INTERVIEW: Raul - From the Galacticos to the New York Cosmos

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  • Always a Madridista: Raul in the colours of his beloved Real.

    When the Champions League anthem welcomes the Real Madrid players on Wednesday night, one of their most cherished sons will be otherwise engaged.

    Raul will be half the world away in Hong Kong alongside his New York Cosmos team-mates as the latest chapter in a phenomenal career prepares to be written. 

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    But memories of the 37-year-old’s legendary actions will not be far from the minds of both groups of supporters set to witness the world’s premier club competition kick back into life with a round-of-16 clash between Carlo Ancelotti’s champions and Schalke 04.

    It is difficult to know where to start when listing the striker’s achievements in the fabled Los Blancos shirt. During 16 years of exemplary service – which began when gifted to them by city rivals Atletico’s short-sighted decision to temporarily disband their youth academy – he broke nearly every record going.

    Raul is the club’s all-time top scorer with 323 goals, his 741 appearances the most ever totalled and until overtaken by Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi he was the Champions League’s leading marksman on 71 strikes.  

    Six La Liga titles, three UEFA Champions League titles, four Supercopa de Espana titles, one UEFA Super Cup and two Intercontinental Cups were gained under his omnipresent influence.

    As a local boy wearing the armband during an era detailed by the extravagant Galacticos policy, he represented the chord between club and city prior to leaving five years ago.

    A fresh task awaits after his October arrival in the Big Apple, where as an elder statesman of the game he will attempt to breathe energy into North America’s most iconic soccer franchise.

    “I am very happy to move to such a historic team as New York Cosmos,” he told Sport360. “They are a very important team in the history [of North American football].

    “Cosmos have great history, but they also want to have a big future. This is really important.

    The Big Apple: Raul (r) at his unveiling.

    “I will try to help the team in the field, and help develop the young players in the academy – that is a big point for why I came to the Cosmos. I hope to show a good performance from myself, scoring plenty of goals and to help the team win titles.  I also want to make sure the crowds at the games enjoy watching them.”

    Raul arrived this winter following successful spells at Schalke and Qatar’s Al Sadd as he continues to sample life away from the all-encompassing Bernabeu that once defined him. 

    The Cosmos are in the early stages of a rebirth after being lost to the collapse of professional American teams in the mid 1980s. His name is in kind with the fabled players of yesteryear – Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto all previously donning the green jersey.

    The North American Soccer League is Raul’s arena of combat, which is the second division in US football. This a far cry from the star-studded outfit he skippered at Real, teaming up alongside Zinedine Zidane, Iker Casillas, Luis Figo and David Beckham.

    A familiar face, however, could be present when the NASL Spring Championship kicks off on April 5. Former strike-partner and three-time Ballon d’or winner Ronaldo is a co-owner of opponents Fort Lauderdale Strikers.

    The 38-year-old ex-Brazil international has even hinted at making a playing return sometime in the near future. Whatever his role, Raul only had kind words for the player whom he previously terrorised defences alongside from 2002 to 2007.

    He said: “It is very important that Ronaldo is an owner of a team in the United States. When I see him, I will give him a big hug.

    “We have a lot of memories playing together as strikers at Real Madrid. He was the best striker in the world when I was playing for them, and he also has a big heart.”

    Back in Europe, a new star is carrying the weight of Real’s no7 jersey. Cristiano Ronaldo is the heartbeat of the side, proving a worthy successor to Raul.

    Stars of the past: Raul, Roberto Carlos, Zinedine Zidane during a training camp in Vienna in 2005.

    A barely-believable 205 La Liga goals have been registered during 185 appearances since joining for a world-record fee six years ago.

    Raul praised the impact of the man he teamed up with during his final campaign at the club, revealing he will be rooting for Ronaldo to continue firing Real to silverware.

    He said: “Cristiano [Ronaldo] is doing very well in Real Madrid, scoring lots of goals. The no7 shirt is very important in the club and for me, personally. 

    “Emilio Butragueno, Juanito, lots of very good players in Madrid have worn it.  

    “Cristiano is currently at the top, performing to a high level in every game. He is amazing. I hope he continues, so that Real win titles.”

    Raul vowed to retire when his stint at Al Sadd came to an end last year, but was tempted by a final adventure in the States. With the end of his playing career approaching, a fitting time has arrived to look back.

    A huge haul of trophies, scoring in two UEFA Champions League finals and making more than 100 appearances for Spain now lie in the past. When asked to reflect on his work, events that bookend his career stand out. He said: “It is difficult to choose just one moment. My mind always goes to my first professional game at Real Madrid when I was young [against Real Zaragoza on October 29, 1994].

    “I had this dream for so long about becoming a professional. My first game was incredible, my family and friends were just so happy I had played a match. I have a lot of memories, I won so many trophies alongside such great team-mates.”

    Football moves on at pace, with Real gaining the long-awaited 10th European Cup – La Decima – last May without him, and their esteemed former captain is not ruling out No11 this term.

    “I hope they can win it again,” he said. “No team has won the Champions League twice-in-a-row. There are a lot of strong teams left in the competition but Real can do it.”