Raul was a legend at the Bernabeu.
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Just two weeks after Andres Iniesta’s extra-time goal saw Spain crowned as the finest footballing nation on the planet, one of their finest ever players - Raul - ended an era at the Bernabeu.
Imagining Real Madrid without Raul is like picturing the New York skyline without the Empire State Building. The man defined the club he represented for 16 years and one of Jose Mourinho’s first challenges in Madrid will be to recapture the chunk of identity Raul (and fellow veteran Guti) took with them as the doors of the Bernabeu closed behind them for the final time.
Raul won more than he ever could have imagined with Los Blancos and still tops the all-time Champions League scoring charts with 66 goals, so it couldn’t have been easy for the Spanish icon to accept that his inevitable decline would coincide with Spain’s emergence as a superpower.
The sumptuous tiki-taka style that saw Vicente del Bosque’s side confirm their status as the world’s best relies on a David Villa or a Fernando Torres to convert the chances Xavi and Iniesta craft from deeper areas of the pitch. But even in a system so apparently perfect, it’s difficult to imagine that Raul at his peak wouldn’t have added something extra, something different. But, of course, this is something we’ll never know.
Raul still managed an exceptional 44 goals in 102 games for Spain throughout a barren period when, despite possessing able players, they were never genuine challengers for trophies. So, it was in the Champions League and La Liga that Raul went about his business of destroying defences and beating goalkeepers. Something he achieved 323 times.
Raul once cited the predatory instincts of Gary Lineker as his inspiration and, after making his debut as a skinny 17-year-old, the Spaniard begun the work of emulating his hero. But it was against Lineker’s former side, Barcelona, in a vintage episode of the El Clasico in 1999 that Raul demonstrated his lethal presence in front of goal, creating a symbolic moment in the process.
Despite Raul’s early goal, Real Madrid were trailing 2-1 in Camp Nou. With five minutes to go, Raul collected a piercing through ball from Javier Saviola before exquisitely lifting it over the rushing ‘keeper and into the Barcelona net. The Nou Camp fell deathly silent and, after kissing his wedding ring in tribute to his wife, he suggested the Catalan fans remained quiet by running in front of the main stand with his finger on his lips.
But Raul was always respectful to friends and foes and, in his last ever Real Madrid press conference on Monday, he admitted that another Barcelona player, Pep Guardiola, was the opponent he respected the most.
“My favourite opponent was Guardiola. You tell when he was playing that he was the manager as well. I used to think how could he talk so much and play so well,” Raul said. “And it was he who gave me my assist for my first goal for Spain.”
The highs of Raul’s career in the pristine white of Real Madrid are too many to mention, but as he continues his career in a new league - most likely the Bundesliga - Los Blancos say goodbye to a true great of the modern game. Indeed one, for his prolific service for club and country, who deserves a share in the recognition his international colleagues enjoyed earlier this month in Johannesburg.