Yesterday marked Raul Gonzalez’s 45th birthday, and that’s the only reason needed to write something about him (and even record a monolog about one of the all time greats). Real Madrid’s history is meant to be remembered, cherished, revisited, spoken about in bars. Decades from now we should be recalling Vinicius’s goal at Stade de France, the unity of the 2021 – 2022 team, Karim Benzema’s transcendence, Eduardo Camavinga’s alpha performances off the bench, and the unforgettable comebacks. Celebrate the classics.
Raul is as classic as it gets. If there’s anyone you should talk about regularly, long after his retirement, it’s him. He is a symbol, beacon for Real Madrid. For years, when the Bernabeu blasted the bat signal in hopes of a moment of genius in a big game, it was for him. He raised the call, so many times — Champions League finals, Clasicos, knockout games — and to boot, he had the same vengeance, battle cry, and war face that we saw with Sergio Ramos, Fernando Hierro, Iker Casillas, Cristiano Ronaldo, Luka Modric, Karim Benzema, Marcelo, Roberto Carlos, Emilio Butragueño, Alfredo di Stefano, and other legends.
Raul had bite. Maybe he had the label of a calm, shy kid, but he was anything but. He was peacemaker but also defended his teammates, got in the face of opponents, and ripped them apart with intelligence and a diverse bag of offensive tricks. You see the same intensity on the sidelines now at Estadio Alfredo di Stefano.
I have seen so much discourse over the past 24 hours, naturally from people who didn’t watch him play, asking what he was like. A common response: “he wasn’t great at anything but worked hard.” There is some truth to the statement. Fernando Hierro himself once said that Raul is “not a 10 in anything, but an 8.5 in everything”. There are many who don’t see him as ‘talented’ because he didn’t do step-overs, roulettes, and elasticos (though he has examples of all of those peppered into his career).
But labelling him as a hard-working, talentless player misses the mark, a lot, and it ends up putting lazy monikers on one of the best players in Real Madrid history.
Raul had arguably the best first-touch in the world at his peak. He could bring a ball down at any velocity and height as if he was pulling a feather to a magnet. No one could chip a goal-keeper like him, and no one could replicate that aspect of his finishing at such a prolific rate. When I spoke to Julian Draxler in 2019, he told me: “I remember one time in training I asked him how he does the chip. His answer: ‘It’s easy. If the goalkeeper is too close, just chip it — 90% (of the time) it’s a goal!’ He was smiling, and I was like, ‘If it was that easy, everybody could do it.’”
Luis Figo once said Raul was the best player of all time. Pep Guardiola stated that Raul ‘is the most important player in Spanish football history’. Sir Alex Ferguson admitted publicly he was more afraid of Raul than he was of Figo and Zidane. And he wasn’t wrong — Raul grilled Manchester United with four massive goals over the course of three Champions League knockout games, and the only reason he didn’t carve them for more was because he missed the fourth game.
Beyond that, Raul’s talent, to me, was intelligence, the same way Thanos is one of the smartest entities in the Marvel universe. He knew where to be, and was reliable in almost any position. He led the league in scoring one year as a left-winger. When Vicente del Bosque fielded Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, Ronaldo Nazario, and Raul together; Raul often had to play the deepest of the quartet because he was so good defensively and in his link-up play. Go back and watch one of my favourite games ever, Real Madrid’s 3 – 1 win over Manchester United in the 2003 Champions League quarter-finals (first leg). Raul scored a brace, and did everything else too. He was a workhorse. A tactical glove for any tactician ever. You never needed to worry about balance, leadership, or anything of that sort when he was on the field. He did everything.
Beyond that, the reason why I celebrate Raul as much as I can (I’ll do it again on his 46th birthday, and any other milestone) is because he meant a lot to me and to so many other Madridistas. I had his photos on my wall growing up. He was my idol. I would’ve been the insufferable kid posting Raul propaganda had Twitter been around in the late 90s / early millennium — particularly when he was snubbed of the Balon D’or.
But I’m not alone. Raul was the favourite player of many fans during that time. Like David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo, he was an icon that brought fans to the club. In every live podcast I do in various cities, people come up and tell me their story, and without fail, there are always people who say they watched Raul score goals in the Champions League final and instantly fell in love.