It is the great screaming truth of Spanish football whose name nobody dares speak. It is the 400lb gorilla in the room that everybody is pretending not to see. It is a subject so taboo that the Spanish press have barely touched it and that Real Madrid fans, even if they are old friends, shy away from raising it at home. As if this were politics and we were in Iraq, or Cuba or North Korea. But there is no getting away from it ... Raul, captain of Spain and Real Madrid, is no more. He is not half the player he used to be. He is less than that. He is an ex-footballer.
Or he has been, at any rate, for three years now. To be more exact, ever since Sir Alex Ferguson described him on the night of Tuesday 8 April 2003 as "the best player in the world", he has practically disappeared from view. Actually, there was something of a Fergie curse in there. The Manchester United manager was speaking at a press conference after Real Madrid had murdered his team 3-1 (on points for artistic merit: 10-1) in a Champions' League quarter final at the Bernabeu. Asked how his team could make up the deficit in the return leg, he replied that he hoped Raul, who had scored twice, did not like travelling "or failing that, that they won't let him into the country".
The Scot's wish came implausibly true. Two days before the game Raul had to be rushed to hospital for - of all things - an appendix operation. He watched the stunningly exciting Old Trafford game, which United won 4-3, from his hospital bed. And in a sense, he has never emerged from his hospital bed since. Maybe the appendix was to his football what Samson's hair was to his strength but, whatever the case, Raul's convalescence continues. And continues, and continues. He had not scored a goal - in any competition, in a Madrid, or a Spain, or any other shirt - since 26 October until he found the target for his country in their 2-0 friendly win over Egypt last Saturday. Admittedly, he was out with an injury for three months of last season, but a total of seven goals in 32 games from a man who is the top scorer in the history of the Champions' League, a competition he had won three times by the age of 25, does rank as a story of pretty major proportions.
The odd, eccentrically courageous football pundit has ventured the thought that maybe Raul does not deserve his place in Spain's World Cup starting XI for their opening game against Ukraine on 14 June. But no one has been proclaiming it from the rooftops. Football writers who pride themselves on their forthrightness, who thunder with Old Testament indignation about the deficiencies in Beckham's or Ronaldo's game, have been silent as lambs on the self-evident fact that if you strip Raul's past history away from him, if you shear away the legend, there are at least half a dozen players worthier of a place in the Spanish squad than he. Imagine Sven Goran Eriksson picking Bobby Charlton for Germany...
OK, this is a slight exaggeration. But if you talk candidly to Real Madrid fans and club directors they will admit that for the last three seasons (in which Raul has scored a total of 25 league goals) Real Madrid have been practically playing with 10 men. It is uncanny - more than uncanny, bewildering - how often during this period you have found yourself half an hour into watching a Real Madrid game on television and someone in the room has piped up, in all seriousness, "By the way, is Raul playing?" when he has been, from the start.
What has gone wrong with the player regarded by most as the best in Spanish history? Some complex anatomical theories have been advanced concerning his heel and his knee, but everything suggests that the problem lies inside his head. In the same way that it is in his head that his greatest strength has always lain. The fascinating thing about Raul when he was at his peak was that you saw him alongside the likes of Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo (both of whom, incidentally, glowed with praise for him) and you wondered how on earth he had managed to insinuate himself into such princely company.
Defining him as a player has always been a tricky business. He has lacked pace, he has never been much of a dribbler, he has not got a great shot (especially not on his right foot), he is a mediocre header of the ball. Fernando Redondo, a former Argentina international and a team-mate at Real when Raul made his debut in October 1994, once remarked on how unimpressed he had been by first appearances: "He didn't look like a footballer. He didn't look like he would make it." It was true. He did not look the part at all. Spindly, bow-legged, short, ungainly - he was the anti-Zidane.
The key to his success, more than any other successful contemporary player, lay more with what went on in his mind than what he could do with his feet. It was his rock-hard single-mindedness that set him apart; what Jorge Valdano, his first coach at Real Madrid, called his "insolent self-belief". "He possesses a superior intelligence," Valdano said of Raul, "but what sets him apart is his extraordinary power of concentration. He has the self-control of someone who has lived three lives".
The problem now, one senses, is that he has lived more than three lives; that his football span is spent. Biologically he may be only 28 (soon going on 29), but in football years he is closer to 38. A former professional in the Spanish league, talking confidentially about Raul recently, said that a footballer's capacity to keep going should be compared to that of a car. "It's not a question of age," the ex-footballer said. "It's the miles that have been done." And in that sense Raul, who began his top-flight career at Real aged 17, is an old-timer, one whose engine - so many huge games in Spain and in Europe in the intensely pressured atmosphere of Real Madrid - has been well and truly flogged.
Compared to Raul's implosion, and the official silence that surrounds it, the debate over David Beckham's fitness to wear the England shirt is something of a joke. Ask any season-ticket holder at the Bernabeu to answer honestly (well, you might have to put a gun to his head first) which player has contributed more to the Real cause these last three years, the England or the Spain captain, and he will look at you as if you were mad. The truth is that whereas Raul has progressively dwindled, Beckham has remained much the same. In fact, anyone who saw the 50-yard pass from Roberto Carlos that Beckham controlled on the run, on the half-volley, prior to scoring in the last game of the season against Seville, might wonder whether three years alongside Zidane had proved blessedly contagious.
As for Raul, the abiding memory of the tail-end of the season is of a clear shot on goal that he sliced so badly it nearly hit the corner flag.
Any chance that he will rise Lazarus-like in this World Cup? Everyone who loves football, and who is not drawn against Spain, would fervently hope so. Ferguson was exaggerating, but not by much. Raul has been one of the world's great, talismanic players these last 10 years. It would be nice to think that there is still some fire left in his belly, but it feels like a fond hope.
A matter of opinion: What they say about Raul and what he says himself
* "Raul is the best forward in Europe" - Javier Clemente, former Spain, Real Sociedad, Espanyol and Marseilles coach (1 April 2000).
* "When he plays, in his mind there is only the goal; it's the essence of football. Every time [such players] do something, you stand up on your seat." - Thierry Henry (25 June 2000)."
* "He is a disgrace to the good name of Real Madrid and the tradition of Spanish football." - Spanish newspaper, following the goal Raul scored with his hand against Leeds United in the Champions' League in 2001."
* "Raul is one of the best players in Europe. He is Real Madrid's spirit. He is like [Lothar] Matthäus for us: indispensable, and with a bad haircut." - Franz Beckenbauer, former West Germany coach (9 May 2000)."
* "He is a winner. He is the inheritance of Real Madrid." - Fabio Capello, Juventus and former Milan, Roma and Real Madrid coach (15 Nov 1999)."
* "Raul is my black beast." - Jesus Gil, the controversial former chairman of Atletico Madrid (29 October 1999)."
* "I believe Raul should have left Real Madrid a couple of years ago." - Jorge Valdano, then director of football at Real Madrid (6 June 2002)."
* "These are bad times to be a Real Madrid player." - Raul (speaking in March 2005)."
* "I still feel useful to the club and believe I have not reached my peak, but I don't want to be in the way. All I want is for the club to be clear with me." - Raul (speaking in June 2005)."
* "If I listen to polls in papers, it looks as though I should leave. I want what is best for Real Madrid. If at some time I have to sacrifice myself for Real to progress I will." - Raul (speaking in November 2005).
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