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How Raul Became One Of The Most Iconic Figures In Spanish Football History

Why Raul’s emergence within the club was so rare, how he changed Real Madrid forever, and why his legacy should always matter

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These observations — where I look at Real Madrid’s history, its players on loan, Castilla, tactical tidbits, and other relevant thoughts -- are now a regular weekly thing. All previous editions can be found here.

One of the most iconic moments Raul ever gave us was putting his fingers to his lips in the face of a raucous Camp Nou. That was 1999. It was one of the most heated and hostile Clasico matches in recent memory. We really never saw that kind of rage and bitterness until the Mou vs Pep beef rekindled years of lost time where the Clasico just kind of was. It was always good, always big, and always tense; but heated, violent, filled with hate and rage? We took a good decade-long hiatus from that post-Hierro/Rivaldo/Lucho/Redondo/Figo era.

That match in October of 1999 had everything. Between Raul’s opening goal — where he headed the ball past Ruud Hesp, taking advantage of some terrible near-post defending from Michael Reiziger — and his second goal in the 89th minute where he drew level, we saw Rivaldo hit the roof of the net with a left footed lazer, Morientes watch his back-heel-flick go just wide, Morientes have a goal wrongly disallowed for a phantom call where Abelardo tripped over his own legs, Reiziger put his cleat on Savio’s shin, Sergi clear a goal off the line with his hand (unpunished), Figo dribbling past Geremi and cutting in to score at the near-post with his left foot, Kluivert throwing an embarrassing tantrum at the referee and getting sent off as the powerless Guardiola tried to calm him down, Redondo palm Rivaldo’s face while the Brazilian milked every second of it, Savio get into a shoving match with Luis Enrique and Puyol, Luis Figo unapologetically chopping Salgado nowhere close to the ball, and a bunch of other scuffles — not to mention a back-and-forth attacking melee of goalscoring chances.

And somehow, all of that madness got lost (as it should) because Raul encapsulated exactly what kind of player he was in one moment. No matter the situation, Peak-Raul always found a way to put the team on his back. And by every measure, the team needed him more than ever in that emblematic moment. Consider this -- that was a terrible domestic season for Real Madrid (though, they very successful on a European level). It was a season of great individual legends carrying the team in key moments — and this was one of them.

Roberto Carlos and Steve Mcmanaman were not in the team that night, and Del Bosque had to get really funky with the scheme, pushing Savio as some kind of wonky, advanced left-back, sliding in Ivan Campo as a sweeper (this is something Del Bosque generally liked to do in big matches regardless), and fielding three forwards (Raul, Anelka, Morientes) in front of Redondo and Geremi. Raul was the only player versatile enough who could bind the team and play as the creator in behind the forwards while the more defensive-minded players behind him did the dirty work.

Things generally weren’t going Real Madrid’s way in that 2-2 draw. Figo was possessed that night, dribbling past (at will) any player who found themselves defending the flank, and even though Real Madrid played well (despite not scoring, Anelka’s dribbling and off-ball movement was really good, and he hit the bar too; while Geremi’s pace caused Barcelona problems all night and Redondo was tremendous in winning possession), they had big calls go against them. But when Kluivert was sent off, the team found momentum, and with the help of Clarence Seedorf who entered the match and injected some creativity and help in the midfield, clicked into another gear which Raul eventually capped late.

Intelligence, composure, cold blood, finishing — all traits of Raul we saw in that moment. Seven seconds before he scored the equalizer, just when Redondo had dispossessed Zenden, Raul was already moving into position — roaming in-behind Barcelona’s defense without the ball — and when Savio slipped Raul through, he was already in Abelardo’s blind spot. Raul latched on, clipped it over Hesp, and salvaged a point for Real Madrid in a very difficult game.

Those moments are peppered throughout Raul’s career. Real Madrid has a rich history of legendary players, but each generation has a defining player that has so many cojones pumped into his veins that you wonder just where in the universe they came from. These players, a handful of them, transcend everyone, and sit at their own table. Raul is one of the immortals, even if the peak of his powers was a shorter window than we had hoped.

