This is no drawn-out self-publicised farewell tour which would be out-of-keeping for a man held in the highest esteem for his consummate professionalism and for whom an unrivalled lust for success is what has kept him scoring goals at 38-years-old. On Sunday, Raul will be provided with the perfect platform to win his 22nd trophy and allow the fairy-tale conclusion of a glittering career in its 1,034th and final match.
Raul Gonzalez Blanco was three months old when Pele closed out his illustrious career in a friendly between New York Cosmos and Santos, but Sunday's NAFL's final between New York Cosmos and Ottawa Fury will be an entirely different occasion. Indeed, the Spaniard's curtain call had looked set to arrive one week earlier but his goal – the 448th of his professional career – against Fort Lauderdale Strikers turned out to be decisive in ensuring a one-week extension.
It could all have been so different had Jesus Gil, then-president of Atletico Madrid, not decided to disband the club's youth teams – of which Raul was a part – back in 1992. His talents were promptly recognised by scouts across the city at Real, for whom he quickly integrated into La Fabrica – Real Madrid's academy.
His ascension through the ranks did not take long and in 1994 he was granted his debut by Jorge Valdano, who was juggling with the phasing out of legendary striker Emilio Butragueno and injuries to Alfonso Perez. On October 29th, Real Madrid faced a tricky trip to nearby Zaragoza. “If you want to win, play me,” said 17-year-old Raul. He was partnered up front with Chilean striker Ivan Zamarano, who he assisted for one goal but it wasn't enough. Zaragoza won 3-2 and Raul missed two one-on-ones and an open net, enough to wreck any young player's career.
The following week, Raul's self-belief hadn't faded and he started against Atletico. He had a point to prove. He netted his first professional goal, but also set up another and won a penalty. He would make a further 26 appearances that season and his nine goals helped propel the club to the Primera title.
“Raul is synonymous with Madrid: the face of the club for the last 25 years,” says Valdano, the Argentine Coach who afforded the young striker the opportunity to prove himself. “If you wrote a list of Raul’s qualities, it would be a list of the values of Real Madrid. He is the Di Stefano of our time. He is the people, the incarnation of Madridismo.”
Real Madrid fans are notoriously hard to please but their adoration for Raul is everlasting, as is Cristiano Ronaldo's, who eclipsed the forward’s goal scoring record at Madrid, despite playing a remarkable 431 games fewer when reaching the milestone, and who has publicly stated numerous times of his admiration for the striker.
Raul is symbolic in Madrid as he linked the heritage of the Quinta del Buitre – Real Madrid's iconic team of the late 1980s, with plenty of home-grown players – whereas Ronaldo, for example, represents the Galactico era, a player who arrived at Santiago Bernabeu as a global superstar for a world record fee. He wasn't the local boy who worked hard all the way through the club's youth structures before breaking into the team.
For nine consecutive seasons Raul scored over 20 goals, contributing directly to six League titles and three Champions League crowns, scoring in the 2000 and 2002 showpieces. His individual attributes were clear but he will be remembered more for embodying hard work, professionalism and team-work.
Internationally, Raul netted 44 times in 102 caps, the last of which came in a 3-2 defeat in Belfast against Northern Ireland in September 2006. He was phased out, replaced by David Villa, who took his No 7 shirt and his international goal scoring record. Villa was also pivotal in the three major international glories, the consecutive European Championship triumphs with the World Cup glory sandwiched in between. Timing will perhaps be Raul's greatest regret, but this should diminish his own achievements.
In notable decline, he left Madrid in 2010 and arrived in Gelsenkirchen where he played a pivotal role in Schalke's progress to the last four of the 2011 Champions League and a German Cup triumph the following month. Such was his impact in Germany, Schalke retired his No 7 shirt for a year after his 2012 departure.
Subsequent spells in Qatar with Al-Sadd and the United States with New York Cosmos have prolonged his inevitable retirement, but this iconic figure will forever represent a glorious period in the illustrious history of Real Madrid. The local lad, stolen from their cross-city rivals, who embodied everything to be admired in a footballer.
He was a true Madrileno, who was worshiped, who represented the fans and who led them to triumph after triumph. That spirit may well help guide him to one final moment of glory.