A tribute to Raúl, a man who made top-level games look like exhibitions
In football, there is just something about a player spending his entire career at one club that makes them extra special in the eyes of supporters.
It’s at least partly why the likes of Francesco Totti and Paolo Maldini are held in such high esteem.
And even though he will bring down his career in Japan, Andrés Iniesta will benefit from that same extra notch of fondness from neutrals having stuck around at Barcelona until he felt his body could no longer meet the demands of European club football.
Alternatively, starting out at your hometown club then going on to enjoy an illustrious career elsewhere before returning to finish your career back home is another narrative which every football fan can appreciate.
It’s why each summer brings us louder and louder calls for Cristiano Ronaldo to return home to Sporting, or Zlatan Ibrahimović to pay Malmö another visit before retirement.
Raúl was able to follow neither of those narratives. Like Iniesta at Barça, he had signed a lifetime contract at Real and looked sure to see out his career at the Bernabeu, but aged 33 and having been reduced to a bit-part player, he waved goodbye. He felt he had more to give.
It made for the most bizarre of late-career meanders – the sight of a great of the game becoming the most important man in the room yet undoubtedly viewed differently from afar than he would have been if he’d wound things down on home turf.
Our view of Raúl may also be shaped by the length of time he kept going after pulling down the curtain on his international career – and the success Spain went on to achieve without him.
For some, his 44 goals for La Roja may well be overshadowed by a last-minute penalty miss at Euro 2000, a heartbreaking moment which denied José Antonio Camacho’s team a shot at extra-time against World Cup holders and eventual European champions France, albeit one which ought not to have been his moment to spoil – regular penalty-taker Gaizka Mendieta had been withdrawn earlier in the second half.
Raúl’s generation was forever tarred with domestic success and international failure: he was a multiple Champions League winner with Real Madrid, alongside compatriots Michel Salgado, Fernando Hierro and Iván Helguera, yet they could not convert this into anything other than a litany of painful failures in red.
Andoni Zubizarreta’s howler against Nigeria brought a group-stage exit at the 1998 World Cup, while hosts South Korea inflicted a dubious defeat in 2002 and eventual finalists France left it late to eliminate them four years later. In between was another early exit at Euro 2004, despite La Roja conceding just twice.
So that was it for Raúl in a Spain shirt, with the forward calling it a day after being withdrawn during that France defeat on his 29th birthday.
His Spain were perennial failures, but after he played his last Spain game a few months later something changed: three straight tournament triumphs, with many of his team-mates there to celebrate, but Raúl himself uninvolved.
His absence from those successful squads of 2008, 2010 and 2012 makes it easy to forget how much he did offer during his playing days, not least in his decade-and-a-half with Real Madrid.
He might have been a golden boy, the local lad coddled and come good, but he wouldn’t have been such a mainstay if he couldn’t deliver on the chances sent his way.
More than a poacher
You don’t rack up Raúl’s goalscoring stats without being able to put away the simple finishes, but he was also the master of one of the best kinds of goal – the one the keeper thinks he can save until the very last moment.
Juan Carlos Abianedo had seen quite a lot by the time he came up against Real Madrid in the 1997-98 season, having spent more than a decade in the Sporting Gijón first team, but nothing like this.
Abianedo was well braced for a right-footed shot, and in a good position to readjust if Raúl did the sensible thing for a left-footer and let the ball run across his body before hitting across the keeper.
Instead, the brilliance of the finish comes from the fact that it is unconventional to the point of near stupidity. You don’t try this unless you have more faith in your own ability than anyone ever really should, and in a way that’s better.
If the goal against Sporting was at one end of the scale, this post-Madrid strike – for Schalke against Köln – was at the other extreme.
While Abianedo scrambled back futilely, Michael Rensing gave up on getting near the scooped finish so early that he actually ends up further from the goal than where he started, though defender Pedro Geromel remained optimistic about keeping it out right until the last.
If Geromel is the intrepid climber grasping for grip on the cliff-face, his goalkeeper has read the weather reports, seen the words ‘Raúl chip’, and opted to stay at base camp.
It’s the sort of goal you’d expect from an exhibition game, or at the very least from a player who has opted to move away from elite leagues. It feels a little New York Cosmos-era Raúl, let’s say. Yet it came in a Bundesliga game between two teams separated by just four points the season prior.
When you’ve been tearing it up for one of the best clubs in the world, you can feel you have the freedom to showboat on a stage which many others will never rise above.
It feels fitting that Raúl ended his career with the New York Cosmos, even if his post-Madrid career ended up being so storied that he had five more years and three more clubs after essentially being narratively finished.
There’s something appropriate about him refusing to bow out with the new money of the Chinese Super League, while insisting a spell in Qatar with Al-Sadd would not be the full stop on his career.
Even his move to the United States would see him eschew Major League Soccer in favour of NASL, wrapping up with a club and league who – in name at least – belonged more to the 20th century in which he established himself than the 21st which he left behind with retirement.
Raúl’s legacy speaks to round-up shows and lost memories rather than the oversoundtracked highlights-on-tap of his successors, and he helped lay the foundations for Champions League-era European football becoming the behemoth it is today.
He might not have won everything he’d hoped for, but it’s a career with enough high-points to sustain pretty much anyone.
By Tom Victor