By Saheli RC, writing from Singapore
For the laymen and armchair critics, the thought of a player voluntarily leaving a club as big as Real Madrid to ply his trade up north in the cold, hilly regions of North-Rhine Westphalia, indicates two things. One, he’s finished. Two, he’s crazy.
In a constantly evolving world of football, dominated only by the grossly inflated, nominal dollar value, courtesy of clubs like Man City, Real Madrid and Chelsea, where morals and norms shift quicker than the tectonic plates under our feet, remaining at a club for seventeen years is not an easy feat. For Raul Gonzalez, it has been the norm. For his fans, it was the reality.
Like a delicate piece of poetry, taken straight out of the Romantic era, Raul and Real formed an almost unbreakable synonymy. From a scrawny seventeen-year-old boy who had the audacity to tell his coach that if they wanted to win, they ought to play him, Raul grew into a physical representation of what Real Madrid is and what Real Madrid stands for.
Humble, hardworking and honest, Raul had never been particularly gifted on the technical front, unlike some of the midfield maestros he played with (Laudrup, Redondo and Zidane) during his tenure at the club. What he lacked in skills, he adequately made up for in front of the goal – the perfect poacher who knew exactly where to position himself, who had a keen eye for chances and who rarely missed. The accolades and platitudes have been plenty, with Sir Alex Ferguson going as far as singling him out to be even better than his former galacticos teammates.
As the tides shifted at Real Madrid, with many promising youngsters breaking into the team, and as age finally caught up with Raul, his role on the field began to diminish. He started lesser and lesser games until at the beginning of last season, the door of opportunity for regular first team football finally shut. Most people expected Raul to either retire or follow the traditional path and cross over to the other side of Atlantic for one last hurrah in the MLS.
Naturally when Raul announced his decision to sign for Schalke, a second tier German club from Gelsenkirchen, many eyebrows were raised. Especially after he rejected the advances of Manchester United and his long-time fan Sir Alex for the second time in a decade. But Schalke offered Raul one thing that neither MLS nor Manchester United could offer – a centralised role in the team and Champions League football. After a remarkable campaign in the 2009/10 season, Schalke had finished second in the league behind Bayern, earning themselves direct qualification into the group stages of the Champions League.
Raul’s start with Schalke was bit of an anti-climax; the kind you get after watching an intense courtroom drama on TV, only to have everyone hugging and kissing in the end. The hype and fervour that surrounded Raul’s arrival at Gelsenkirchen dimmed as Schalke started off their Bundesliga campaign disastrously, plummeting to the bottom even before the first month was over.
In a dramatic, turbulent season, where good fortune and disaster were juxtaposed side by side, worthy of comparison to the Leverkusen side of 2001/02, famously dubbed “Neverkusen”, Schalke eventually placed fourteenth in the league after a final day defeat to Köln. Earlier this year, they got rid of the man who was responsible for persuading Raul to trade his royal white for the Royal Blues: Felix Magath. Now don’t get me wrong, Magath is a fantastic coach – the man who was responsible for Wolfsburg’s tremendous run a few seasons back that won them the Bundesliga title. He also won the league and the German Cup double consecutively with Bayern. At Schalke, however, this precedence counted for nothing and soon the Veltins faithful began to call for his resignation as Schalke showed no signs of stopping their downward plummet. He was eventually let-go for non-footballing reasons as club chairman Clemens Tonnies gave an obscure account of transfer irregularities and whatnots that led to firing Magath.
On the contrary, their European campaign reached unprecedented heights as they broke into the UEFA Champions League semi-finals for the first time in their history. For Raul, it was as much as a club milestone as a personal triumph after he reclaimed his status as Europe’s top goal scorer – which he had momentarily lost to Pippo Inzaghi, after the latter netted two goals, ironically against Real Madrid, in the group stages. As they bowed out against a fantastic Manchester United side in the semis, many lamented this to be Raul’s final European appearance.
If you’ve followed Raul’s career over the years, you ought to have realised one thing by now: it’s impossible to push this man off the centre-stage. He always finds a way to climb back to the spotlight, like he did this season – after a slow start, marred by several embarrassing defeats, Raul ultimately finished the season as Schalke’s top scorer with 19 goals in all competition. Quite an impressive tally for a man who is about to celebrate his 34th birthday at the end of this month.
Recently in an interview with Sid Lowe for The Guardian, which you can read here, he spoke about life in Germany. If you read through, you’ll think this cannot be the man who carried the weight of Real Madrid on his shoulders almost all of his life. You’d have expected him to lament his spent years wearing the white colours of the Merengue, you’d have expected him to distribute dollops of praise for a club he undoubtedly loves but no longer has a place in, instead—you see a man who confesses that he feels like a kid again, who says he has regained the joy in football he once lost and that he is determined to play on until his legs can carry him across the pitch no more. You see a brand new Raul, a Raul who is no longer synonymous with Real Madrid, but rather has become the new emblem of a little-known German club named Fußball-Club Gelsenkirchen-Schalke 04, commonly known as Schalke 04.
To gauge his popularity among the Gelsenkirchen faithful, after the game against Inter at the Veltins, he was invited by the fans to lead the post-game celebrations. His rapport with the fans has been tremendous and sometimes it’s hard to fathom that he had only been at the club for ten months. As he prepares to sign an extension beyond 2012, the road for Raul could not be any clearer. He’s back again in Europe after winning the DFB Pokal Cup against Duisburg (coincidentally, the UEFA Cup/Europa League is the only major silverware he is missing from his collection), he’s playing without that pressure cooker effect of playing at the Bernabeu and he has a manager who has made it clear that Raul will very much be a part of his plans as Schalke will look to snatch the Bundesliga title from arch rivals Dortmund.