Former Atletico Madrid president Jesus Gil was never a popular figure. When he was elected as president in 1987, it didn’t take long for him to butt heads and sling beef with the media, fans, and even players. Throughout his tenure, he made racist remarks about other footballers, shouted abuse at homeless people in the streets of Spain, and was eventually thrown into prison at the turn of the century. He was a controversial human, and, when he intervened in football, made disastrous decisions — one of which was deeply connected to Raul’s career.

In 1992, Gil saw Atletico Madrid’s academy as adverse to the institution’s operational structure. The club was bleeding money, and Gil looked at the academy as something not worth keeping. How could breeding your own talent and profiting from them be the root of your financial problems, anyway? Gil didn’t see the merit. He shut it down.

This all happened at a time where Raul, scouted by Atletico in 1990 after they had discovered him in his local club San Cristóbal, was playing well and scoring goals for Atletico’s academy. When Gil disbanded the youth team, Raul moved to Real Madrid, and, something something became one of the greatest players in Spanish football history.

Two years after Raul joined Real Madrid’s academy, he spent a season at Real Madrid C (ironically, also disbanded), scoring 16 goals in just seven matches. Those numbers quickly trickled up to then-coach Jorge Valdano, who promoted Raul that very season, and in the most symbolic way possible, that promotion officially passed the torch from Emilio Butragueño (another legend, who deserves his own article entirely) to Raul. Butrageño’s career at Real Madrid at that time was fringe, and Raul’s emergence made it difficult for El Buitre to recover and stay with the club much longer. The next season, he was gone.

Raul took that mantle, ignited it to blinding luminosity, and blazed a path that no one from the academy has yet to live up to. He entered Real Madrid, and right away, played like he was born to be a club legend.

Right from the start — on his debut against Zaragoza in 1994 — he hit the ground running. It didn’t take us long to witness what Raul was as a player.

He slipped right in as a kid and influenced the game with a presence that couldn’t be missed. One of his first touches that night in La Romareda was a delicate control from a hard-struck vertical pass from Hierro. Raul took one touch to bring the ball down with his right foot (his first touch was widely regarded as his best trait), and with that same touch, angled the ball towards Ivan Zamorano before immediately making a darting run in-behind Zaragoza’s defense. Zamorano then slipped Raul through, who couldn’t finish the ensuing chance.

Soon after, Raul got behind Zaragoza’s defense with another run, rounded the keeper, then missed the open net. Rounding the keeper became a staple of his — bad finishing did not.

And again, a third time — he got through on goal with an off-ball run, and saw his shot saved.

In the second half, he missed a sitter from point-blank, and Real Madrid lost the match 3-2.

Still, there was something exciting about those chances he missed, even if you were right to be critical of his finishing. He created those chances with intelligent movement, and it was clear how big his balls were going to get just by his knack to pop up constantly. He was an outlet, a shadow striker, and a player whose motor was ceaseless. If you could combine work ethic with intelligence, you eventually give birth to Raul. He was a nightmare to deal with. Later it was revealed by Valdano, that before the match, on the bus on the way to La Romareda, Raul told him: “If you want to win, play me. If not, put someone else in.”

What we saw eventually in that same game was that Raul was going to be a player who fights at all costs, puts the team on his back, will lead the team deep into even the most hostile of wars, and create constant danger. He conjured an assist shortly after his last miss, sneaking behind Zaragoza’s defense on a throw-in, and without even taking a touch, he let the ball run past him to hit a cross first time which Zamorano scored from.

All in all, it was a night of bad finishing, great touches, great off-ball movement, one assist, and constant havoc. That was his debut. He was 17 -- at the time the youngest player to ever wear a Real Madrid shirt for the A-squad. This fucking kid, skinny framed, playing his first game, was a huge cog in the team’s offensive flow. You would’ve thought he’d been there for years. It turns out that night was just the beginning for a teenager who’d morph into more than a player — he’d cocoon into an icon and symbol both on and off the pitch.

