Raúl – Local boy. Global glory.

In the Madrid suburb of San Cristóbal de los Ángeles, a proud father had watched his young son score any number of goals in the very same way, controlling a pass, feinting to deceive defenders, once, twice, and then coolly slotting the ball past a despairing goalkeeper. They were goals of skill, ability, and an inbuilt calmness with ice-cold conviction They also led to the parents of his team-mates to christen the player ‘Aguanis.’ To his doting father however, he was Raúl González Blanco.

On the first day of December 1998, Spain’s Real Madrid faced Vasco da Gama of Brazil for the Intercontinental Cup in Tokyo. With 83 minutes played, the scores were tied at 1-1, and extra-time beckoned. The extension wouldn’t be needed however, as a 21-year-old forward wearing the number seven shirt of Los Blancos rolled back the years for his father sitting up in the stands.

A long pass from Seedorf over the head of the Brazilians’ back line saw the Spanish forward galloping clear. He picks up the story himself from there. “I received a very beautiful pass from Seedorf on the foot and the ball went to my left. I saw Vitor coming very quickly and I immediately thought about dribbling him. I adjusted the trim very close to my feet. When I got out of the dribble, I thought about shooting on goal. In an instant I changed my mind. I faked the shot and Odvan launched to cut it out, staying out of my shooting line. I found the goalkeeper out of position and the goal open for me. It was just a matter of choosing the hole to put the ball in.” He goes on. “My father, who was in Japan, later approached a journalist declaring that I had ‘scored the goal of Aguanís.’” The scribe may not have fully understood the reference, but the goal that came to be forever christened as El Gol del Aguanis, built on the legend of player celebrated by all Real Madrid fans, and simply known as Raúl.

There’s often a quirk in the story of legendary players. The career of Raúl is no different and, but for an short-sighted cost-cutting measure, a player destined to be the darling of the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu may have been tearing up LaLiga for Atlético Madrid instead. In 1990, Raúl left San Cristóbal and joined the Los Rojiblancos’ Infantil squad. The following season, his promise was already showing as he regularly featured, and scored, for the club’s Cadete squad who became national champions. His career seemed to be on a sharply upward trajectory at the Vicente Calderón, but would come to a juddering and unexpected halt as the then owner, the infamously volatile Jesús Gil, decided to close down the club’s academy in 1994 in order to save money. The cost incurred in doing so was, however, far greater than any financial gain from such perceived prudence.

The young Raúl was briefly left without a club, before convincing cross-city rivals Real Madrid to take him on board as part of their youth system at La Cantera. Progress through the ranks was both swift and impressive. As he moved through the Juvenil C, Juvenil B and Juvenil A teams. Then, at the tender age of 17 years and four months, with 16 goals in just nine appearances at junior level came the opportunity to step onto the big stage. Coach Jorge Valdano was struggling with an injury crisis among his strikers, and promoted the young forward into the first team’s starting eleven, replacing Emilio Butragueño. It was a move that would be seen to have carried great significance by the end of the season. Few knew it on that October afternoon in Aragon, but a hero’s mantle was being passed on. It was even lost on Raúl himself. “Butragueño was one of the players who helped me the most. It was his last year at the club, I was able to live his farewell, he had been a symbol not only for Real Madrid but for Spanish football,” he later reflected.

On 29 October 1994, wearing the number seven shirt that would soon become his exclusive property for almost 15 seasons, Raúl made his Real Madrid debut in an away fixture at La Romareda in Zaragoza. Understandably for someone of such tender years, it was an unforgettable experience, as he recalled when speaking with the official Real Madrid website 25 years later. “It was the moment that I remember with the most affection. It was a unique moment, the one I remember most fondly because without that day afterwards I could not have had that career that I dreamed of and that lasted many years. All those dreams I had of being a footballer came true that day.”

For all the joy expressed about the occasion, the game did not go well for Los Blancos, a 3-2 defeat inevitably casting something of a dark shadow over the memory. Although he failed to score, he did have a goal ruled out for handball and, later, would dance through the home defence, and into the penalty area and rounding the goalkeeper, before a late challenge denied him a debut goal. The performance was enough for Valdano to keep him in the side though, and that first goal wouldn’t be long in coming. The following week, was ‘derby’ time Madrid, as the club that had released the young Raúl earlier that same year, came to visit the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. The forward would take an early revenge for Atlético’s careless folly. It was the first of many such occasions to follow.