What’s next for Schalke?
To avoid a repeat of this disastrous domestic campaign, Ralf Rangnick has quite a bit of work to do this summer. It will start with finding a worthy replacement for Manuel Neuer who, after spending twenty years at Schalke, has finally joined Bayern Munich. To understand the importance of Neuer, according to Opta he has played a total of 4,799 minutes this season, a total of 54 competitive games – that’s more than any player in the entire Bundesliga. In an immediate response to his transfer, Schalke brought back their former youth teamer Ralf Fährmann from relegated Frankfurt. They have also been targeting several other goalkeepers including Ajax’s Maarten Stekelenburg. Recently, there have also been reports suggesting Schalke are keen to bring in former German international and Schalke keeper Jens Lehman as back up for Fährmann.
Solving the problem of finding Neuer’s replacement is the first step to rebuilding a defense that was largely responsible for much of last season’s bad performances – giving away the ball too easily, finding themselves dumbfounded and confused in the middle of the game, leading to opposition counterattacks and goals, poor man marking, giving away too much space in the eighteen yard box – the list is inexhaustible. The toughest to swallow was undoubtedly the ruthless 5-0 massacre at Kaiserslautern. In almost fifty per cent of their league games this season, they went into the second half trailing their opponents and on average, they conceded 1.29 goals per match.
Among the current defenders they have, the only one with a future prospect is Benedickt Höwedes, who recently made his national team debut in the friendly against Uruguay. Metzelder and Hans Sarpei may have a wealth of experience but they lack the pace and sharpness they once possessed. Sarpei played only a total of twelve games and made five substitute appearances and will likely to continue with his marginal role. Uchida and Schmitz, the two fullbacks, while starting quite regularly this season, have been guilty of some awful defending. Escudero made nine starts and three substitute appearances, mostly in the German Cup, and jury’s still out on how much he’d feature in Rangnick’s plans next season. Bottom line remains that their defense gave them the biggest headache this year and unless they bring in new defenders, it will put a huge damper on their Europa League ambitions next season. There’s a hint of irony here since the previous season Schalke had the best defensive record in the league alongside Bayern, letting in only 31 goals.
Their midfield prospects are a lot better, after losing Rakitic to Sevilla midseason, with the return of their wunderkind winger Lewis Holtby, who had a terrific season at Mainz. Jurado has also been instrumental in Schalke’s run of play, helping to secure several late comebacks and provided the creative outlet in the rest of the games. Another wunderkind, Julian Draxler, started five times and came off the bench nineteen more times, grabbing three goals in the process. At seventeen, he was also the youngest player ever to score in the German Cup final against Duisburg. Farfan has been in decent form, being their highest assist provider at six assists this season (two less than his tally of 8 in the previous one) and currently Schalke are trying to extend his contract till 2015.
Holtby’s addition would boost the much needed creativity and play-making opportunities in the team. He operates as a winger and can play on both sides. His crosses and through balls had put Mainz on a terrific run at the beginning that saw them cruise to the top with seven out of seven wins – he was also a regular starter, having played thirty games this season. Holtby also has a keen eye for goal, having scored four times this season. He is also an established German international for their youth teams, having played for the U18s, U19s, U20s and the U21s and played a friendly against Sweden with their senior team last year. He has repeatedly spoken of his desire to represent the German national side as opposed to England, where his father was a former soldier from Liverpool. A glimpse of why Holtby is so highly rated below:
There were also talks about Sergio Canales joining them on loan, but progressively it looks unlikely after Canales expressed his desire to stay in Spain. Personally, I’d have thought it would have been a great move for Canales, as opposed to say Villarreal or even back to Racing though the latter’s unlikely to happen. Schalke will be in Europe next season, giving Canales European football. Their much needed creativity in the team would have ensured Canales regular starts and the lack of pressure to perform regularly – something he undoubtedly would’ve gotten a taste of at Real Madrid – would’ve allowed him develop as a player. With three Spanish players already playing there, settling in would’ve never been a problem either.
Up front, Raúl is in decent form; Huntelaar came back from a lengthy injury to score twice during the cup final. Edu and Charisteas make reasonable back-ups. Though, the question to ask is – would this suffice for Europa League next season? Despite Schalke’s miraculous run, that included putting five past a poor, disorganised Inter Milan side at the San Siro, their record in the domestic league has been extremely poor. They lacked flair, seldom attacked and were happy to sit back and catch the opposition on the counter – except with a weak defense like theirs, it almost always backfired in their faces. I still remember the Frankfurt game where Magath took off Jurado, their only creative force in the midfield, and threw on Matip and played the rest of the game with three defensive midfielders. The Royal Blues drew 0-0 only because Frankfurt could not finish off the game.
Schalke scored only 38 goals this season, an average of 1.11 per game, missing many sitters and decent chances, compared to the 53 they had in the previous campaign. Their record away from home was one of the worst in the league, where they scored only an average of 0.82 goals and failed to even get on the scoreline in 35 per cent of their games. Though they have made use of 31 players this season, I would still expect Rangnick to bring in a couple of new players to boost their line-up – preferably one or two defenders and a defensive midfielder, and a creative playmaker. Reports are suggesting that Mainz leftback Christian Fuchs is close to joining Schalke on a fee of €5m. Fuchs can also play in the midfield. On the other hand, it remains unclear if Jermaine Jones will return from his loan at Blackburn, as Rovers are keen to keep him.
The transfer window has just opened and the next three months would probably see everyone and their mothers being linked to every other club in Europe. But for Schalke, their next season’s target has already been set – with precedence on their side, Schalke will be looking to take the Europa League by storm and challenge arch rivals Dortmund for the title. Having already reached rock bottom earlier this season, the only way they can go is up.