The bad finishing — it didn’t linger long. One game later, in his second game (a very heated Madrid derby which Butrageño was left out of the squad, no less), Raul drew a penalty, had an identical (to his first one a week prior) assist to Zamorano from a cross, then scored his first goal, with, umm, this bad-ass finish:

Jesus Gil went on to confess that Raul was his ‘bete noire’. Raul went on to score 15 goals against Atletico Madrid (some of them were seriously ridiculous) — only Cristiano Ronaldo and Alfredo Di Stefano scored more. He also scored 15 goals against Barcelona (some of them were seriously ridiculous) — only Cristiano Ronaldo, Alfredo Di Stefano, and Lionel Messi scored more. Anyone worried about Raul’s scoring ability after his debut didn’t hold on to their anxiety for long. He could finish, without question — high stakes or not — in addition to playing his best football as a second striker or a forward who could link play. Put a nine next to him and watch him thrive. His best football came alongside Fernando Morientes and OG Ronaldo from 1999 - 2003; when the scoring burden was distributed to other players who made a living being lethal in front of goal.

That was the great thing about Raul — he was so much more than a striker. I actually don’t believe that’s what he was, anyway. He was a ligature who aligned the team. He was a creator. He was mobile. When needed, he was a goalscorer. When needed, he was a left winger. There were even large chunks of matches where he’d be the fourth deepest player on the pitch when Zidane, Figo, and OG Ronaldo were all on the pitch alongside him. Team needs a goal? Ask Raul. Team needs help pressing? Ask Raul. Team needs someone to drop in the midfield to plug vertical holes? Ask Raul. That’s why he was special. He was not something — he was everything. Hierro put it best: “he was not a 10 out of 10 in anything but he was an eight-and-a-half in everything”

Beg to differ, El Mariscal. He was a 10 in Kiyan’s intangible scale of GOAT — the trait that can’t be measured in statistics. He was a 10 in giving you everything his soul had to give on the pitch. You always had that guarantee from him. Whether he was in form or not — even during his decline he gave you everything you expected a human to give you.

Hierro meant it as a compliment anyway, and he wasn’t wrong. Raul did a lot. Earlier this year, when Karim Benzema had hit a low with the fans, they were highly critical of a video Om Arvind made about Benzema’s movement and IQ without the ball, particularly in terms of his pressing. Someone messaged the Facebook page with rage: “You’ll never see Raul defending” he proclaimed.

Wrong. Raul did a lot of that and then some. He never stopped. It’s as if he made a promise to the devil that so long as he played football for Real Madrid, he would always make use of every second on the pitch. Warning, incoming cheese: He was everything Real Madrid needed him to be.

There’s an example of this in one of my favourite goals Steve McManaman has ever scored. It was in the Camp Nou, in the Champions League semi-finals in 2002. In stoppage time, Raul picked the ball off of Barcelona trying to play their way out of the back. It was his diligence which lead to Real Madrid scoring their second goal that game. (He also had a tremendous cross-field assist to Zidane earlier.)

Again, Raul was not a striker. In one of his most prolific scoring years, 1999 - 2000, he was deployed as a left winger for a bunch of games, with two (!!) strikers in front of him in Fernando Morientes and Nicolas Anelka. During the final stretch of the season, against Bayern over two legs in the Champions League semi-finals, and in Paris against Valencia in the final, all three of them played together; and Raul played alongside Redondo and McManaman in midfield while Del Bosque went with his favoured five-man defense. That’s not something people remember about Raul when they think back about his legacy. They remember goals, primarily, but he was a midfield creator too.

Raul overlapped with a ton of great players at Real Madrid. From 94’ onwards: Bam Bam, Laudrup, Hierro, Buitre, Chendo, Sanchis, Illgner, Seedorf, Redondo, Roberto Carlos, Casillas, Morientes, Salgado, Figo, Zizou, Guti, Makelele, Macca, Cambiasso, Beckham, OG Ronaldo, Owen, Walter Samuel, Robinho, Cassano, Canna, Marcelo, Ruud, Heinze, Pepe, Ramos, Sneijder, Robben, Pipita, Van Der Vaart, Julien Faubert, Kaka, Cristiano, Benz, Xabi — and a ton of other really good players.

From that (or any) list, Raul had two players in particular who he formed relationships with that stood out the most: Morientes and Figo.

