There’s no getting away from the stark contrasts between Real Madrid, arguably the Rolls Royce of the footballing world, and Schalke, a blue-collar club from a former mining community. At the start of this season, Raul Gonzalez Blanco switched from one world to the other in search of a new challenge. And contrary to popular expectations, the iconic goal-getter settled rapidly to life in the heart of the industrial Ruhr valley, so much so that he is the new darling of the passionate Gelsenkirchen crowd.
The Spanish superstar’s illustrious career takes another intriguing twist this evening, when the 33-year-old sets out to assist the Royal Blues in their efforts to reach the UEFA Champions League quarter-finals. The opposition is provided by Valencia, and it was Raul who scored Schalke’s potentially crucial equaliser in the Round of 16 first leg clash, stunning the fans at the Mestalla stadium into shocked silence.
Praised, loved and feared
"He was wearing a blue jersey, but Raul was just as clinical and ruthless a finisher as when he wore the white shirt of Real Madrid,” gushed El Mundo the day after the number seven’s gala return to his home country. A similar sense of deja-vu also overcame Marca: "He was back playing in Spain, he was jeered and booed by the home fans as usual, and he scored yet another goal at the Mestalla. Moving to the Bundesliga hasn’t changed him."
That strength of character, prominent among the many attributes displayed by the man who is now the all-time leading scorer in European club competition, is an asset widely admired in Germany, and particularly by the Schalke faithful. "You don’t come across many people like Raul,” enthused boss Felix Magath. "His own interests are way down his priority list. He’s not come here to play the star. What more can I say? I thought we’d seen the last of this type of player a long time ago."
The man described by Madrid director of sport Jorge Valdano as "probably the most important individual in the history of Real after Alfredo Di Stefano" has made a huge impact at Schalke, a club yearning for success to match their size and ambitions. He opted for the switch to Gelsenkrichen last summer, "because I wanted to learn a different way of playing football, a new culture and a new language, and to grow as a person."
Take these words, throw in a clutch of crucial goals, and round it off with the sheer presence of the man, and you have the embodiment of Schalke’s desperate quest to recapture an era of fame, glory and glamour: the Royal Blues won the German championship seven times between 1934 and 1958, but never the modern Bundesliga title. Raul’s name adds a touch of glitz and finesse to a club traditionally sustained by a world of grime and toil.
Currently on 71 goals in European club competition, Raul scored a total of 228 goals in 550 appearances for Madrid, with another 44 in 102 matches for Spain. The striker has 11 goals in 25 Bundesliga appearances, but his poacher’s instinct is only a small part of his immense contribution to Magath’s team.
The much-travelled head coach names the Spaniard his "most important player,” because he is a master of the position in the hole behind the central striker, playing the final passes, working back to recover possession, and dropping deep to link the build-up play. "He slotted into the team seamlessly. Some of the players were surprised to find he’s genuinely as modest as people said,” revealed team-mate Christoph Metzelder, once of Real himself and reportedly a key figure in the process which ultimately brought Raul to Schalke.
The challenge of Valencia
For all that, it has been a strange and not altogether satisfying season for the men from Gelsenkirchen. Tenth spot in the Bundesliga is far short of expectations, but Raul fired the only goal of the German cup semi-final away to Bayern Munich to keep the Royal Blues on course for silverware.
They are hot favourites against second division Duisburg in the final of that competition, and Raul opened the door to the last eight in the Champions League with his strike in Valencia. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the buzz is back at Schalke. "We’re very confident of reaching the quarter-finals. Being one of the eight best clubs in Europe would be a terrific success for Schalke,” an optimistic Raul told uefa.com.
The words are the mark of the man, talking only of the team and ignoring the personal success an aggregate victory over Valencia would represent. If one so wished, the essence of the clash between the German and Spanish clubs could be condensed into a story of one individual’s quest to prove there’s plenty more to come from an allegedly fading star. As the man himself summarised: "It was time for a change. This is a completely new experience for me, and it’s turning out an exceptionally positive one, both for my family, and for me as a player."