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Schalke move has revitalized Raúl

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For one man in particular, this was a monumental moment. Raúl González Blanco said that reaching the final would have been the leche. The leche literally means the milk: incredible, brilliant, the business. Reaching the semifinal was the leche, too. Reaching it the way that he did, even more so. After the first leg, Raúl had swapped shirts with Ryan Giggs. For him, it was an "honor," he said; for Giggs, too. When the final whistle went at the end of the second leg, Raúl had possession. It was appropriate somehow. He bowed out of the Champions League, his competition, with the football at his feet.

Raúl had lost, but Raúl had won. He never expected to even be there. He never anticipated his farewell being so fitting -- at Old Trafford, scene of one of his team's greatest nights. There could have been more and there is still a chapter to be written but, until now Raúl had been arguably the story of this season's Champions League. He had won respect. He had won back his record. And, above all, he had won back his life.

Before Schalke met Manchester United, Alex Ferguson admitted that he had been interested in signing Raúl last summer. He decided against it, he said, because he already had Michael Owen. The explanation was offered up as excuse, a hint of sadness and disappointment in his voice. Others wondered what might have been -- Raúl almost certainly among them. But Raúl could not have been happier. In the end, he chose Germany. It was a difficult choice; it was also the right choice

When Raúl departed Real Madrid in the summer, it seemed to be the beginning of the end. The assumption was that he would head for the United States or to Qatar. He was no longer fast enough; at 33, he wouldn't be, either. The previous season he had scored just five league goals. Jose Mourinho made it clear that if he stayed he would play a secondary role. Raúl, whose footballing ilusión -- his hope and enthusiasm -- remains undimmed, wanted to play football. Proper football.

It would have been easy to take the money and run. Run? No, walk. A Russian club told him to name his price but some things are priceless. Instead, he had balls. He chose a club that was in the Champions League -- and that factor was a deal breaker -- and was playing at a competitive level in a competitive league. "Schalke," he says, "gave me the opportunity to play regularly and compete." That came at a price: he chose a new country, a new football, new teammates and a new language. Frankly, most expected him to fail.

He hasn't.

Raúl has 11 more Champions League goals than anyone else ever. That includes five scored this season. He has scored 19 goals in all competitions for Schalke. He has reclaimed his title as the highest goal scorer ever in European competitions; Pippo Inzaghi won it off him again but Raúl took it back. He has also overtaken Paolo Maldini as the player with the most European Cup appearances in history.

He helped his side to a semifinal they never expected: they got as far as his former club did. Schalke fans stop him to say thanks. This weekend, he plays in the German Cup final. The domestic cup is the only competition he has never won at club level.

But it is not just about that. As Raúl himself puts it: next year, Schalke will not be in the Champions league but he will not be moving on. In fact, he would happily extend his contract for a little longer and Schalke would happily extend it too. This has been a success for all those reasons, but for others too. There is something else, something less tangible. Raúl is happy. And sometimes the most basic human emotions are the most important.

As the Spanish phrase has it, Raúl is futbolero -- he is passionate about football. "What I really like is football," he says. He means it too: it is that passion, the commitment and seriousness with which he approaches the game that has allowed him to go so far. He is not the most technically gifted player, nor the quickest, nor the strongest. He never has been. But he is astute, clever, and dedicated.

The trouble is that it is a love for the game that can make you fall out of love with the game; the joy you once felt as a footballer can make football feel joyless. On the inside, football can be dirty. Downright horrible. The game becomes less and less about the game. What was once peripheral can feel like it is taking center stage, overshadowing what should be at the heart of it all. As the former Almería coach Juanma Lillo memorably puts it: "the garnish has eaten the steak."

That is especially important for someone like Raúl. After 16 seasons at Real Madrid, he needed to discover the game again -- and only the game. He rejects suggestions that he should have gone to Germany sooner. In an interview given to The Guardian and the Daily Mail, he does admit: "I did reach a point at which I felt that [the Madrid] chapter had closed. If I wanted to carry on enjoying football, I had to leave. I could have stayed but it wouldn't have been what I wanted. I wouldn't be enjoying it."

Raúl broke into the Real Madrid team at 17 and did not leave it again until he was 33, a lifetime lived under the watchful eye of the public and the media. There are two newspapers printing eight, nine, 10 or even more pages on Real Madrid every single day -- and that's just the sports media. It all looks so easy from the outside but the tension, the pressure, the constant judging, can become too much.

