FOOTBALL FANS ARE OFTEN CRYING OUT for an icon to lead them towards glory, a rare talisman who can create dreams on the field of play by acting as a glowing beacon to follow and celebrate. A dollop of healthy loyalty never goes amiss either – and if you can pop up with important goals on a regular basis, while simultaneously conjuring up course after course of silverware for the fans to devour through stellar displays of trickery and pseudo-sorcery, all the better.
It would make a mere mortal’s head spin. When it’s broken down, it all sounds like a bit of a tall order, doesn’t it?
In the midst of so much present-day sensationalism, where stories develop at breakneck speed and topics continually shape-shift from one subject to another, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute, it can sometimes be difficult to truly appreciate a star in the making; a burgeoning talent.
Invariably, people will always get lost in the fog. Then again, when you’re great, you’re great – and getting people to notice you is rarely that much of a problem. These thrilling players are a special commodity. They captivate, enthral and entice with lethal displays of uncanny genius, and most importantly they make us all, regardless of tribal fealty, excited about the power of the beautiful game.
Some border on greatness. Others promise legacies of brilliance. Only a select few actually reach the upper echelon of sporting divinity, but Raúl González Blanco was one such footballer who managed to eclipse simply being good as he became one of the most clinical and widely-respected strikers the game has ever played host to. It might be surprising to some, then, that he was once cast so carelessly to the wind.
Starting off his career with Atlético Madrid as a bright-eyed whipper-snapper in the early 1990s, he was let go by Los Colchoneros when the strange decision was made to cut the youth team from the club’s plans.
Read | Emilio Burtagueño: Real Madrid’s angelic vulture
It didn’t take the teenager long to quickly become a hugely important thread in the fabric of their cross-town rivals who snapped him up not long thereafter. Eventually, of course, he wound up becoming arguably the best out-and-out striker Real Madrid has ever cultivated. But before any of that transpired, Raúl spent a fleeting period with Los Blancos’ youth team. Indeed, it’s a credit to how special he was even back then, that it took him just a few short months in the development academy before he was given a run-out in the first team.
So, on October 29, 1994, he took to the field against Real Zaragoza, and although he failed to get on the scoresheet that particular day, he would soon go on to show just how much of a rarity shooting a blank really was for him as he made a further 740 appearances in competitive fixtures for the most successful Spanish team in Champions League history. Along the way, he netted a staggering 323 goals for the club and was, for a long time, the highest-scoring player in the team’s history – until Cristiano Ronaldo came along and spoiled everything, that is.
Indeed, while many like to point out that it has taken Ronaldo less time to surpass Raúl’s record than it did for the Spaniard to set it, there is a lot to be said for the commendable longevity that came with the career of ‘El Angel de Madrid’. What’s not impressed on people enough nowadays is how much of a provocation Raúl’s benchmark performances have undoubtedly been for one of today’s greatest players and that, in itself, speaks volumes about just how incredible a player he was.
With such a celestial nickname, it’s little wonder the now-retired forward cropped up with touches of divinity on a regular basis. Spoiling the masses with consistent displays of dexterity and expertise, he grew into a pillar of brilliance. Throughout his career in the Spanish capital, Raúl picked up 16 titles – one for every year of his stay – a huge haul of trophies and medals that included a trio of European Cups, six La Liga crowns and a UEFA Super Cup triumph. The mark he left on the club is indelible, and the fans are sure to continue remembering his efforts and successes for a very long time to come.
He might not have spent his entire career with the club as his latter-day stints with Schalke, Al Sadd and New York Cosmos testifies to, but he certainly gave his best years to the Spanish capital’s premier club and he worked tirelessly for 16 years to keep them on par with the rest of the continent’s big hitters, often surpassing their rivals to silverware and fame along the way.
His affinity with Madrid, and their adoration of his talents, was a bond that sealed quickly upon his arrival as he netted his first goal, in his first start, for the club in a La Liga clash against none other than Atlético, the club he had once, albeit briefly, called home. He also played a key role in setting up another goal that night and was heartily applauded by many of the club’s supporters when he was later substituted in that victory. Any reservations the fans might have had about exalting a former Atlético prodigy with open arms and shouts of encouragement were rapidly dispelled as he helped his new employers to a deserved derby day win.
Read | Guts, guile and goals: the career of Fernando Hierro
If the rest was history, he made it so through his keen eye for goal and ultra-accurate finishing, not mentioning an insatiable appetite for victory and a deep-rooted love for the club, its fans and the attractive, free-flowing brand of football they liked to play.
He wasn’t a showboater by any means, and he didn’t often buy into the flashy theatrics that became more and more popular in the football either as his career ebbed on, but that’s not to say Raúl couldn’t be hugely entertaining with the way he carried himself on the field. Like all the true greats, he had a tremendous ability to fuse mind-bending skill with purposeful performances.
He would wow the Santiago Bernabéu with touches of graceful poise and perfection but he would rarely, if ever, do so simply to show off or antagonise his opponents. He was economical with his talents and he spent them wisely, unselfishly even. Sure, he could easily have dedicated his career to himself in a bid to dazzle for the cameras with step-overs and flicks galore, one after the other, match-day after match-day – instead, he devoted his savvy to the betterment of the team, and it paid off because he’s now seen as a club icon, revered for the time and success he donated to them for over a decade and a half.
The natural confidence that comes from playing for such a gigantic club can often be offset by the nerve-wracking distraction that accompanies the possibility of failure, especially when that continental superpower happens to be Real Madrid whose fans, infamously, can be a little difficult to win over. For Raúl, however, it was clear from the get-go that he thrived off the pressure and used it as extra motivation. Not only this, but he successfully managed to fuse his positive traits with the club’s as he earned the chance to become the swash-buckling spearhead they needed.