Every great player is surrounded by players that help define their legacy. For Raul, it was those two. In many ways, you have to feel for El Moro, who spent so much time in Raul’s shadow that he became expendable. He may have bagged more goals for Real or turned into a bigger figure than he was if not for Raul. But it’s a moot point. Those two thrived off of each other, linked up well, and were both good finishers. And by the time Figo arrived, played with Raul, and left unceremoniously to Inter, he formed one of the most deadly two-man combos in European football with Raul. Figo fed, and Raul gobbled everything that Luis served up to him. The Portuquese winger appreciated everything Raul did so much to make him look good (and vice versa), that he went on to say: “I think he is the greatest player to have ever played the game. He walks on the turf and astounds. It is utterly amazing.”

Wait, what?!

This is a crazy statement. Figo played with a bunch of players Raul played with in the aforementioned list, plus: OG Ronaldo (listed again because Figo got prime OG Ronaldo at Barca), Rivaldo, Pep, Hagi, Stoichkov, Lucho, Blanc, Puyol, Xavi, and Rui Costa. AND this is Luis Figo saying this — the guy that OG Ronaldo once proclaimed as the best player he’s ever played with because “I should know, Figo made (me) look so good at Barca”.

Statements like the above, made by Figo, seem wild — but it gives you a glimpse of how special Raul was. And it wasn’t just Figo to say these things either. Sir Alex Ferguson said famously (right after Raul tore United into oblivion with a brace in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals) that “Real buy these big players like Figo, Zidane and Ronaldo but I think the best player in the world is Raúl”. Jorge Valdano proclaimed “He is the Di Stéfano of our time”; and Pep Guardiola said Raul is “the most important player in Spanish football history”.

Figo’s arrival at the Bernabeu was huge for Raul. With Morientes he could link with in attack — playing off each other and moving without the ball constantly. With Figo around, he had an added dimension on the pitch to thrive in — a menacing wing presence who could beat multiple players at will and cross it to Raul, who was an expert at finishing crosses, small as he was.

Real Madrid just wouldn’t be the same without Raul. Sure, great players can always be signed, and sure, great players will always come along. If not Raul, someone eventually would’ve come along like him. The truth is, these players are so rare that when they come, you cling on to them for dear life. Any manager in Europe would’ve taken Raul in their team — elite club or otherwise. Two teams at the peaks of their powers during Raul’s prime, Manchester United and Bayern Munich, led by Sir Alex and Ottmar Hitzfeld, were swooning over him in the media, flirting with him and openly saying they’d sign him right then and there if they could. Think about it — Raul would’ve stepped right into any team in Europe and would’ve become the alpha male. That’s how damn good he was.

Seriously, who is it that ‘comes along’ if Raul wasn’t around anyway? Before he arrived, we’d been waiting for a player like him for decades; and we waited for his replacement for a long time afterwards until Cristiano came around (yes, they overlapped, but Raul was a few years removed from his peak at that point). But to give you a glimpse of how rare these players are, you just have to look at the three most important figures in Real Madrid’s history: Alfredo Di Stefano, Raul, and Cristiano. That’s three players over the course of 70+ years. DIVIDE 70 BY THREE. World class players, great players, legends -- they come and go. The ones etched into another exosphere are the ones that not only leave a mark, but change history, give birth to titles, and have an entirely rare level of ‘I got you’ naturally floating through their veins since birth.

We often talk about these players and the intangibles they bring. We know what ADS, Raul, and CR7 did on the pitch — it’s obvious. But there is something less measurable about the true super heroes that will define the club. Take Cristiano for example — a player who has shattered everything we thought was possible (and in a way, totally made Raul’s numbers look like chump change, which was pretty inconceivable to think would happen ten years ago). In Paris, he wasn’t particularly other-worldly. It didn’t matter — he has that aura about him that you know he’ll carry you, even if it’s just for one vital moment that will ensure you get out of a hostile atmosphere alive. That’s the stuff that makes Cristiano irreplaceable.

