21st Century Greats – Raúl

There are two types of successful marriage. In the first and most ideal case, there is mutual love…mutual admiration…mutual devotion. This is rare.

The other type is that which sees one partner so entranced with the other that they are willing to put aside all of the bullshit that they are put through. This is the type of marriage which Raul Gonzalez Blanco endured with Real Madrid FC.

Despite never possessing the technical mastery of a Zidane or a Figo, Raul entrenched himself into the hearts of the Los Blancos faithful through sheer force of will alone.

Still Real’s top appearance maker and, until recently, their top scorer, Raul will remain perhaps the most adored figure in history for Madridistas because he was their avatar on the pitch. He was one of them.

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No matter how many goals Cristiano Ronaldo or any other pre-bought superstar scores, they will never replace Raul in the Madridista hearts

By the turn of the twenty-first century, Raul was already an icon at the Santiago Bernabeau. Since debuting in the mid-nineties as a 17 year old, Raul had helped Madrid clinch two league titles and two European Cup.

He was the premier Spanish talent in La Liga and he had played a huge role in Real’s re-assent to the top table of European football after a gap of over thirty years. Real’s number seven was the most feared striker in Europe at the time.

And so when Florentino Perez began his Galactico project in the summer of 2000, it seemed to be a perfect concept. Perez would acquire some of the top talents in the world and these would serve to complement the existing Spanish backbone of the side in Hierro, Helguerra, Guti, Morientes and, of course, Raul.

The concept initially brought success, most notably in the 2-1 victory over Bayer Leverkusen in the Champions’ League final (where Raul scored the least remembered goal in Real Madrid history). However, the arrival of Ronaldo in 2002 and his usurpation of Fernando Morientes as Raul’s strike partner signaled the first fatal flaw.

First of all, Raul was not a Galactico. If anything, he owed more in his career to the “Quinta del Buitre” tradition of Real Madrid, wherein Madrid won the league five times in a row during the 1980s with a team of mainly homegrown players, rather than the original Galactico team of the 1950s with DiStefano, Kopa and Puskas.

Raul was a relentlessly hard-worker and a goal-scorer who relied on timing and efficiency to succeed. For club and country, Raul and Morientes formed a fearsome partnership based mainly upon the conventional “Big man, little man dynamic.”

With Ronaldo and other incoming Galacticos at his side, Raul was more often inclined to sacrifice his own game in order to provide balance to this bloated side. The Galacticos project finally succumbed to its gouty fever in 2006 as Perez lost his position as Madrid president.

The change allowed Raul to return to form. The military precision of Fabio Capello and then Bernd Schuster allowed Madrid to regain dominance from FC Barcelona. Raul also enjoyed a resurgence and his form almost saw him return to the Spanish national, a side which he had captained with dignity for many years but who now saw him as a relic.

Barcelona’s treble win in 2009 signaled the end. Perez returned. The Galacticos returned. And Raul was again shuffled aside for the likes of Kaka and Ronaldo. However, age was no longer on his side and, in 2010, Raul left the Bernabeau after 16 years service.

An outstanding spell afterwards with Schalke 04 notwithstanding, Raul had given the best years of his life Madrid. Yet they had perpetually sought newer and shinier toys to replace him.

Raul may not have been the Galactico they sought. If an English equivalent can be made then it is with Kevin Keegan, an intelligent, determined and utterly passionate individual.

And Madrid’s fans know it. No matter how many goals Cristiano Ronaldo or any other pre-bought superstar scores, they will never replace Raul in their hearts.

By Gregory McNally

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