Raul of SchalkeSchalke fans may not have the fondest memories of Felix Magath's reign in Gelsenkirchen, but they should still be thankful that the Bundesliga's most demanding coach brought Raul to the club. With his two-year contract up this summer, the powers-that-be must now do everything they can to keep him there.
There were more eyebrows raised than at a Carlo Ancelotti and Rafael Nadal joint-press conference when it was announced Raul would move from Real Madrid to Schalke in summer 2010. It just didn't seem to fit. A Real Madrid legend eschewing sun and sangria in the Spanish capital to go to gritty, unglamourous Gelsenkirchen?
"I saw his future anywhere but in the Bundesliga," admitted Gunter Netzer recently. He wasn't the only one. The switch Michael Ballack made back to Leverkusen at the same time seemed to make much more sense. However, while the Ballack 'experiment' has not cured Leverkusen's ills, the men in white coats in the Veltins Arena laboratory can confidently declare their leap into the unknown an unqualified success given what Raul has brought the club.
1. There are the raw stats - 25 strikes and nine assists in 60 league games - but there is much more than that. "You see his calmness, how he plays. You feel confident when you have him in the side," Lewis Holtby, one of a number of talented, young Schalke players, told me earlier this season. "You know you can pass the ball to him and he won't lose it and he'll score. It's an absolute dream to play with these kinds of players."
Lewis Holtby of Schalke2. Raul's performances would be given more exposure were it not for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar's remarkable exploits in front of goal. But Schalke fans should not kid themselves — the Dutchman did not come to Gelsenkirchen from Milan to avail himself of the delights of the Ruhr Valley. 'No Magath = No Raul = No Huntelaar' is the simple equation those who flock to the Veltins Arena should bear in mind. Raul's continued presence keeps the club's profile high, and ensures they can attract other top-class players.
3. Perhaps more than anything, Raul has brought his attitude to Schalke. "I thought he was past his best," said Netzer. "But he has emphatically proved the contrary with not only impressive performances, but also by staying true to himself. He still only sees himself as part of the team." Can you imagine Magath would have signed him if he wasn't convinced Raul was not 'a diva'? In French, they talk of the culture de la gagne — a culture of winning — at a successful club. Raul was steeped in that environment at Real Madrid, and that approach to the game as well as his ultra-professionalism can only have a beneficial effect on a squad which possesses genuine, youthful talent in Holtby, Julian Draxler, Joel Matip, Lars Unnerstall and Kyriakos Papadopoulos.
But now comes the thorny issue of his age. At 34, the best years of his career are most likely behind him. "We'd desperately like to keep him — for a year," said sporting director Horst Heldt recently on the club's offer of a contract extension this summer. "But he wants two years. It's up to him to decide." There are financial constraints, of course. Raul has earned 7 million euros a year since coming to Schalke, 2m euros of which was paid by Madrid. Schalke are 'only' offering 4m euros for a further year.
Given Raul's character and what he must have been able to put into the bank already, you would suspect money is not the major determining factor. "A gut-feeling decision," is how Raul's agent, Gines Carvajal, described how the player would make his choice. Having pushed the boat out for Huntelaar, Schalke perhaps cannot afford to do the same in financial terms for Raul. But if he wants two years, give him two years! Yes, he's old in footballing terms, but he has not missed a Bundesliga game since coming to Schalke, which suggests his fitness is not a problem either.
The club are at a crucial stage right now. Clearly, there is not much more needed to make them genuine title challengers, and given the "good mix" (Holtby) in the squad, the younger players can ensure they remain so for years to come. Right now, though, they still need support and guidance, and that's where Raul comes in. Schalke — and Heldt in particular — should see that. The money and faith invested in Raul now will pale into insignificance if his influence — whether it be in the dressing-room or on the pitch — helps them win the Bundesliga title.