Raul had that certain ‘man I got us’ poise about him. On his debut, he couldn’t finish a single one of his clear-cut chances. But he didn’t let that phase him, and he went on to prove that finishing chances was one of his defining traits as a footballer, and he started by proving it the very next game in a Madrid derby. The iconic hush at Camp Nou — that was just one example of many, many times Raul looked unnerved in nervy situations. His teammates and opponents have stated this about Raul multiple times — he’s the type of player that always looks comfortable no matter what kind of adversity surrounds him. When Guardiola was captain of Barca, he said “There are extremely few players who manage to impose themselves when conditions are against them.... Raul is one of these exceptions. And in the area he’s merciless; no one finishes like him”. Jorge Valdano once said “He’s got the self-control of someone who has lived three lives,”; and Santi Canizares, the man who Raul scored against in the Champions League final in Paris, said “He wasn’t intimidated by anybody... In no time he was trying to take people on and nutmeg them. He was shameless.”

Guardiola mentioned Raul’s ability to impose his will in improbable circumstances. He also spoke about the striker’s intelligence — another trait which Raul was known about, to be sure: “If I were a spectator, Raul would be my perfect player because nothing is more irritating than footballers who dribble when they should pass, who pass when they should dribble, who let it run when they should take a touch... Fortunately Raul shows us how things should be done properly.”

In many ways, Raul’s simplicity made him special. He’d play the simple pass, with the least amount of touches possible to execute what he intended to do. If an outlet was there, he didn’t overthink it — he’d zip it there as quickly as he could, then sprint into another position to help his team. He always moved. He thought quick. He thought ahead. For this reason, he wasn’t one to lose possession often, and even when opponents breathed down his neck, he’d conjure up something to unchain himself.

Yet, his simplicity shouldn’t be mistaken for predictability. The closer he got to the penalty box, the less predictable he became. Defenders hated it. Goalkeepers had to guess. If he saw a path to goal, it could be one of a million things he was about to execute. He was either going to carve through one-to-four defenders, chip the goalkeeper from an outrageous position, or hit it first time into a corner of the net. “In the area he improvises like no one else,” Canizares said. “There are forwards who only play one note. They are the easiest to decipher for goalkeepers. Raul is indecipherable. He’s got so many alternatives at his disposal that he’s a nightmare for goalkeepers.”

The chip, man. That was another trait Hierro failed to mention Raul was a bonafide 10 / 10 in. He mastered the dink better than anyone I’ve ever seen. He loved attempting it, and if there was a small chance, he’d roll the dice on embarrassing the goalkeeper with a clip over him rather than a regular strike into the net.

This never gets old:

15 years after Raul started his Real Madrid career, Florentino Perez went on another spending spree. Raul had seen huge amounts of money thrown around before, yet, never all at once, and nothing quite like this. During Flo 1.0, Raul was surrounded by Figo, Zidane, OG Ronaldo, and Beckham over the course of five seasons. During Flo’s second tenure in 2009, Raul saw an influx of four stars all in one summer — none more important than Cristiano Ronaldo.

We didn’t know it then, but Ronaldo was going to shatter every single record Raul had, and then some. Like, he wasn’t going to just marginally break Raul’s records, he was going to meet them in record time, then go on to completely eclipse them. That’s, wild. We can sit here and tell ourselves, ‘yeah, but Raul wasn’t really a striker, etc’, but, guess what — neither is Cristiano.

And here’s where this all gets really weird. As great as Raul was, Cristiano showed us something we’ve never seen before, levelled up what greatness really is, put himself at Raul’s all-time table, then built a throne over it and now sits there on his own. What he’s done / doing bends minds. We don’t even know how to measure Ronaldo’s greatness anymore because it’s so normal to see him pull miracles out of his ass over and over again that we’ve almost become desensitized to it.

When Raul won the Pichichi title in 1999 and 2001 with 25 and 24 goals respectively, we thought ‘wow, he’s great’. And he was! I mean, in 1991 Butragueno won it with just 19! But those numbers look super cute now compared to Ronaldo’s Pichichi numbers, especially the one he won in 2015, with 48 goals. Only Messi can put up those kinds of numbers, like, ever. And the crazy thing is that the 2015 season wasn’t really an anomaly. These are the kind of numbers Cristiano has been churning out year-by-year. In 2000, Raul led the Champions League in scoring with 10 goals. Still impressive. Here are Ronaldo’s numbers in the past five seasons in Europe, chronologically: 13, 17, 10, 16 and 14 (and we’re still not done the season yet). It’s nuts. I don’t like pinning legends vs each other. None of this was to throw shade on Raul, who Cristiano has a tremendous amount of respect for. The point was that what Messi and Ronaldo are doing right now have completely skewed (or opened our eyes to, rather) what our perception of greatness is, and has provided a bit of revisionist history of how good or bad some previous legends were.