Not unlike his contemporary Filippo Inzaghi, Raúl had a sublime knack for sweeping the ball into the back of the net regardless of the close attentions of his marker. The amount of times he would pounce onto a loose ball was phenomenal, and he did so with startlingly quick reactions that often put his marker to shame before wheeling off in quintessential celebration, kissing his right-hand ring finger before lapping up the acclaim and cheers of the fans.
His football had a regal quality to it and he was the envy of most of Europe’s biggest clubs. Carrying with him an air of stealthy confidence, he was always on the cusp of pulling a trick out of the bag to find a way to rattle the back of the net. With perfectly angled runs and a dash of well-timed acceleration, he would perpetually zip into danger zones in and around the penalty area.
Read | Fernando Redondo: the divinity and despair of 2000
Prone to expert positioning and awareness, he possessed a freakish ability to pre-empt the flight of a teammate’s pass or cross, but he didn’t rely on anyone to serve chances up on a plate for him because he was confident enough in his own ability, pace and array of slick moves to outsmart a defender or particularly agile goalkeeper.
Dubbed ‘Mr. Champions League’ by Christoph Metzelder, though he tasted ultimate victory in so many different competitions, it was in Europe’s elite club tournament where he really earned a top reputation far and wide. Forming a symbiotic relationship under the burning spotlight of the media’s glare, the Spaniard quickly became synonymous with the world-class platform and, during his first season on the continental stage, he grabbed a terrific hat-trick in their 6-1 victory over Ferencváros, just his third Champions League appearance.
While that was an amazing accomplishment in itself, it’s all the more mind-blowing when one realises that his triplet that night made him the youngest-ever scorer of a hat-trick in the competition’s history. It was the beginning of a majestic period of dominance that saw him go on to become the competition’s all-time top scorer for a time. In all, he built a collection of 71 strikes – 66 of which he converted in the dazzling white of Madrid – was the leading scorer twice, and became the first player since the competition was re-branded in 1992 to top the charts in consecutive seasons.
The legacy he assembled in the most glitzy competition in world football lives on to this very day because he’s currently the third-highest scorer since the European Cup was re-branded, has scored in the most amount of consecutive seasons and with 53 strikes he also has more group stage goals than anyone else. Another fascinating nugget to savour is that he became the first player to score in two finals – a reminder of just how effective a trendsetter he was down through the years.
A veritable trailblazer, the now 38-year-old was a leading light in Los Merengues‘ battle to become the best, and he helped them achieve this objective, not simply through his effective displays in front of goal but, from 2003 on, by way of his excellent leadership qualities after he was handed the club captaincy following the departure of stalwart Fernando Hierro.
Sure, he might have won only a fraction of his 16 titles after being handed the famous armband but it was more for his endurance, inspiring symbolism and sheer willingness to battle season after season for the betterment of the club that he is remembered as one of their greatest, most influential and reliable skippers of all time.
Read | Remembering Florentino Pérez’s Pavones, the players Real Madrid forgot
At the same time, he was a constant reminder of the club’s contradictions to those who could see through the faux-legacy that became the Galácticos era and he was arguably their best player.
Having become part of the furniture en route towards the Florentino Pérez-led campaign to give the club an expensive facelift, there was always the danger that Raúl might get squeezed out with so many high-profile names coming in. The divans, chaise-lounges and four-poster beds that were Ronaldo, Luís Figo and David Beckham threatened to become the extravagant reinforcements that would cement the club’s position as the game’s powerhouses for the foreseeable future, but their arrival signalled a shift into dangerous new territory for everyone – even Raúl.
A lot went on at Real Madrid during Raúl’s stay. Famous faces came and went, club politics changed, trophies were won and lost, but what always remained constant was the former club captain’s passion, leadership and imperious influence. Long before Galácticos, talk of La Decima, Cristiano Ronaldo or managerial instability, it was the free-scoring Spaniard who lent balance, heart and stability to the club. He did his best to keep them focused through the crazy times and he helped build a major part of their history through the trophies he led them to. Perhaps most astonishingly of all, though, was that he managed to do it all with such unerring ease, seemingly driven on by his lack of silverware triumphs with the Spanish national team.
To reflect on his career with the national side is a bittersweet musing because his drought of titles on the international stage is something he will no doubt have felt some real regret over upon retiring as he wasn’t involved in any of La Roja‘s recent successes. On the other hand, his record of 44 goals and 102 appearances means he was always one of their most outstanding talents. He’s firmly inside the all-time top 10 for appearances and is in impressive company alongside Iniesta, Torres, Alonso, Zubizarreta, Ramos, Xavi and Iker Casillas as celebrated centurions.
Ultimately, the world’s greatest sports stars are normally judged on the legacy they leave behind. It’s a rite of passage undertaken by the masses when a stellar pilgrimage comes to an end. The ritualistic ruminations of running the gauntlet over any career quickly takes centre stage when the confetti and championing comes to an end, and through all the fine-tooth combing, analysis and debate, a place is either dusted down for the worthy or not. It can be a harshly forensic examination, but the true power players are never in doubt, which is precisely why Raúl can always be confident in being remembered.
Yes, he has since been surpassed in many ways by the otherworldly talents of Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, but Raúl was a different player who possessed different talents and deserves to be considered one of the greatest players of all time.
By Trevor Murray. Follow @TrevorM90