Jorge Valdano, the manager who took a chance on a skinny 17-year-old all those years ago, summed up the relationship between the Spanish behemoths and their long-suffering number seven when he insisted: “Raúl is synonymous with Real Madrid.”
The Spanish footballing icon spent 16 years in the capital with Real, during which the individual records tumbled almost as readily as trophies were won.
Six La Liga titles, three Champions Leagues, an Intercontinental Cup – though oddly no Copa del Rey – were captured during Raúl’s legendary spell in all white.
Raúl’s most prolific season in Europe brought the striker’s first final goal in his second showpiece appearance.
The departure of Fernando Hierro in 2003 saw Raúl promoted from vice captain to the primary wearer of the armband. Having just turned 26, Raúl became one the youngest on-pitch leaders in the club’s illustrious history.
The responsibility of the Bernabéu captaincy was something Raúl took incredibly (and perhaps too) seriously. This stretched beyond the field of play, as Valdano declared: “If you wrote a list of Raúl’s qualities, it would be a list of the values of Real Madrid.”
After Raúl helped end the club’s 32-year wait for the European Cup (see below) the Spanish icon steered his side to three continental titles in six years.
Zinedine Zidane’s spectacular volley has somewhat eclipsed Raúl’s bobbling opener over the passage of time, but that strike saw him become the first player to score in two separate Champions League finals.
An accolade made even sweeter as Real prevailed in each of his appearances in the tournament’s showpiece.
Raúl’s debut ended in defeat and saw the 17-year-old miss a catalogue of decent openings. Yet this left him utterly unfazed – Madrid’s assistant coach Angel Cappa recalled going over to comfort him: “He looked at me as if to say ‘What’s he telling me this for? I know what to do.'”
The following week Raúl started in the Madrid derby, a match made all the more meaningful having come through the Atlético Madrid academy. The teenager won a penalty, provided an assist and scored a superb goal in a 4-2 win, providing a glimpse of what his career in white would bring.
By the seventh game of the 1999/00 season, Real had slipped to eighth in the league, were winless in their past four matches, and faced a daunting trip to Louis van Gaal’s table-topping Barcelona.
Raúl opened the scoring only for Rivaldo and Luís Figo – who was in sensational form that night – to put Barça back in front. But, as the game ticked into its final five minutes, Real’s number seven snuck behind Barcelona’s backline before coolly scooping the ball over the onrushing goalkeeper.
Yet it would be the resulting celebration, a simple but emphatic finger to lips, that not only grabbed the headlines on the night but has lived on in infamy ever since.
Raúl’s records – those acquired in a Real Madrid context or ones with a wider scope – rival his tally of appearances. In a career spanning three different decades, Raúl racked up 741 matches in that famous white kit.
While surpassing the long standing goalscoring record held by the legendary Alfredo Di Stéfano is obviously a noteworthy achievement, his sheer durability is phenomenal considering the club he played for.
Scoring goals as a forward at Real Madrid might be easier than other footballing tasks, but lasting there is far from straightforward. Yet even with the influx of galácticos, Raúl always remained.
As the Spanish publication Mundo Deportivo put it: “Gripping his own faith like a shipwrecked man does a piece of driftwood.”
After winning the first five editions of the European Cup as the 1950s became the 60s, the six year gap before Real Madrid’s sixth continental crown seemed utterly intolerable.
But the club would have to suffer an unthinkable wait of more than three decades before Real landed the seventh. By 1998, Raúl was firmly installed in the first choice XI, starting every game of their European run as Los Blancos defeated a high-flying Juventus side 1-0 in the final.
The outcome was such a shock that Real had to sheepishly borrow Juve’s champagne to celebrate with after the game.
That victory was made even more pivotal as it ensured Real competed in next season’s tournament as they finished fourth in La Liga, outside the qualification spots.