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16th Nov 2015

Farewell Raúl: One of the last players left from a cherished era

Tom Victor

Reading the names of some of the players at the 1998 World Cup feels like reading about a brand of football that’s alien to what we see today.

The likes of Roberto Baggio and Michael Laudrup are relics from a golden age, when we consumed the game through Gazzetta Football Italia and the idea of looking up scores on the internet was a pipe dream for most of us.

Even the younger players, the likes of Patrick Vieira and Bolo Zenden, have long since retired to move into the coaching side of the game.

But there was one who kept going right up until this week. That man was Raúl González.


Raúl turned 21 during the tournament in France, the same day that a Ronaldo-inspired Brazil beat Chile by four goals to one, but Spain were already out.

The Real Madrid striker had put his country 2-1 up against Nigeria in their opening group game, only for an error from Andoni Zubizarreta and a long-range Sunday Oliseh blast to turn the game on its head.

Four points from the remaining games were not enough for progress, and Raúl would not have an international title to add to Real Madrid’s Champions League triumph from earlier that year.


When you talk about the Spanish national side now, you think of the all-conquering Barcelona-dominated squad that won three successive major tournaments and goes into Euro 2016 among the favourites.

But the Spain of Raúl’s time (he retired from international football in 2006) was one of great potential married with poor execution.

With the exception of 1998, his decade-long international career was characterised by narrow margins.

Euro 2000 will have been the most painful on a personal level, with Raúl missing a penalty against eventual champions France which would have taken their quarter-final to extra-time, but the defeat to South Korea in the World Cup two years later (marred by Fernando Morientes’ controversial disallowed goal) brought a real sense of injustice.

The class of 2004 were unfortunate to see themselves grouped together with eventual finalists Greece and Portugal, going out on goals scored, while Raúl’s final international tournament – the 2006 World Cup – saw him withdrawn against the French with the scores level, only for two late goals to end his hopes of going out on a high.

Back in the 90s and early 2000s, Sky subscriptions were less widespread and internet streams harder to come by, so for many of us these major tournaments represented our best chance of exposure to the top talents from Europe’s biggest leagues as well as those from across the globe.

Even those of us lucky enough to be able to watch Champions League football tended to opt for the British teams first and foremost, and you were more likely to encounter La Liga games on Championship Manager than on TV.

Perhaps this is why Raúl’s reputation is not as strong here as it might be.

Sure, people can point to his goal record and his strong contribution to the Galacticos‘ European triumphs in 2000 and 2002, but the ‘he never did it against English teams’ jingoism that saw Zlatan Ibrahimović overlooked by so many for so long also applies to the Spaniard.

There was a sense that team-mates like Zinedine Zidane and David Beckham made his job so easy that anyone could have done it: international failings provided confirmation bias, meaning that mindset would pervade until you saw him play for an extended spell.


Despite spending some of his teenage years on the books of rivals Atlético, to many of us Raúl was Real Madrid.

His goal record speaks for itself – only now has Cristiano Ronaldo surpassed the total after several years of unprecedented rates of scoring – and many would have thought that his last game in that famous white shirt would be his last for anyone.

During Raúl’s final years in the Spanish capital, there was a sense of him handing over the reins to the likes of Ronaldo and Karim Benzema, and had he retired at the age of 33 after more than 700 games for Madrid, there would have been few objections.

But the five years since say almost as much about him than the decade and a half prior, demonstrating that he is someone who just wanted to continue playing, even when the promise of first-team football required him to drop down a level or two.


Two seasons with Schalke allowed Raúl to show off a more creative side to his game; a level of skill and ball-retention that silenced those who had dismissed him as a poacher during his time in Spain.

Many would have immediately made the leap to Al-Sadd, where he subsequently spent the following two campaigns, but the spell in Germany allowed him to demonstrate he could still contribute at the top level of European football.

Even after his first retirement in 2014, a sense of unfinished business brought him to the North American Soccer League and the New York Cosmos.

It’s fitting that not only did Raúl end his career at the same club as greats such as Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer, but he did so on the same day as Marcos Senna: a man instrumental in helping the Spain that Raúl helped build finally get their hands on that first major trophy in a generation.

And signing off with a victory was, it feels, the only possible conclusion.