WHEN players leave their boyhood clubs in their 30s they often don’t seek out big challenges. In this regard, Raúl González Blanco was a welcome breath of fresh air when he made the switch from Real Madrid to Schalke.
Skip to summer 2013 and Raúl is getting a testimonial despite only spending two years at the club, playing 98 games and scoring 40 goals in the process. So how did the Madrid-born boy make himself a fan favourite 1800 kilometres away from home in Gelsenkirchen – a city with much less glamour than the Spanish capital?
Throwback to the summer of 2010. Schalke had just qualified for the Champions League after challenging Bayern for the Bundesliga title but ultimately falling short by 5 points. Despite the achievements on the pitch, there were some problems off of it, especially in the financial department. So naturally, the first reactions when the rumour about Schalke being interested in signing Raúl appeared, were something along the lines of “This is absurd”, “Simply preposterous”, “How are they going to pay his wages”. At this point in late June no one really believed that the Spanish superstar would sign for Schalke, but just a month later the German club confirmed the deal.
His first action was to pose on the pitch of the Veltins-Arena with a lump of coal in his hands, flanked by two local coal miners and Schalke executives. All of this still sounds surreal, even now 8 years after the picture has been taken and 3 years after Raúl’s retirement. But still, at this point most people didn’t think that he would end up as a Schalke legend whose name is uttered in the same breath as club founder Willy Gies or legendary Danish striker Ebbe Sand.
And indeed, he didn’t get off to a very good start with his side winning only one out of the first ten matches, immediately ending whatever title dreams Schalke fans might have had after signing the Spaniard, who despite his big name wasn’t free of criticism either. The now 33-year-old was called “A slow player who is way past his prime and doesn’t work in the intense physical environment of the Bundesliga.” And while he wasn’t quite on the physical level he used to be, most of the criticism here should be levelled against then Schalke manager Felix Magath. His new manager played him in a deep Attacking Midfield role instead of playing the Spaniard as a second striker, a position closer to goal.
Despite the failures to recapture the Bundesliga form from the previous seasons, Schalke and Raúl excelled in Raúl’s household competition, the Champions League, winning a group with Lyon, Benfica and Hapoel Tel Aviv. At the end of the first half of the season he scored his first hat-trick for Schalke in a game against Cologne and it was starting to be visible why Schalke fans would grow to love him so much.
Raúl had the perfect combination of the workmanlike attitude that football fans in Germany and especially in the Ruhr Area love so much and the trickery and glamour you would expect from someone who has spent most of his career at the biggest club in the world. He also scored a number of very important goals for the club in his two years there. In February 2011 he equalised at the Estadio de Mestella to give Schalke an important away goal in the Champions League tie against Valencia. This goal also made him the sole top scorer in European competitions with 71 goals, a record that was eventually broken by Lionel Messi in 2014.
Just two weeks later Raúl scored the most important yet also the simplest goal of his stint at Schalke when he nicked a corner over the line to win Schalke the DFB-Pokal semi -final against Bayern München. He wheeled away to kiss the ring finger of his right hand, a celebration that is probably as iconic to Schalke and Real Madrid fans as Alan Shearer’s trademark celebration is to Newcastle fans.
Despite reaching the DFB-Pokal final and the quarter-final of the Champions League, Felix Magath’s time at Schalke was eventually over because they were still in danger of getting relegated from the Bundesliga. Ralf Rangnick replaced him. His third game in charge was one that still lives on the memories of every Schalke fan. Schalke drew reigning champions Inter Milan in the quarter-final with the first leg being held at the San Siro. Schalke went behind twice but Raúl played a major part in the sensational 5-2 win. A week later he scored another one in the return leg which Schalke won.
At this point he had already won most Schalke fans over and he was allowed something only very few players are afforded: He was invited to the platform where the Schalke-Capo stands right in front of the Nordkurve – the main Schalke fan stand. This was the first time this has happened in years and it would be the last time this happened until Domenico Tedesco celebrated the derby win over Borussia Dortmund with the fans last April.
Schalke eventually crashed out of the Champions League against Manchester United but a month later they won the cup final against their Second Division neighbours from Duisburg, allowing Raúl to lift the first domestic cup of his career which sounds absurd considering he spent most his career at Real Madrid.
Raúl didn’t always show his full potential in his first season but he sure did in the second one, making a “Rauuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuul” sound rumble through the Veltins-Arena almost every time he touched the ball. He also scored 21 goals in all competitions that season but goals are merely a number, it’s how he scored them: He was incredibly sly in front of goal and always searched for a way to score special goals that people would remember for years to come. He won the Goal of the Year in 2011 with a turn followed by a chip against Cologne and won Goal of the Month twice in 2012.
Goals like these and the goal against Bayern Munich are what Schalke fans, who were fortunate enough to watch him play for their team, will always remember. But they are not the only things he is remembered for. Despite having won the Champions League three times he always seemed like a down-to-earth guy who just wanted to play some football. Just like at Real they briefly retired his shirt number when he left. Cristiano Ronaldo eventually got it at Real Madrid; Max Meyer got it at Schalke. When he came to watch Schalke in the most recent Revierderby he was invited onto the pitch and received a thunderous welcome. One worthy of a club legend.