(Interesting note here. When you go back and look at La Liga’s top scorers historical, no one was scoring goals like Cristiano and Messi currently are. There is, however, one anomaly that comes interestingly close in 1989-1990: Hugo Sanchez with 38. He was a complete alien.)

Raul’s numbers pale compared to what Ronaldo and Messi tell us are the norm now, but in a way, those numbers shouldn’t dampen his greatness. We accept now that sports science and nutrition will make better athletes, and the trajectory of what the human body can do will continually head north — but that doesn’t mean legends in their own era are less special for accomplishing what they did. Raul was a freak who could influence the game in a variety of ways. His issue was not that he wasn’t one of the best players in the world at the peak of his powers — he should’ve won the Balon D’or in 2001 when Michael Owen wrongly got it over him, and he was continually one of the best around, and in one season, the best forward on earth. Raul’s issue was that his peak was relatively short. He lacked longevity, and unfortunately, a haircut.

“Raúl is one of the best of Europe. He is Real Madrid’s spirit. He is like Matthäus for us: indispensable, and with a bad haircut”.

- Franz Beckenbaeur

The weird thing about this quote is that came In 2000 — three-and-a-half years before Raul started growing his hair. I’d argue this was Raul’s best haircut ever:

Leeds v Real Madrid

It’s simple. It’s Raul.

Beckenbauer predicted Raul’s decline four years prematurely. People are skeptical when I continually bring up the direct correlation between decline and hairstyle on the Managing Madrid Podcast, yet here we are:


1998 - 99: 29 goals

1999 - 00: 29 goals

2000 - 01: 32 goals

2001 - 02: 29 goals

2002 - 03: 25 goals

Season where transitory hair-growth begins

2003 - 04: 20 goals


2004 - 05: 13 goals

2005 - 06: 7 goals

2006 - 07: 12 goals

In 2003, a year where Raul gave me (us) some of my (our) favourite memories of him, you would’ve been smacked if you thought he was ‘finished’ at that point. He was only 25 at the time, and had so much left to give. And there wasn’t some sort of tangible thing we could see on the pitch that could explain his decline either. He hadn’t slowed down or become less talented. He just... Wasn’t himself.

Maybe the surrounding cast played a part. 2004 was the year we really saw how old Zidane, Figo, and Roberto Carlos were really getting. The whole team underperformed (for years, in fact, with a heavy burden on OG Ronaldo and Iker Casillas who carried the attack and defense), had zero midfield stability or reliable defensive presences, and with hungry opponents all around them. It was the fall of an empire — a team with declining legends and out of form players, and without a good manager nor an identity on the pitch.

Equally surprising as his steep and sudden decline, Raul had a mini two-year resurgence towards the end of his Real Madrid career from 2007-2009; where he scored 23 and 24 goals respectively. The eye-test was much better with him too — he was beating players on the dribble, had a good goalscoring ratio in the Champions League, and his body language had improved. It was welcome, yet, bewildering. The Raul enigma is one I’ll never fully understand. It was a strange rollercoaster to follow his career. I say this with pain in my heart: I sometimes wish Raul had hung up his boots in 2004. When you see your idol fall like that, it’s a strange feeling. His goalscoring ratio was stretched and dissipated to its limits in those three years of sharp, sharp recession where we didn’t know what was wrong with him.

There’s a lot to say about this great man. Raul’s three mediocre years aren’t enough to stain his incredible, incredible legacy. During his unbelievable 16-year tenure at the club, he struck fear in opponents and won their respect both on and off the pitch. Along the way, he gave us countless memories and made himself immortal. There is never not an excuse to celebrate him and revisit his career.

Part two of this article, Raul’s most memorable moments, will arrive later in the season.

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