The Angel of Gelsenkirchen

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

This was Raúl’s last game for Schalke, played against the team he had agreed to join next. He played a half for each team, scoring 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 Sadd was watched by a capacity crowd of 60,000 – unheard of for a friendly. Schalke could have sold out the stadium almost two times over. More than 100,000 fans inquired about tickets, leaving many disappointed. To compensate, the club erected large screens around the ground, creating a unique atmosphere for the occasion.

Felix Magath had caught many off-guard when he signed Raúl – then the record goalscorer in the Champions League – to Schalke in 2010. Even though Raúl was in the twilight of his career, persuading him to leave Madrid for the industrial heartland of Germany was still something of a coup. Raúl reportedly turned down lucrative moves to Russia, Qatar and the US, citing Schalke’s involvement in the Champions League as a deciding factor – a sign that his competitive ambition had not abated.

Raúl’s first game for Schalke came against Louis van Gaal’s defending champions, Bayern Munich, in a pre-season tournament. The entire German football-watching public was excited to see him step out for the Königsblau, yet there were also lingering doubts. How would he adapt to a new league and footballing culture? Was he a spent force? Despite being a club legend at Real Madrid, Raúl had been slowly nudged to the periphery.

The doubts disappeared quickly. He scored his first goal in the 25th minute, pouncing on a rebound to prod in from close range. He had not lost an ounce of his poacher’s instinct. It was a dream start but what followed nine minutes later was something very special indeed. Raúl ghosted away from his marker to pick up a short pass 25 yards from goal. He controlled the ball, took another touch to evade three Bayern defenders and then he lifted the ball over the goalkeeper, whose despairing dive made the goal look even sweeter.

Raúl had not 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 had seen it all before it had happened. He knew the keeper had strayed too far forward and would not have time to get back on his line. Those three touches on his left foot had taken out the entire Bayern backline.

Raúl had arrived in Germany. It was to be the beginning of a love story. Despite starting with a bang against Bayern, he did not set the Bundesliga alight from the offset. His team struggled early on – winning just one of his first 10 games – and it took Raúl until late September to get off the mark. However, once he scored that first goal, he never looked back. A brace against St Pauli was followed by two hat-tricks before the winter break.

Raúl had been paired with fellow new recruit Klaas Jan Huntelaar up front, yet Schalke continued to underperform and Magath was relieved of his duties in March. The team finished the season 14th in the table, six points above the relegation zone, after picking up just one point from their last five league games.

Despite their blundering in the Bundesliga, Schalke found solace in the cup competitions. Raúl helped the club reach their first ever Champions League semi-final, scoring five goals in the competition before their run came to an abrupt end against defending champions Manchester United.

In the DFB Pokal, however, Raúl and his team went one step further. The iconic No 7 made the difference in the semi-final, scoring the only goal in a narrow win over Bayern Munich, setting up a final against Duisburg from the second division. Schalke had decent pedigree in the cup, but they had not reached the final since 2005 and had not lifted the trophy for almost a decade. Incidentally, for all his honours in Spain and Europe, Raúl had never won a domestic cup. That changed at Olympiastadion. Schalke controlled the match from the beginning and ran out clear 5-0 winners.

Raúl’s second and final season with Schalke began with the Supercup, the traditional pre-season game between the league and cup holders. Across town, Jürgen Klopp had started something special with Schalke’s arch-rivals Borussia Dortmund, winning the league for the first time in nine years. However, it was the Königsblau who triumphed in the Supercup, overcoming Klopp’s men on penalties.

Despite losing their coach Ralf Rangnick early in the season, Schalke had become a better team than the season before, establishing themselves in the top four. As for Raúl, he continued to do what he did best – scoring and making goals. He had become an influential member of the squad so, when Benedikt Höwedes missed a game through injury, Raúl was given the captain’s armband. He scored one goal and made another in a 4-0 win.

The goals continued throughout the winter. He hit a hat-trick Werder Bremen in the league; he scored his 400th career goal in February; and he scored his 77th – and final – goal in European competition against Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League. However, on 19 April, Raúl announced that he would be leaving the club at the end of the season. Schalke reportedly offered him €4m to stay for another year, but he had made up his mind. His career in Europe was over.

Raúl’s last match for Schalke was a comprehensive 4-0 win over Hertha Berlin. Needless to say, he scored in that game too. After the final whistle blew, he walked around the pitch with his children, applauding the fans and wiping tears from his eyes. There was a real sense that the curtain was coming down on something special. Raúl was finally getting the send-off he deserved – albeit from Schalke fans in Gelsenkirchen rather than Real fans in Madrid.

He was only in Germany 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 behaviour were an example to all. He understood and embraced the fiercely passionate fans in a part of Germany noted for its love of the game. His class and humility won admirers throughout the country, while his qualities on the pitch sprinkled a touch of glamour on the league.

From his first match on, Raúl showed he could not only score goals, but score beautiful goals. He won the goal of the month award four times and the goal of the year in 2011 and 2013, the latter in tandem with Julian Draxler. All in all, he scored 40 times in 98 appearances, including 28 league goals in 66 matches.

On the pitch after the Hertha Berlin game, Raúl was awarded a framed No 7 shirt, signed by all of his teammates. 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.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s