In the final minutes of Schalke's pre-season friendly against Qatar club Al Sadd, a 13-year-old boy occupied the club's fourth board. There was an illuminated number seven on it. As is tradition in Germany, the announcer of the stadium proclaimed the substitution by saying the number and allowing fans to shout the player's name. The crowd thanked them and the name "Rauuuul" sounded on the floor. The 36-year-old left the field, saluted the crowd and hugged the boy on the side – his eldest son, Jorge.
This was Raúl's last game for Schalke, played against the team he had agreed to join next. He played half for each team, scoring two goals against his new employers in the process. This was his final farewell to a club that took him to their hearts, and one that found a place in his.
The match against Al Sadd was attended by a crowd of 60,000 people – something unheard of for a friendly match. Schalke could have sold out the stadium almost twice. More than 100,000 fans asked about tickets, leaving many disappointed. To compensate, the club erected screens around the floor, creating a unique atmosphere for the occasion.
Felix Magath had caught many off guard when he signed Raúl – then a top scorer in the Champions League – for Schalke in 2010. Even though Raúl was in the twilight of his career, convincing him to leave Madrid for Germany's industrial heartland. still a kind of coup. Raúl declined profitable moves for Russia, Qatar and the United States, citing Schalke's involvement in the Champions League as a decisive factor – a sign that his competitive ambition had not abated.
Raúl's first game for Schalke was against Louis van Gaal's defending champions Bayern Munich in a pre-season tournament. The entire German football audience was thrilled to see him leave for Königsblau, but there were still doubts. How would he adapt to a new football league and culture? Was he a spent force? Despite being a club legend at Real Madrid, Raúl was slowly pushed to the periphery.
The doubts quickly disappeared. He scored his first goal in the 25th minute, hitting a rebound to poke closely. He hadn't lost a ounce of hunter's instinct. It was a dream start, but what followed nine minutes later was something very special indeed. Raúl moved away from the marker to catch a short pass 25 meters from the goal. He controlled the ball, gave another touch to dodge three Bayern defenders and then lifted the ball over the goalkeeper, whose desperate dive made the goal look even sweeter.
Raúl did not have to look up before shooting; he had already assessed the situation before the pass arrived. His run made the pass, which in turn took the chance. He had seen everything before it happened. He knew that the goalkeeper had strayed far and would not have time to get back on the line. The three taps on the left foot had eliminated Bayern's bottom line.
Raúl in action for Schalke in 2012. Photo: Alexander Hassenstein / Getty Images
Raúl had arrived in Germany. It would be the beginning of a love story. Despite starting with a blow against Bayern, he did not set the Bundesliga on fire. His team fought from the start – winning just one of their first 10 games – and it took Raúl until the end of September to leave the mark. However, once he scored that first goal, he never looked back. The match against St. Pauli was followed by two hat-trick tricks before the winter break.
Raúl was paired with new recruit Klaas Jan Huntelaar at the front, but Schalke continued to underperform and Magath was relieved of his duties in March. The team ended the 14th season on the table, six points above the relegation zone, after adding one point in the last five league games.
Despite the mistakes made in the Bundesliga, Schalke found solace in World Cup competitions. Raúl helped the club reach the first semi-final of the Champions League, scoring five goals in the competition before their race ended abruptly against defending champions Manchester United.
At DFB Pokal, however, Raúl and his team took it a step further. The emblematic number 7 made the difference in the semifinal, scoring the only goal in a close victory over Bayern Munich, scoring a final against second division Duisburg. Schalke had a decent pedigree in the cup, but they haven't made it to the final since 2005 and haven't lifted the trophy in almost a decade. In fact, for all his honors in Spain and Europe, Raúl had never won a national cup. That changed at Olympiastadion. Schalke controlled the match from the start and it became clear 5-0 winners.
Raúl's second and last season with Schalke started with the Super Cup, the traditional pre-season game between the league and the Cup holders. Across the city, Jürgen Klopp started something special with Schalke's archrival Borussia Dortmund, winning the league for the first time in nine years. However, it was Königsblau who triumphed in the Super Cup, beating Klopp's men on penalties.
Despite losing coach Ralf Rangnick at the start of the season, Schalke became a better team than the previous season, establishing themselves in the top four. As for Raúl, he continued doing what he did best, scoring and scoring goals. He became an influential member of the team, and when Benedikt Höwedes lost a game through injury, Raúl received the captain's armband. He scored one goal and scored another in a 4-0 victory.
The objectives continued through the winter. He hit a hat-trick at Werder Bremen in the league; he scored his 400th career goal in February; and scored his 77th and last goal in European competition against Athletic Bilbao in the Europa League. However, on April 19, Raúl announced that he would leave the club at the end of the season. Schalke would have offered him € 4 million to stay for another year, but he had made up his mind. His career in Europe ended.
Raúl celebrates after scoring against Hertha Berlin in 2012. Photo: Boris Streubel / Getty Images
Raúl's last match for Schalke was a comprehensive 4-0 victory over Hertha Berlin. It goes without saying that he scored in that game too. After the final whistle, he walked around the field with his children, cheering fans and wiping tears from his eyes. There was a real feeling that the curtain was falling on something special. Raúl was finally getting the expulsion he deserved – although Schalke fans in Gelsenkirchen and not Real fans in Madrid.
He has only been in Germany for two seasons, but his impact on Schalke – and the Bundesliga as a whole – cannot be underestimated. In addition to his obvious talent, his commitment, professionalism and behavior were an example for everyone. He understood and embraced fans who were fiercely in love in a part of Germany known for his love of the game. His class and humility won admirers across the country, while his qualities on the field spread a touch of glamor in the league.
Since his first match, Raúl has shown that he can not only score goals, but also score beautiful goals. He won the goal of the month award four times and the goal of the year in 2011 and 2013, the latter together with Julian Draxler. In all, he scored 40 times in 98 games, including 28 league goals in 66 games.
On the pitch after the Hertha Berlin game, Raúl received a framed number 7 shirt, signed by all his teammates. As a sign of respect, the shirt was removed – and, although it is now back to rotation, the man who wore it in those two seasons will never be replaced.