From derision to adulation: How Raul became a legend at Schalke 04
When Schalke 04 last won a European trophy – the Uefa Cup in 1997 – Raúl González Blanco was winning his second of six La Liga titles with Real Madrid. A year later, he would take them to Champions League glory. The idea that the quintessential Madridista would one day become a Schalke legend would, at that time, have seemed laughable.
Over a decade later, however, and the man who still holds the record for the most goals in European competitions has left his name alongside those of Szepan, Kuzorra and Fischer – firmly imprinted on the heart of every football loving Gelsenkirchener.
The prospect of Raúl renewing his contract at the Veltins Arena in the summer has been the hot topic at Schalke for practically the whole season. Last week, however, the saga reached its emotional conclusion, with the Spaniard confirming he would leave Germany in the summer, citing a desire to spend more time with his family and play at a less competitive level of football.
While the disapppointment was tangible among those at Schalke, there was no one capable of begruding Raúl his decision. The cynicism which greeted his arrival at Schalke two years ago seemed but a distant memory as one of the greatest players of his era let the tears flow in front of an appreciative Gelsenkirchen media, his emotions ostensibly almost as overwhelming as they were when he left Real Madrid.
The emotional and respectful reaction of all parties to Raúl’s decision was, if a little unprecedented, a fitting tribute to his legacy at Schalke. His arrival at the club, then under the leadership of Felix Magath and not in the most enviable of financial positions, was greeted, both in Spain and Germany, with at best scepticism and at worst derision.
Any suspicion that the former Madrid captain was treating Schalke as a lucrative retirement home for his career, however, was quickly dispelled. The Spaniard’s propensity to flourish in Uefa competitions saw him lead Schalke to an unprecedented Champions League semi-final in his first season, knocking out reigning Champions Internazionale along the way.
Most memorable for Schalke fans last season, however, was Raúl’s role in leading them to victory in the DFB Pokal. His winner at the Allianz Arena in the semi-final against Bayern, along with his subsequent celebrations, saw him firmly accepted as a fan’s favourite.
The current season, moreover, has been no different. While the rest of the side were wobbling uncontrollably against an audacious but beatable Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League, it was Raúl’s brilliance which, albeit too briefly, steadied the ship. He has been equally instrumental in the league campaign, which has seen Schalke all but secure third place and automatic qualification for Raúl’s favourite tournament.
He may still be limited to a handful of phrases in German, but the impression that Raúl has made at Schalke has far transcended the expectations of two years ago. His humility in arriving at a club which, despite its fame, is a considerable notch or two below Real Madrid, and playing as if his blood ran Royal Blue has been remarkable. His role as a mentor for the array of young talent in the Schalke ranks such as Julian Draxler and Lewis Holtby has been equally impressive.
While Raúl will always be associated with his beloved Real Madrid, Schalke 04, by his own admission will always have a place in his heart. His decision to leave is as strong a profession of respect for the club and for German football as he could have made. Knowing that he wanted to wind down, Raúl has saved Schalke the indignity of paying millions of pounds for a bench warmer.
The decision to retire his number seven shirt was, perhaps, a little superfluous, but it is difficult to fault the sentiment. In his short spell in Gelsenkirchen has proved him to be much more than just another Galactico. In the modern game, he is a true anomaly: a man whose phenomenal talent is matched only by his incredible dignity.Tagged in: Bundesliga, football, raul, real madrid, schalke 04
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