How ironic it is that one of the calmest, most sporting and least controversial of the current generation of Spanish footballers has been involved in controversy throughout almost all of his career. But that’s how it is for Raúl González, of Real Madrid – and there’s the source of the first controversy – and, formerly, of Spain – and there’s the most recent one.
You see, when Raúl Gonzalez Blanco was just 13 years old and scoring goals for fun for his local Madrid team, San Cristóbal de los Ángeles, his father took him to sign forms for Atlético Madrid. That’s right – Atlético, not Real. Raúl, as he was already generally known, even captained the Under 15 Atlético team to the national championship and all the fervent Rojiblanco supporters were longing to see the boy wonder break through into the first team.
They reckoned without their infamous president Jesús Gil, former mayor of Marbella and notorious throughout the country. Gil decided that he needed to cut costs at the club and so disbanded the youth policy, releasing all the players. Before anyone had the chance to warn him about losing Raúl, Real Madrid had jumped in and signed him on professional forms and, for Atlético fans, the worst thing possible had happened. Throughout the years, Raúl has haunted his old club, always seeming to score against them. It’s difficult to know which one between Gil and Raúl the fans hate more now!
Raúl made his first team debut for Real when only 17 years and 4 months old, the youngest player to do so, and he quickly became a sensation in La Liga. Always a natural goalscorer, he was also blessed with the vision that marks out the really outstanding players, and he soon became a key player.
Raúl has helped Real to five domestic championships, three Champions’ league victories – scoring in the 2000 and 2002 games. Indeed, Raúl has played more Champions’ league matches than any other player and is competing with team mate Van Nistlerooy to be top goalscorer of all time. In addition, he has helped win La Liga five times, been the league’s Pichichi – top goalscorer – twice, and been runner-up for European Player of the Year in 2001.
Since he was 19, Raúl has worn Real’s number 7 shirt – David Beckham had to change his number when he signed for Madrid so that Raúl could continue to wear the same shirt.
Raul became the perfect ‘centre forward’ at this stage of his career. To see him play was to witness a display of unselfish, intelligent running, constant probing of the opposition’s weaknesses, clinical finishing and a sense of space probably unrivalled in the game at the time. It was this kind of quality mixed with hard work that led to Alex Ferguson, after Real had defeated his team by 3 – 1 in April, 2003, to say that Raúl was the best centre forward in the world. To Real Madrid’s fans, this was a statement of the obvious – but it did bring the attention of the rest of Europe to a player who, outside Spain, had previously been looked upon as ‘just a goal scorer’.
Raúl made his debut for the national side back in October, 1996 against the Czech Republic, and went on to become Spain’s all-time leading scorer, with 44 goals – mind you, the second all-time leading scorer was a centre back, Fernando Hierro, one of Raúl’s greatest friends.
Recently, though, Raúl has been left out of the squad. Season 2005 – 2006 was not a good year for Raúl or Real Madrid and their infamous ‘galactico’ policy. Many people thought Raúl was only being selected for Madrid because of his enormous influence within the club and, equally, many claimed he was not worth his place in the Spanish side, with so many apparently good young strikers all scoring more regularly than him. It was no real surprise, therefore, when Luis Aragonés, the always controversial national coach, left Raúl out.
Since van Nistlerooy’s arrival in Spain, however, Raúl’s personal form has improved so that he is, once more, at the top of his game, scoring and making goals regularly in both domestic and European competition.
What has been very noticeable recently, though, has been that the Real Madrid legend has slightly altered his famous goal celebration. Raúl has always, since his wedding (which was declared a holiday in Madrid, incidentally) kissed his wedding ring in acknowledgement of Mamen, his wife. Now, in addition, he turns his back to the crowd and, with both thumbs, pointedly shows them the name on his shirt – Raúl – there’s no need to call him Raúl González; there is only one Raúl: sportsman, icon and ambassador for Real Madrid on and off the football field.
Oh, and just to finish. There is one slightly unsavoury Raúl story. Did you know that he is so superstitious that he still wears the same pair of under socks, for every Real game he plays, that he wore for his first ever match for them when he was 15 years old. How odd is that?