For some players, it is impossible to function at Real Madrid. For many years Raúl functioned. But for him the pressure was even greater. He became captain at possibly the most political, pressurized club in the world. The most unstable, too. As he jokes, Madrid must have had 15 or 16 coaches since Ferguson took over at United in 1986. In fact, they have had 20 (and some of them more than once). New presidents meant more than just a different man at the top; they really were regime changes. And there could be no guarantee that the new regime wanted you to succeed. It's all about the club, they say, but it rarely is. Raúl had to handle that.

At least, he thought so. The captaincy was a role he took extremely seriously. Too seriously -- some players describe him as "pesado", heavy going, hard work. Some found that they could not get on with him; there were confrontations and simmering resentments. There were hidden interests, media events and sponsors' demands. Accused of abusing his authority, Raúl resented it too. The captaincy took its toll, exacting a heavy price.

"At Madrid, apart from playing football, I had other responsibilities, and many of them," he explains. "In the end, that saps your energy. I needed to be focused just on training and playing and enjoying myself with my teammates. I don't worry about other things now: there aren't events every week, responsibilities."

That, he admitted, had to change. "I reached the point," he says, "where I needed to escape."

In Germany he has. On a lovely sunny spring morning in Gelsenkirchen, Schalke is training at its HQ alongside the club's stadium. You can spot Raúl a mile off, that same bandylegged gait the scurrying run. A huge crowd has gathered around the pitch, watching. Many wear Raúl shirts. There must be well over a thousand of them there, not a single gap is left by the barriers that round the turf. And yet there is silence. It is almost reverential. It is also the perfect portrait of the change, from the screaming and shouting in Madrid.

It is relaxing, different. There have been few obligations. There have been virtually no media commitments -- his interview with The Guardian and The Mail is almost unique. Life in Gelsenkirchen and Düsseldorf, where he lives, has been fun. It has also been his own at last. On one occasion, Raúl even ended up in the stands alongside the fans, leading them in their celebrations, something that would have been unthinkable in Madrid. Now, read Raúl's earlier comment again: "if I had stayed at Madrid, I wouldn't be enjoying myself." Enjoy is the word. Now, he is. Like never before.

Raúl has always been pleasant and impeccably polite one-on-one. Softly spoken and interesting, he has always been engaging on football matters too. Asked about José Antonio Reyes once, soon after the Spaniard had moved to Arsenal, Raúl reeled off his fixtures: he had taken a genuine interest. He was generous with his time and interested as well as interesting; there was a ready smile, a gentle chuckle or two. But talking to him in Germany is something else. The voice remains soft but it is faster. These are belly-laughs, this is to the point, analytical, sharp, revealing.

He has never looked more relaxed, more at ease, more comfortable. More happy. There is a breeziness about him, a spark, a lucidity. Outside the restaurant window, a small group of Schalke fans wait for his autograph. They don't bang on the window, they don't shout, they just wait. Inside, he waves to others as he passes and settles into his seat. He seems to actually enjoy chatting; stop on the tape recorder doesn't mean stop altogether. Staff at Schalke speak highly of him; some can hardly believe he -- Raúl! -- is here. Or that this guy -- polite, unassuming, so at ease -- is Raúl.

He is Raúl, sure, but more so. Unplugged, unconstrained and untroubled. He is finding the language difficult, but even that might actually be an advantage -- a cocoon of linguistic ignorance. He trains, plays, and heads home. No worries. Quite honestly, he says, the Schalke players have not felt under pressure once this season. He hasn't. This weekend, for the first time, his team will be expected to win. Maybe now there will be pressure. But Raúl is already a winner.

For the Spaniard, victory hasn't just about winning football matches. In fact, it hasn't even mainly been about that. And yet the results have been seen on the pitch, too. "The psychological side of the game, of life, is hugely important," he says, "it depends where you are, on the presión mediática, the pressure from the media and everything that surrounds the club. You see players at 27 and think: 'he's finished'. Then you see players at 30, sometimes the same player, and think, 'wow, he's flying.' Often that's confidence, comfort, environment. You see [them] and you think 'bloody heck, he's like a kid!'."

He could be talking about himself.

Could be? Is.