Football: Raul faces real examination

Simon Turnbull explains why Spain are still waiting for their main man to mature
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The Independent Online
WHEN Spain crashed out of Euro 96, courtesy of David Seaman's penalty shoot-out heroics at Wembley, the nation turned on Javier Clemente. Even in Barcelona the Spanish coach was vilified for having left behind the wonder boy from the Bernabeu. What Spain needed in England, the country cried, was Gonzalez Blanco Raul, the teenager whose particularly striking talents prompted his club to be popularly re-named Raul Madrid.

Clemente, a bluff chain- smoking Basque, demurred. "Raul is a bright boy," he said, "but Euro 96 was a job for men." Raul is 21 on the 27th of this month, the day the World Cup knock-out stages begin. France 98 is the boy wonder's chance to show he has become a man.

He already has a man-sized bank account, having signed an pounds 8m 10-year contract with Real Madrid as an 18-year-old. He has a man-sized medal collection too, the kind of which the 27-year-old Alan Shearer and indeed the 31-year-old Paul Gascoigne can only dream. His two Spanish championship medals were joined last month by a European Cup winner's medal. A World Cup medal might be added to the Raul collection on 12 July. Spain have yet to reach a World Cup final but, as Jupp Heynckes - having found employment as a World Cup pundit after having to bite the boardroom bullet at the Bernabeu - pointed out: "Spain have never had a team as good as the one they have now. As a German, I wish we had attacking players with the flair of Raul."

Last season Heynckes' predecessor as Real coach, Fabio Capello, hailed Raul as "the best player in the world". Clemente thought so too. He voted for Spain's two-legged national treasure as world footballer of 1997. Raul, however, will step on to the World Cup stage against Paraguay in Nantes on Saturday looking to restore his reputation after a season of some strife.

Though the familiar sparkle returned in the closing weeks of the Primera Liga, his fitful performance in the European Cup final reflected the form he showed for much of the domestic campaign. His scoring exploits off the pitch became a cause for national concern as he endured three months without a goal for Real. In March, after waging a winter-long war with the Spanish media, he called a press conference to apologise. "I was angered and confused by the stories and rumours about my private life," he said. "But that has not been the main reason for my bad patch. I have been troubled by a groin injury for months."

Raul enjoyed a trouble-free night in El Sardinero Stadium, Santander, on Wednesday as Spain completed their World Cup preparations with a 4- 1 win against Northern Ireland. He spent the first half probing sublimely in his old-fashioned inside-left role. The first-time pass with his left instep that turned an upfield punt from Amor into a point-blank chance for Pizzi was the stuff of creative genius. So was the lightning left- wing break and measured ball along the six-yard line which presented the opening goal to Pizzi.

Raul spent the second 45 minutes next to Clemente on the bench, watching the stuff of goalscoring genius. It took Fernando Morientes, Pizzi's replacement as Spain's central striker, two minutes and three touches to get the ball past Alan Fettis. He did so with an assured left-footed finish. Then, midway through the half, he did so again, this time with the deftest of stunned headers. It was clear to see why Davor Suker has been confined to the sidelines at the Bernabeu this season. Morientes, like Raul a year ago, has been the sensation of the Spanish season. He scored twice against Sweden on his debut for the national team and goes to France with a 200 per cent scoring record, with four goals from two games. It is Morientes rather than Raul, 14 months his junior, who has emerged as the natural predator Spain has lacked since Emilio Butragueno, whose Real Madrid No 7 shirt was assumed by the 17-year-old Raul.

"Raul has never been a specialist goalscorer," Clemente said. "When he gets the ball he is not looking just to score goals himself. You see him looking up, working out the best place to pass the ball, to create space or to create a goal - for someone else if not himself."

That catalytic craft was evident in the World Youth Cup in Qatar in 1995. The opening goal of the tournament was fashioned by Raul and finished by Morientes. The dynamic young duo took Spain to the semi-finals. If they both come of age in France, their country could be in with a final chance once again.