The Angel of Gelsenkirchen

In the closing minutes of Schalke’s pre-season friendly against Qatari club, Al Saad, a 13-year old boy held up the fourth official’s board. On it was an illuminated number seven. As is tradition in German clubs, the stadium announcer proclaimed the substitution by stating the number and allowing the fans to chant the name of the player. The crowd duly obliged and the name ‘Rauuuuul’ rung around the ground. Aged 36, Raul Gonzalez Blanco left the field, saluted the crowd and embraced the young boy on the sideline – his eldest son, Jorge.

This was the Spaniard’s last game for the Gelsenkirchen club, played against the team he had agreed to join. In the match, Raul played a half for each team – notching two goals against his new employers in the process. This was his final farewell to a club that had taken him to their hearts, and one that had found a place in his.

The match against Al Saad was watched by a capacity crowd of 60,000 – unheard of for a friendly. Even more remarkable is the fact that Schalke could have sold out the stadium almost two times over. According to reports, over 100,000 fans clamored for tickets, leaving many disappointed at being unable to say Gracias! to their departing hero. To compensate, the club erected large screens around the ground, creating a unique atmosphere for the occasion.

The Schalke trainer at the time, Felix Magath, caught many off guard when he brought Raul – then the Champion’s League record goal scorer – to the club. Despite the player entering the twighlight of this career, it was still seen as something of a coup to persuade him to swap Madrid for the industrial heartland of Germany. In opting for Schalke Raul reportedly turned down lucrative moves to Russia, Qatar and the United States, citing the club’s involvement in the Champion’s League as a deciding factor – a sign that his competitive ambition had not abated.

Raul’s first game for Schalke came against Louis van Gaal’s defending champions, Bayern Munich in the LIGA total! Cup, a pre-season tournament. There was more than a sense of intrigue as not only Schalke fans, but the entire German football-watching public got their first sight of El Angel del Madrid stepping out for the Königsblau. To say that they were excited would be an understatement.

However, the excitement was suffused with lingering doubts and questions hovering in the air. How would he adapt to a new league and footballing culture? Was he a spent force, washed up – just another thirty-something dining out on past glories whilst picking up a fat paycheck? After all, it was common knowledge that, despite being a club legend, Raul had been slowly pushed to the periphery at the Bernabeau in recent times.

After a little over half an hour questions were answered and doubts confounded. On 25 minutes the legendary Spaniard showed he hadn’t lost an ounce of his poacher’s instinct by pouncing on a rebound to prod in from close range. A dream start at a new club – but what followed was something very special indeed.

On 34 minutes Raul ghosted away from his marker to pick up a short pass 25 yards from goal. He controlled the ball, took two touches, and just as three Bayern defenders were thinking about who was going to intercept – and without once looking up – he lifted the ball over the keeper, whose despairing dive allowed him to merely help the ball into the net. Raul hadn’t needed to look up before he shot; he had already sized up the situation before the pass came. His run made the pass, which in turn made the chance. He’d seen it all pan out before it had happened. He knew the keeper had strayed too far forward and wouldn’t have time to get back. Those three touches on his left foot had taken out the Bayern back line.

Raul Gonzalez Blanco had arrived in Germany. It was to be the beginning of a love story.

Despite starting with a bang against Bayern, he didn’t set the Bundesliga alight from the offset. His team struggled early on – winning only one of the first ten game – and it took Raul until late September to get off the mark. However, once he had broken his duck he never looked back. A brace against St. Pauli was followed by two hat-tricks before the winter break, where he also signed off with a goal to give Schalke a vital 1-0 away win at Hannover, in the last game of 2010. Despite Raul lining up with fellow new-recruit Klaas Jan Huntelaar up front, Schalke continued to underperform. Consequently, Felix Magath – heavily criticized for his scattergun approach to transfers – was relieved of his duties in March. The team eventually went on to finish 14th, 6 points from relegation after picking up a solitary point from their last 5 league games.

Despite the blundering in the Bundesliga the Schalke faithful were able to seek solace in the cup competitions. Raul helped fire his team to their first ever Champion’s League semi-final with five goals in the competition, before their run came to an abrupt end after they were comprehensively beaten by defending champions Manchester United, 6-1 on aggregate.

In the DFB Pokal however, Raul and his team took it one step further. The iconic number 7 made the difference in the semi-final, scoring the only goal in a narrow defeat of Bayern Munich, setting up a finale against MSV Duisburg from the second division.

Schalke had decent pedigree in the cup, winning it four times previously and playing in ten finals. However, they had not been to the final since 2005 and hadn’t lifted the trophy for almost a decade. Incidentally, for all his honours in Spain and Europe, Raul had never won a domestic cup.

Despite the hopes of the Duisburg followers, there was to be no upset. Schalke controlled the match from the beginning and ran out clear 5-0 winners.

Raul’s second and final season with Schalke began with the DFL Supercup, the traditional curtain raiser between the league and cup holders. Across town in Dortmund, Jürgen Klopp was starting something very special indeed, having just won the Bundesliga with arch rivals BVB – much to the chagrin of the Schalke fans. However, it was the Königsblau who triumphed, overcoming Klopp’s men on penalties.

Despite losing their coach Ralf Rangnick early in the season to burnout, Schalke were a better team than the season previous, establishing themselves in the top four with consistent performances and results to match. And as for Raul, he continued to do what he does best – not only scoring goals, but making them. Although in only his second season, he was already an integral and influential member of the squad. Testament to this was him being passed the captain’s armband following an injury to Benedikt Höwedes in a game against Nürnberg, where he incidentally made one and scored one in a 4-0 win.

The goals continued throughout the winter, including a hat trick against Werder Bremen and his 400th career goal in February, closely followed by his 77th – and last – goal in European competition, against Athletic Bilbao in the UEFA Europa League.

However, on 19th April, Raul announced that he would be leaving the club at the end of the season. Despite manager Horst Heldt allegedly offering him around €4 million for another year, the player had already decided that his career in Europe was over. His lucrative move to Al Saad in the Middle East was announced soon after.

Raul’s last match for Schalke came in a comprehensive 4-0 home victory against Hertha Berlin, with the Spaniard also on the score sheet. After the match the legendary forward walked around the pitch with his children, applauding the fans, wiping tears from his eyes. There was a real sense that the curtain was coming down on something special. Despite being a one-club-man with Real Madrid for most of his career, Raul was finally getting the send-off he deserved – albeit from the hearts of the Königsblau in the Ruhrpott, and not Los Blancos in Madrid.

He may have only been at the club for two seasons, but his impact on Schalke – and the Bundesliga as a whole – cannot be underestimated. Aside from his obvious talent, his commitment, professionalism and behavior on and off the pitch were an example to all. He immediately understood and embraced the fierce and passionate nature of an area of Germany noted for its love of the game. His class, fairness and humble nature won him adulation amongst his own fans and beyond, whilst his qualities on the pitch sprinkled a touch of glamour on the league.

From his first match on, Raul showed his ability to not only score goals, but to score beautiful goals – winning Tor des Monats four times and Tor des Jahres in 2011 and 2013, the latter in tandem with Julian Draxler. All in all, he netted 40 times in 98 appearances, including 28 league goals in 66 matches.

On the pitch after the Hertha Berlin game, Raul was awarded a framed number 7 shirt, signed by all of his team-mates. As a sign of respect, the shirt was retired – and although it is now back in rotation, the man who wore it for those two seasons will never be replaced.

Photo credit: By DerHans04 (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

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