On Wednesday evening, the Spanish striker Raúl González Blanco will don the kit of FC Schalke 04 for the last time. If one is allowed to constrict the definition of an era to only two years, the Raúl era in Schalke will be finished, as neither the player or club could come to agreement on terms for the length of a renewed contract.
The final donning of Schalke kit by the Spanish don will take place neither in Gelsenkirchen or another German city, but rather in the suburbs of Philadelphia, as Schalke play a friendly with the MLS Philadelphia Union club at 7:30 pm EDT at PPL Park. Incongruous as the location for Raúl’s final competition with Schalke may seem, it further demonstrates that football is the world’s game, as American fans savor a glimpse of a world footballing legend.
An uncommon player with a common name, Raúl will turn 35 years old in June. His long tenure at Real Madrid as the heart and soul of the Spanish capital’s club amidst two generations of Galaticos saw him scoring 323 goals between 1994 and 2010 in all competitions, win six La Liga titles, three Champions League crowns and a host of other trophies and individual awards. But slowed by injury, Raúl looked to be only a third or fourth choice striker for Los Blancos going into the 2010-2011 season. Despite Jose Mourinho’s desire for Raúl to continue at Madrid, Spain’s hero surprised the footballing world by answering Felix Magath’s call and signed a two-year contract in working class Gelsenkirchen.
The native of Madrid, who’d represented Spain in over 100 international matches, coming to blue-collar, often cold Gelsenkirchen… to be coached by the iron-fisted, old-school Magath? Certainly not a marriage foreseen even by angels. Schalke itself had a proud footballing tradition and earned a berth in the Champions League, but…..
But now they had Raúl, in a bond indeed blessed by the divine spirits of football. The rejuvenated Spanish icon looked as born to the blue of Schalke as he was the white of Real Madrid. He led the club to a DFB Pokal crown and deep into the Champions League in his first year for Die Knappen, and topped that off this season by marshalling his club’s efforts for another Champions League berth by earning third place in the Bundesliga standings while earning the DFL SuperCup trophy in August in a penalty kick win over archrivals Borussia Dortmund. At the age of 34, Raúl was second only to fellow striker Klaas-Jan Huntelaar in Bundesliga minutes played this season for Schalke (Raul at 2798 was on the pitch five minutes less than the Dutchman) while scoring 15 goals from 75 shots. Raúl also added five assists in league play while completing 82% of his pass attempts, and in two seasons at Schalke scored 40 goals in 98 matches in all competitions, an average .41 goals per match, a figure quite in line with his .43 gpm during his earlier years at Madrid.
But equally as impressive as statistics and trophies are the skills, determination, character and effort the attacker brought to the Die Knappen. One of only four athletes nominated to the United Nation’s FAO Goodwill Ambassador program since its 1999 beginnings, it took Raúl 17 professional seasons to earn his first red card. He not only scored the 2011 Bundesliga Goal of the Year, but led his teammates by example while he also connected deeply with the Schalke fans in the seats. He was a royal presence for the Royal Blues, but humble enough to play a deeper role as a playmaker rather than goalscorer under Magath despite being Real Madrid’s all-time scoring maestro. For Raúl, team matters most, and although always a Madrista, the graceful loan of his heart and soul to Schalke were a blessing to Bundesliga fans as well as a strong rebuttal for any who doubted the rightness of his decision to play in the German industrial heartland.
While Schalke’s bitter rivals at Dortmund have ascended to the heights of German football in the last two seasons, fans of S04 could respond by pointing to the inclusion of Raúl at their club as a symbol of their pedigree, class and importance. But football is too often, drearily, a business, and Raúl will no longer continue with Schalke after Wednesday evening’s friendly. The royal blue colors of Schalke will undoubtedly seem paler next season without the Spaniard roaming the pitch. Nevertheless, he will remain an eternal hero in Gelsenkirchen, and truly one of the noblest players to ever wear Bundesliga kit. Thank you, Señor Raúl.
The Philadelphia Union hope to continue their unbeaten streak in international friendlies, having defeated Everton, Celtic and Chivas de Guadalajara in the club’s brief history. Morever, Union players and fans are hopeful that Raúl will consider Philadelphia as his new playing home. The Spaniard has already stated that his footballing future “is not in Europe.” Bundesliga Fanatic contributor Jody Strauch (@jodelld ) will travel over 1100 miles to be in attendance for Wednesday’s match.
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