet still zesty football character, Raul was gold-plated whether one looks at his personal life, his time at Madrid or his recent adventures in Germany, where he scored a hatful of goals to help Schalke into the semi-finals of last year’s Champions League.
His football always came before the money, lifestyle or contrived Pepsi adverts. Players like Raul make you lament the finite nature of a footballer’s career. Just not long enough and the time we do get seeing such player’s roam the fields is taken for granted. It’s not all been rosy; falling out of favour with Spain and being left out while their opulent riches of talent hoisted Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010 must have induced a pang of hurt. There were even accusations of his dressing room influence (which his team mates were quick to deny). Yet his career highs far outweigh the lows.
An exceptional striker, a trophy haul as long as Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s nose, being a loyal servant to a club that probably didn’t deserve such admirable fidelity and looking like a football version of Jesus Christ himself. Raul, good luck in the Middle East. It has been a brilliant journey of goals, sweaty hair and the crushing knowledge that the man from Spain has just squeezed the life from another games lungs. With Schalke set to achieve Champions League qualification for next year, a European competition without Raul simply seems wrong – like an old pair of boots that have lost a few of its studs. But still, I’m sure we’ll grin when we cast our memories back and remember just how stunningly sharp those Spanish studs once were.