By Tim Hanlon
REUTERS – Among the glitz and glamour at Real Madrid, Raul was the rarest of commodities — a home grown talent with an elegant style of play that earned him respect at every Spanish football ground he graced.
On Thursday, the prolific striker announced that he would bring down the curtain on a 21-year career that will always be defined by his exploits at Real, a club he left in 2010 having made 741 appearances and as the club’s top scorer on 323 goals.
Portuguese marksman Cristiano Ronaldo has since equalled that tally and could surpass Raul with a goal against Levante on Saturday.
The 38-year-old, who moved to Schalke and Al-Sadd in Qatar before arriving at the New York Cosmos in the NASL, will retire at the end of this season in November.
Raul and Ronaldo share a common legacy of having defined eras at the Bernabeu but that is where any similarities end.
While Ronaldo is a model of power and efficiency who demands to be in the limelight, Raul was more understated, a leader nonetheless but will be remembered for his poise and ruthless finishing.
Like a Spanish bullfighter he would weigh up the moment and deliver the killer blow.
In the heat of the El Clasico clashes against Barcelona when matches often turned ugly, Raul would remain unruffled and sportsmanlike, traits admired even by the opposition when playing at the Camp Nou.
Following initial concerns over his waif-like physique, he quickly emerged as lethal finisher as Real ended the dominance of Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona of the early 1990s.
Then with the arrival of president Florentino Perez in 2000, he continued to be an instrumental figure in the team despite the influx of money and high-profile players during the ‘Galaticos’ period.
He was the cutting edge of a swashbuckling side that included Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo and the Brazilian Ronaldo in its ranks.
Former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson memorably put Raul ahead of his Real team mates when praising the striker after a 3-1 Champions League defeat at the Bernabeu in 2003, when he struck twice.
“We know Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo are great players but we could have handled that. Raul was very difficult,” Ferguson told reporters.
“Real Madrid have brought some great players over the last few years but at the moment Raul is the best in the world.”
When Raul left for Schalke in 2010, he could boast six La Liga titles and three Champions League trophies among his many successes.
The biggest disappointment for Raul will be on the international stage, however, where he was part of a Spain side renowned for underachieving and was ruthlessly dropped by coach Luis Aragones during qualifying for Euro 2008.
Aragones built a youthful side based on Barcelona’s short-passing game that won the following two European championships and the 2010 World Cup with Raul making his last appearance for his country back in 2006.
With his lightning reactions on the wane at Real, Raul decided to leave the pressure cooker atmosphere at the Bernabeu to first play in Germany, then Qatar and finally the United States.
So far, he is leaving his future open and there is a possibility that he could remain in New York for a while before returning to Spain with his wife and five children.
It also appears more a question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ he will return to Real, having always said he would come back as a coach or in some other capacity at his spiritual home.
(Editing by John O’Brien)