Twenty minutes into the game, a drive into the box brought the home team a penalty as Raúl stumbled over the dive of Diego, the visiting goalkeeper. Michel hammered high into the net. Five minutes later, a quick clearance by Buyo saw Raúl dash down the left flank before hooking in a sumptuous cross that demanded Zamorano to head home. He did and Los Blancos were two goals clear, both created by their tyro forward. He would write his own name on the next strike though. Kosecki had scored shortly after the Chilean’s header, but still ten minutes ahead of the break, a burgeoning legend was officially introduced to the cheering Madrileños bedecked in white.

An inside pass saw the teenager in the number seven shirt cut in from the right flank, meeting up with the ball on the edge of the area. A left-footed curling shot into the top corner brooked no argument from the goalkeeper, and the celebratory run towards the home bench exuded elation and youthful exuberance. “Hola futbol ¡Me llamo Raúl!” it decalred. Two other goals followed, as Los Blancos secured bragging rights in the Spanish capital, thanks to the home debut of their 17-year-old local talent. It was only the start, but a dream one at that, as he remembered. “Luckily there are many goals, but I always remember the first one, just as I remember the shirt of October 29, the debut in Zaragoza. My hope was to be able to play at the Bernabéu and get that first goal, which was against Atlético Madrid in a derby. It was something wonderful and incredible.”

By the end of the season, Raúl had scored nine goals in 28 league appearances. It earned him Don Balón magazines’ award for being the breakthrough Spanish player of the season. More importantly however, he was part of the team that took the LaLiga title back to the Bernabéu as Real Madrid broke the stranglehold of Johann Cruyff’s Barcelona ‘Dream Team’ who had won the previous four titles. The end of the season also saw the departure of Emilio Butragueño, who moved to Mexican club, Atlético Celaya. For much of the coming season, the teenage Raúl would be the key element in the Los Blancos front line, netting 26 goals in a little over 50 games across all competitions. As the leading Spanish goalscorer in the league, his 19 strikes won him the Zarra trophy. Even Zamorano was put into the relative shade scoring just 16 times. He would leave at the end of the 1995-96 season. The old Kings were leaving. The young Prince had arrived!

The 1996 European Championships came a little early for Raúl. Instead, Javier Clemente used a combination of Pizzi, Kiko and Alfonso to lead the line for La Roja in England, but the trio only netted a single goal between in the four games that Spain played before losing out on penalties to the hosts at the quarter-final stage. Raúl had featured prominently at junior international level, scoring consistently for the U18, U19, U21 and U23 teams. He played in the 1995 Fifa U20 World Cup, scoring three times in five games, and followed that up the following year by playing in the European U21 Championships, scoring in the final against Italy, although Spain would eventually lose out on penalties.

Promotion to the full squad eventually came a few months after La Roja’s abortive quest for the 1996 European title. On 9 October, he made his international debut in a World Cup qualifying game away to the Czech Republic. The game ended goalless, but between then, and his final international game on 6 September 2006, he would represent his country 102 times, scoring a then record 44 goals – six of which came in finals of major tournaments. Had Clemente gambled on the teenager, as Valdano had, who knows what the outcome may have been in England.

The 1996-97 season was strange for Real Madrid. Finishing the previous season in their lowest position for almost two decades, meant that the club were not involved in any European competition. It did, however, mean that the entire Los Blancos focus was on domestic matters. The summer had brought reinforcements to the front line in the shape of Predrag Mijatović and Davor Šuker. The pair’s 14 and 24 strikes respectively, together with Raúl’s 21 goals in 42 LaLiga appearances drove Los Blancos to another league title, this time pipping Barcelona by two points. It also brought the young forward another award from Don Balón as the outstanding Spanish player in the league. After strangely missing out the following season when European glory returned to the Spanish capital, Don Balón would confer that same award on Raúl for each successive season until the magazine closed down in 2002.

Domestically, the 1997-98 season was poor for both Real Madrid and Raúl. Defeat to Alavés in the last eight of the Copa del Rey was followed by a disappointing fourth place finish in the league, exacerbated by home and away El Clásico defeats to Barcelona, as the title again found its way to Catalunya. Defeating Barça, for the Supercopa de España in the opening days of the season, with Raúl netting a brace in a 4-1 home win to overturn a 2-1 loss at the Camp Nou was of little compensation. On the personal front, a return of 10 league goals would be Raúl’s lowest until the 2004-05 season. A significant event though was the summer arrival of Zaragoza’s Fernando Morientes, signed for some €6.5million. Over the coming years, Morientes would go on to form a devastating strike force with Raúl, who would describe him as his preferred partner. If the season saw the club struggle domestically, in Europe, it was an entirely different story.

