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Raul Gonzalez’s Legacy Extends Beyond Real Madrid

Kiyan Sobhani’s exclusive interview with Julian Draxler and Felix Magath, on Raul’s time at Schalke — among other things.

FC Schalke 04 v HJK Helsinki - UEFA Europa League Play-Off Photo by Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images

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 thing. All previous editions can be found here.

Just one day before Raul announced he was leaving Real Madrid; Guti proclaimed his departure. The two legends had gone through everything together. Guti was at Real Madrid since 1986, and Raul arrived six years after. They are the same age. They fed each other goals, lifted European titles, lived beneath a cloud of turmoil and constant manager shuffling, suffered major trophy droughts, and eventually left together within the span of 24 hours.

It was the summer of 2010 — the summer of the Jose Mourinho revolution. Mourinho knew he needed to shake the team out of their Champions League funk. He told Raul as soon as he arrived, that, though he’d be happy to keep him around as a locker room presence, the Spaniard’s role would be minimal. “I did reach a point at which I felt that [the Madrid] chapter had closed,” Raul told The Guardian right before Schalke were getting ready to face Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League semi-finals.

“If I wanted to carry on enjoying football, I had to leave.”

When Raul left, little did he know of the relative success that was coming, the eternal friendships that would form, or the goals he would add to his (then) record-holding European tally. What he did know was that he wasn’t ready to cash in overseas. At the age of 33, he was sure he wasn’t done. He had stipulations that had to be met: His next chapter was to to be at a team that was playing in the Champions League, and was among the top-five European leagues.

When Raul announced his departure, he had yet settled on a destination, though he had narrowed it down to two: England or Germany. Sir Alex Ferguson, long admirer of Raul, whom he felt was the best player in the entire world at the turn of the century, had grappled with bringing him to Old Trafford — but decided against it as he already had Michael Owen in the squad.

“We spoke to his agent about a possible move but we already had Javier Hernández by then and, with Wayne Rooney, Dimitar Berbatov and Michael Owen available, we thought we could afford to let the chance pass,” Ferguson said in 2011, almost a year after they had a chance to sign Raul. “If we hadn’t had Michael at the club at the time I might well have signed him.”

Around the same time Sir Alex admitted to nearly signing Raul, the Spaniard found himself in a funny place. Both he and Real Madrid were in the semi-finals. Schalke had never been there before, and Real had gotten there for the first time in eight years. In a wild, unthinkable scenario, Schalke could’ve knocked out Manchester United, where Raul could conceivably have faced Real in the final — and if not them, then Barcelona. It turns out Schalke were annihilated anyway (6 - 1 on aggregate), and Barcelona lifted the European crown. But for Raul and Schalke, the success had already been achieved. Anything else after their semi-final birth would’ve been fidgeting with house money.

What Raul achieved at Schalke was remarkable, given he was viewed as a well post-peak shadow of his legendary self. In his last season at Real Madrid, he scored just seven times in 39 games — the worst goal-to-game ratio of his entire career. He was not even on par with his debut season, where at the age of 17, he scored 16 goals. People doubted he would leave any mark in the Bundesliga, and after a slow start where Raul scored just one goal from September - November, those takes only gained momentum.

Those internally weren’t worried about Raul as much as the media was. When I spoke to his former coach Felix Magath in July, Felix said of Raul’s slow start (and late arrival to the team’s pre-season): “Although Raúl had only been in training for three days and was still lagging behind, he had already shown his great quality”

“He was on the road a lot and talked to his teammates a lot. He never placed himself in the foreground and integrated himself into the team. Such players can only be found very rarely. (He was) An absolute team player.”

Magath, who was over the moon with Raul’s signing in the media, felt he had some tactical challenges fitting the Spanish forward in the line-up alongside players like Klaas Jan Huntelaar, Jefferson Farfan, and Julian Draxler. Magath felt Raul was slow on the counter-attack, but that his other attributes trumped his lack of legerity.

“He is totally serene, often offers himself in the open spaces, is strong in running, and works a lot.” Magath recalls. “World class.”

Raul came to life in November, when everything changed. He scored a hat-trick against Werder Bremen just two weeks after scoring a brace against St. Pauli. In December, he scored another hat-trick — FC Koln the victims of his regenerated powers.

In the spring, he scored in a 1 - 0 victory against Bayern Munich in the Cup semi-final — getting Schalke to the final for the first time in six seasons. The run went hand-in-hand with the team’s historic Champions League escapade.

Along the way, Raul had brought with him from Madrid his most famous weapon: the unstoppable ‘chip shot’ that had bamboozled goalkeepers for 15 years. It’s a shot that never fails to amaze. He would pull it off from the most obscure of angles and with either foot. Teammates started to ask for pointers on how to replicate it.

“The ‘Raul Chip’ was incredible,” Julian Draxler, Raul’s former teammate told me in early September. “He made it look so easy when he was one against one with the goalkeeper.”

Draxler recalls trying to pick Raul’s brain about it, and only getting so far: “I remember one time in training I asked him how he does it.

