The early 90s was a sobering time for followers of Real Madrid.
Their fierce rivals Barcelona had well and truly established themselves as the top dogs in Spanish football, notching four consecutive La Liga titles along with their maiden Champions League crown, as Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’ swept aside all who dared come before them.
Los Blancos were in need of a rebuild; only once in the previous 40 years had the club experienced such a barren period in terms of league success. They needed a catalyst, an icon, someone they could rely on to shoulder the burden of the world’s biggest club and carry them back to the apex of European football.
Step forward Raul.
Plucked from the Atletico Madrid academy at the age of 15, Raul would be afforded just two years in La Fábrica before being fast-tracked to the senior squad. A run of 16 goals in nine games for the reserve team soon caught the attention of coach Jorge Valdano, and at just 17 years and 124 days of age the youngster was handed his senior debut, thus becoming the youngest player in the club’s history.
The Spaniard formed a lethal partnership with Iván Zamorano - grabbing 37 goals between them in Raul’s debut season – as Real wrestled the league title back to the Santiago Bernabeu.
Personal accolades would follow as he was named La Liga’s Breakthrough Player, though his work was far from over. Real weren’t a flash in the pan team, this wasn’t a club that was built on sporadic success and occasional silverware. If they were to establish themselves as the greatest team in Europe once again, they would need a consistent spearhead to their attack - Raul didn’t disappoint.
The forward would spend 16 glittering years at Real, notching six La Liga titles and three Champions League crowns, before departing for the Bundesliga in 2010 having amassed a whopping 741 appearances – a figure which remains to this day a club record and is unlikely to ever be surpassed.
Despite being a brilliant finisher, one of the oddities of Raul as a striker was there wasn’t a particular facet of his game which grew plaudits. As famously stated by his former teammate Fernando Hierro: “He was not a ten out of ten in anything, but he was an eight-and-a-half in everything.”
And perhaps it is for this reason that the Spaniard didn’t receive quite the gratification he deserved. 323 goals for the biggest club in world football, but not a Ballon d’Or in sight? Raul’s greatest talent was consistency, and you’d struggle to make a highlight reel of that.
He would share the field with numerous Ballon d’Or winners including Ronaldo, Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane, yet the prize of being named the world’s best footballer would forever elude him.
At the peak of his powers Raul’s future at the Santiago Bernabeu would regularly be called into question, with a whole host of European behemoths looking to lure him away from Madrid. Yet his love for the club that had adopted him as one of their own would show no signs of wavering. He was Real Madrid.
At the age of 33, the Spaniard would finally call time on his Los Blancos career, moving to German outfit Schalke, but there was to be no ill-feeling from the Real fanbase or hierarchy, with president Florentino Perez quoted as saying: “For every Real Madrid fan, Raul was, is, and always will be, an example of honesty, work, the ability to resist defeat and someone that is passionate about football.
“His 16 titles won in our shirt demonstrate his greatness, his sense of loyalty and his commitment to Real Madrid.”
Since his departure, Raul’s goalscoring records have been frankly obliterated by the irrepressible Cristiano Ronaldo, however, if you ask any Real Madrid fan who their greatest number seven is, there is only one answer: Raul.
Described by Pep Guardiola as “the most important player in Spanish football history”, Raul would lay the foundations of success for future teams of both Real Madrid and Spain. A selfless, brilliant, genius of a footballer, who will forever be remembered for bringing the good times back to the biggest club in world football.