The previous season’s title success had seen Real Madrid qualify for the group stages of the Champions League, and they progressed to the knockout stages after topping a section with Norwegian champions Rosenborg, Olympiacos and Porto. Subsequent aggregate victories over German clubs Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Dortmund took them to a final against Juventus in Amsterdam on 20 May 1998. After decades of disappointment and failure, it was a chance for the club to re-establish their once proud status as the continent’s top club.

Raúl so nearly opened the scoring, running onto a low left-wing cross from Mijatović, but driving just wide of Peruzzi’s near post with the goalkeeper beaten. As is so often the case in such high pressure games, it was hardly a classic encounter, but when Mijatović collected a mishit shot inside the six yard area midway through the second period, and eluded the despairing dive of Peruzzi to put the Spanish club ahead, there were no complaints from the fans dressed in white. It was the only goal of the game and, after more than 32 years of waiting, Real Madrid added a seventh European title to their record.

With their appetite clearly whetted anew, they repeated the feat, capturing the title again in the 1999-2000 season. In the group stages it may have been a beneficial portent when they were united again with Olympiacos and Porto, but this time, the Norwegian club closing out the quartet was Molde, rather than Rosenborg. If the difference in opponents was minimal, so was the outcome, with Raúl again amongst the scorers as Los Blancos topped the group to advance to the knockout stages, where they met Manchester United. A goalless draw in Madrid meant an awkward return at old Trafford but, at such times, outstanding players define why they are so special.

An own goal in the first half by Roy Keane had given the Spaniards the advantage, but two goals in two minutes just after the restart from Raúl closed out the tie. Firstly, Steve McManaman, intensifying the Stretford End’s dislike for a former Liverpool player, intercepted play and fed a ball into the path of Raúl, cutting in from the right. He drew, then beat Silvestre, cut inside and curled an elegant finish around Van Der Gouw for his eighth strike of the season’s Champions League campaign. Number nine followed swiftly. Redondo skilfully hit the byline before pulling the ball into a space that only Raúl has seen. An easy tap in was the coup de grace. It was the strike of a natural predator. United would pull two goals back, but never really threatened to overturn the aggregate deficit.

A 3-2 aggregate triumph over Bayern Munich took the club to an all-Spanish final against Valencia in Paris. The game was hardly a contest though. With Madrid dominating, Morientes opened the scoring in the first period, heading in at the far post and McManaman doubled the lead after the interval with a volley. Again, the killer blow was delivered by Raúl. As Valencia threw players forward in increasingly desperate numbers, a Los Blancos breakout was always possible. It came with 15 minutes to play. A clearance found Raúl inside the centre circle with no defender in front of him. Sprinting for 60 yards or so, he coolly rounded Cañizares with a neat drag and then, echoes of El gol del Aguanis, paused slightly allowing Miroslav Đukić to run past him, before playing the ball behind the overcommitted Serb and into the net.

The strike was his tenth of the tournament and made him its joint top scorer. The previous season, he had won the Pichichi trophy for being LaLiga’s top marksman with 25 strikes to his name, and in 2000-01, he would again be awarded the trophy for scoring 24 times as another Supercopa de España and LaLiga title went to Real Madrid. There was little doubt that, by now, Raúl was regarded as one of the world’s top players. An assessment vindicated by being voted as runner-up for the 2001 Ballon d’Or in December of that year.

A pattern was now developing with Los Blancos winning LaLiga and Champions League titles in alternate years. It meant that, with the domestic league title won in 2000-01, another continental success was due the following term. By now, the first phase of the famed Galacticos transfer policy of Florentino Pérez was under way. Figo had been secured from Barcelona in a deal full of rancour, with some €60million going to the Camp Nou. Others would follow, including Zidane, Ronaldo, Beckham, Owen, and Robinho across the next few years. The one constant however was Raúl. From Figo’s arrival in 2000, until Raúl left in in 2010, he averaged over 30 league games a season, and was given the captain’s armband in 2003. The luminance of the arrivals never cast him into the shade.

The 2001-02 Champions League campaign put Los Blancos into a group with Roma, Lokomotiv Moscow and Belgian champions Anderlecht. They would ease through the group, losing only one game, the final rubber away to the Russians when progress had already been assured. By now, coach Vicente del Bosque was often deploying Raúl as the lead striker, rather than plundering forward from a wide midfield role. He fitted each role in exemplary fashion. With more attention on him from defenders, it made goals more difficult to come by, but he still notched in this stage, scoring the opening goal away to Anderlecht in a 0-2 victory.