“His answer: “It’s easy. If the goalkeeper is too close, just chip it — 90% (of the time) it’s a goal!

“(Raul) was smiling, and I was like, ‘If it was that easy, everybody could do it.’”

Draxler did find some tangible things to take away from that moment, which was more humorous than anything. “I scored a few chip goals because I remembered what he said,” Draxler proudly recounts.

Draxler and Raul formed an improbable friendship, one that the two still cherish. Draxler was just 18 when he was promoted to Schalke’s first team — catching the tail-end of Raul’s career just in time. He wasn’t shy about learning from a living legend, and Raul, as benevolent as he’s always been, was happy to be Draxler’s mentor both on and off the pitch.

“I watched his movements and skills in training every day,” Draxler says. “And he recognized that I want to improve. So he gave me advice.”

Draxler would often find himself on the left flank, with Raul hovering ahead of him. “When I played left wing he always told me how I have to move when I play next to him,” Draxler says. “That helped me a lot.”

By the end of the season, it was clear how important Raul was to the team. He was embraced by everyone. The fans chanted his name. They took him in like he’s been with them since the beginning. After that first season with Schalke, Raul didn’t care that there wouldn’t be any Champions League football the following year — he wanted to stick with the project regardless. What Schalke got in return from Raul was beyond footballing ability — it was leadership, experience, character, and all of the positive intangibles that comes with an immortal, graceful figure like him.

At that stage of his career, Raul felt at peace. He is the Prince of Madrid — always will be. But the load that comes with such a responsibility is taxing. The press sizzles your flesh with hot, sharp iron — and years of that will scrape at your soul. By the time Mourinho had arrived and Raul had left, the tension would wax hotter and hotter, until reaching nasty levels. Imagine being at Madrid for as long as Raul was, and then sticking around a few more years just to be a part of that battle — one that span around Mourinho like a ravaging tornado.

“In the third year (of Jose Mourinho), the divisions began, ones you feel from the outside and you can perceive,” Raul said in 2016. “But to know what to think you need to know the root of the problem.

“When I was there a lot of people said things that didn’t correspond to reality,” Raul continued. “But the division Mourinho created was clear. There was division. Although, the work he did on the pitch was very good.”

Revisiting the heavy burden he had in Madrid — and by the end of it, especially during his obvious decline, he was unable to focus on training and football because he was accused of abusing his authority and powerful presence — Raul recalled in 2011: “I reached the point where I needed to escape.”

At Schalke, Raul found the serenity that he needed. He did not have the same pressure and media scrutiny on his shoulders. When Schalke won, it was a party. When they dropped points, it was not a morgue where he was culpable, as was the case in Madrid. In Germany, everyone rallied around him to make sure he was at home.

FC Schalke 04 v VfL Wolfsburg - Bundesliga Photo by Dennis Grombkowski/Bongarts/Getty Images

Even at 33, Raul became a fulcrum of offensive curation. “Schalke had a good offense and Raul was the jewel,” Magath tells me.

There was no slowing down his relentless effort and pressing — a trait of his that was manifest throughout his game since he was a teenager, and all the way through until he hung up his boots. He was notorious for hounding defenders and dispossessing them. Defensively, his IQ was always impressive. “His abilities were extraordinary, both in the penalty area and in front of the goal,” Magath says. “Raul had a large repertoire.”

Magath expressed his gratitude at being able to land Raul at all. He highlights the luck that was involved in getting an interview with him, and attributes some of that luck to Christoph Metzelder, who was Raul’s teammate at Real Madrid from 2007 - 2010. “We knew through Christoph Metzelder that we had a chance. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have tried,” Magath says. “After the first meeting I had a good feeling. Of course Raul had other options as well, so this transfer was such a big deal for Schalke and the Bundesliga.

Both Magath and Draxler both make a point to speak about the bigger picture of life beyond football, and emphasize Raul’s warmth and loving character off the pitch.

“An honest and sincere character and warm family man,” Magath says.

“Off the pitch, it was very nice to see how he treated everyone with respect,” Draxler says. “I remember once when he came to the table of my family in the stadium after one of my first matches. He congratulated my mom for her son. I was very proud that I could say that this guy is my team mate. He became a friend.”

Draxler says the two still stay in touch, and wish each other happy birthdays while catching up every now and then.

As Florentino Perez put it on the day of Raul’s departure from Spain’s capital, “He has always carried Real Madrid’s name with him to every corner of the earth. Millions of fans around the world are Raulistas. This is not goodbye, but see you later. That’s how it was with Alfredo Di Stefano. The Real Madrid crest is his crest and all the Madrid fans are his fans.”

Raul’s inevitable return home came last season, where he coached the Real Madrid U-15 team to a league title.

“He has all the prerequisites and the right attitude to become a good manager,” Magath says as he concludes the interview. “He’s an absolute pro. The experience is still missing, but it comes with the years. I look forward to his development.

“Raul can be a great coach.”

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