Raul always relished a challenge, and the New York Cosmos are just that
He was just 17 and he was asleep on the top deck of the bus. The bus was heading up the A2 motorway towards Zaragoza, where Raul Gonzalez Blanco was about to make his debut. If the kid was nervous, a teenager about to play for the biggest club in the world, he didn't show it. "I couldn't have done that," admitted then-Madrid manager Jorge Valdano, but he already knew this kid was different. Valdano had told him that he was thinking of including him and wanted to know what he thought. "If you want to win, put me in," Raul replied.
So Valdano did put Raul in. He left Emilio Butragueno, the striker who defined a generation, sitting on the bench. Things did not work out. Raul missed four chances that day. Really, really good chances. On one of them he went round the goalkeeper and, faced with an open goal, put it over the bar from 6 yards. Another shot from 6 yards went the same way. The first opportunity had come in the first minute and he had scuffed it. Maybe he was nervous, after all.
Maybe not. Madrid lost 3-2 and the critics were waiting: a legend had been left out for him? At the end of the game, Madrid's assistant coach Angel Cappa approached Raul to comfort him, telling him that he had done all that he could and that what he needed to do now was just concentrate on the net game. "He looked at me as if to say 'What's he telling me this for? I know what to do,'" Cappa recalled this week. "I thought to myself: 'I'm so stupid.' He was so sure of himself. There was never any doubt."
The following week, Raul started again: he won a penalty, provided an assist and scored a brilliant goal. And so it began. Two decades later, aged 37, it's still running. The latest chapter began on Thursday when the New York Cosmos announced Raul as their new signing.
Looking back, his victims in that second-ever game were Atletico Madrid, the first professional team he had played for. His career had begun with a false licence at his local club, San Cristobal de los Angeles, because he was (officially, at least) too young to play. Then it had taken him to Atletico. Champions of Spain at Cadete level, everyone knew they were special and that Raul was their best player. He got 55 goals that season. On one TV show, Atletico president Jesus Gil boasted about his team, about "my kids" and particularly about the captain Raul, smiling shyly alongside him.
That season Atletico's first team won the Copa del Rey; the Cadete team joined them in a reception at the city's cathedral. But soon after, Gil announced that there was no money to run a youth system any more, so Raul crossed the city to Real Madrid.
He was talented, sure, but it was the certainty, the astuteness and the intelligence that made Raul stand apart -- the supreme competitiveness and the seriousness and ambition with which he played. "He was a human player who set himself superhuman targets," Cappa says. One example: towards the end of his Madrid career, he slept in an oxygen tent. A former teammate describes him as the most "voracious," "ambitious" and "insatiable" player he has ever seen.
By the time Raul left Madrid, he had played more times for the club than anyone else and scored more goals, too. He departed with 323 goals in 741 games, six league titles and three European Cups. He had scored 44 times for Spain, too. Many considered him the best player Madrid had ever had, right up along with Alfredo Di Stefano. Captain of club and country, Valdano insists: "Raul is synonymous with Real Madrid."
He explained further. "[Raul] has been the face of the club for the past 25 years. Quantity above quality, absolute commitment and endeavor above all else. Utter professionalism. Every. Single. Day. Of. His. Life. If you wrote a list of Raul's qualities, it would be a list of the values of Real Madrid. He is the Di Stefano of our time. He is the people, the incarnation of Madridismo."
That identification had to end sometime, but Raul's identity did not change; the way he approached football almost reverentially.
The responsibility of the Bernabeu captaincy, something he took extremely seriously, had weighed upon him. Put bluntly, he was tired of it all: the politics in particular, the white noise and its increasing significance, the peripheral stuff that seemed to become ever more central. He would agree with Juanma Lillo's remark: "the garnish has eaten the steak."
Instead of getting out and heading into "pre-retirement," Raul went to Schalke 04 in Germany. That move, almost as much as the success that he'd had in Spain, defines him. Football. He wanted to enjoy his football again, unburdened. But "unburdened" did not mean uninterested; he wanted to do what he considered the right thing, respecting the game.
In Germany, the enthusiasm returned and he was more relaxed than he had been for a long time. Off the pitch, that is. On the pitch, he was as determined and serious as ever. Old school.
He had gone to Germany precisely because he still wanted to compete, to push himself and not yet slide into a comfort zone. He wanted to learn. With Schalke, he reached a Champions League semifinal. He left with 40 goals in two years and to a huge send-off. Banners declared simply: "Thank you." Then came Qatar and Al Sadd. And now, with the New York Cosmos, the USA. Before them, he had played and competed in European football for longer than anyone had anticipated. He had won back some who had, in truth, come to doubt him.
Others never doubted him and never would. He was too important for that. Ever since his departure, Madrid fans have awaited his return. They still wait, but this latest move has been read by some as a sign that his return is more probable, not less.
There was talk about him becoming sporting director at the Bernabeu but Raul was not keen. Not yet, anyway. If he is to return, he wants to do it the right way: qualified, experienced, well-equipped to do the job. Raul would rather take his position than be handed it. This is an opportunity, yet there would have been opportunities in Spain too, not least at Madrid. Raul's political power is significant, and his return would have been popular for the president and welcomed by the fans. But this offers the chance to learn first and to really earn that role, should it be there again. (Or perhaps simply to head in another direction if that is what, ultimately, he prefers).
Of course salary plays a part, but Qatar and the U.S. can also be seen as part of a learning process, a desire to understand the game better from different perspectives, to witness emerging markets and their place in the game and have a different life experience too, while also allowing a return to Europe. He is a man with an inquisitive mind. He will learn English. It is telling too that his role in New York will involve overseeing the youth system, not just playing. Ambition resides in this decision too; a determination to have an impact, to do something that fulfils him. And for Raul, fulfilment means competing -- properly, preparedly. One thing is for sure: he will go the U.S. to compete; he is no fan of easy street.
After all, Raul had always been that way. "Those who want to gobble up the world have the permission to gobble up the world," Valdano had said before his debut.
He knew he was good enough then. In his first training session, playing alongside Michael Laudrup, Fernando Redondo, Fernando Hierro, Michel, Ivan Zamorano and the rest, he lost the ball during a piggy-in-the-middle routine but refused to go in the middle because, he said, it was the pass that was at fault. A 17-year-old facing up to an international and he was not going to back down. He might not be as talented as others but he would overcome that with temperament.
Cappa explains: "Raul was a surprise to us, but not to himself. Raul carries the ball badly, he dribbles badly, he can't head the ball, he strikes it badly."
He pauses for effect: "... and then the game starts. When the game starts, he carries the ball well, he dribbles phenomenally well, he can head it, he scores a thousand different types of goal. He is suddenly perfect. Raul is a born competitor. He's unique ... I never saw a 17-year-old like it."
Cappa and Valdano had arrived at Real Madrid from Tenerife in the summer of 1994. They began putting together practice matches for the youth teamers and watching the matches played Real Madrid C and Real Madrid B. Raul stood out. At one point, Valdano was warned that Atletico had reconstructed their youth system and were looking him to return. He told Raul that he would be in the Madrid first team in the next couple of years.
He was wrong. Three months later, Raul made his debut. It was Oct. 29, 1994. Twenty years and one day later, Raul has joined the New York Cosmos.
Sid Lowe is a Spain-based columnist and journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and World Soccer. Follow him on Twitter at @sidlowe.