In this year’s tournament, there was a second group stage, and Los Blancos found themselves facing what seemed to be a far less difficult task than required to qualify from the initial group. Pitched in with Panathinaikos, Porto and Sparta Prague, they won five of their six games, drawing the other, with Raúl again amongst the goals as Real Madrid accumulated 14 strikes across the six games. They faced another old adversary in the quarter-finals, again coming through a tightly contested tie against Bayern Munich to take a place in the last four, where fate would pit them against arch rivals Barcelona. An important 0-2 victory away set things up, and when Raúl opened the scoring back in Madrid, the contest was over. An own goal by Helguera offered the scantiest of fig leaves to hide Catalan embarrassment.

The final was against Bayer Leverkusen at Glasgow’s Hampden Park and, while for many, Zidane’s scintillating volley was the abiding memory of the 2-1 victory, the opening goal fell to no other than Raúl, clipping home delicately past Hans-Jörg Butt as he drifted precisely onto a through ball. It was an exquisite finish. If Zidane’s goal was athletic, Raúl’s was aesthetic.

With the influx of so many star players, other clubs began to cast flirtatious eyes at a player who may have felt his status was being diminished by the brash, bright and brilliant newcomers. In the 2002-03 season, despite an enforced absence due to appendicitis, he still managed to rack up 16 league goals in just 31 appearances and 25 in 47 across all competitions. Despite reported interest from some of the continent’s biggest clubs, Raúl’s repeated avowal of love for Real Madrid instantly rebuffed any such approaches. Inevitably however, despite continued presence in the team, goals became a more of a rare commodity as time went on. At the end of the 2004-05 season, for the first time since his opening term with the club, his league total would fall into single figures, and remaining stuck below ten for the next three seasons as well, before a renaissance of sorts in 2007-08n and 2008-9 as he struck 18 in each campaign. There would also be a couple more LaLiga titles to enjoy in 2006-07 and 2007-08, but the end was near.

The following season saw a landmark when a hat-trick on 11 November, against Real Union brought Raúl’s goal tally for the club up to the 300 mark. In the summer of 2009, a second wave of Galacticos arrived headed by Kaká, Benzama and Cristiano Ronaldo, it failed to ignite the club however and, although others would bring more success as more signings followed over the years, Real Madrid ended the 2009-10 season without a trophy. Coach Manuel Pellegrini was sacked and replaced by José Mourinho. In typical Mourinho fashion he moved to unload some of the more established players and Raúl was in the firing line. It was the end of any outstanding era.

There’s a fittingly elegant bookending to Raúl’s time as a Real Madrid player. His first game for the club had come as a precocious teenager against Real Zaragoza, and the same stadium would host his final one as well. On 24 April 2010, he was sent on as a substitute for an injured Rafael van der Vaart, 15 minutes into the game. Five minutes after half-time however, Raúl himself had signalled to the bench that he couldn’t continue and would need to be replaced. Before the change could be made however, with his undimmed natural predator’s instincts still blaring, he found himself hobbling into the ideal position to capitalise on a parried save from a Cristiano Ronaldo shot, to score the game’s opening goal. He was substituted afterwards and the injury would keep him out for the remainder of the season. It’s fitting that his last touch in a Real Madrid short was to score a goal. The only unfortunate factor being that the goal was scored in the club’s change kit of all black, rather than the white shirt he had worn with such distinction. Perhaps however, for the passing of a legend’s time with the club, black was more fitting.

On 25 July 201, the club announced that Raúl would be leaving the club. He later signed for Bundesliga club Schalke 04. In 741 games across a 15-year career with Real Madrid, he had scored 323 goals, including 228 in 550 top flight league appearances. As well as accumulating goals, it was a similar story with silverware. Six LaLiga titles were won, three Champions League trophies, a Uefa Super Cup and two Intercontinental trophies. Following the victory over Vasco da Gama in 1998, a second was added in 2002 when a Los Blancos team with a forward line boasting Figo, Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo – plus of course Raúl, overcame Paraguay’s Olimpia.

Despte all of the world stars that found their way to Bernabéu, for so many Madrileños, the player who epitomised the club was none other than the kid from across the city. As Perez gathered stars from around the globe, the man on the field closest to the hearts of the fans was the local who had only travelled from San Cristóbal de los Ángeles to join the club, a journey of less than 20 minutes by car – albeit via a brief stop at the Estadio Vicente Calderón. The official Real Madrid website hails Raúl as the “Real Madrid symbol. The eternal captain who represented the values ​​of Real Madrid on the field.” It’s a fitting accolade for the local boy who led Real Madrid to global glory.

(This article was originally produced for These Football Times’ ‘Real Madrid’ magazine).

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