Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Spain See Raul as Icon to Out-Becks Beckham; Football

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Spain See Raul as Icon to Out-Becks Beckham; Football

Article excerpt


WE will see a born leader taking the pitch at Villa Park tonight.

He is young, gifted and loaded, the nation's number one pinup and best footballer, plying his trade for its most celebrated club.

He is a working-class lad who has become impossibly feted and copes extraordinarily well in the bubble of celebrity that would suffocate others.

Married to another glamorous celebrity, whose talent is eclipsed by his, and perceived as a thoroughly modern doting dad to their baby boy, his life is the glossy magazines' dream.

Even when his compatriots turned their wrath on him for one inexplicable lapse which signalled the end of a football dream, nothing could deflect his determination to overcome it all and win back their respect. He actually became a better player for it.

So that would be England's new captain David Beckham, then?

Wrong. We are talking of Raul Gonzalez Blanco, Spain's icon and the man who, perhaps, poses the biggest threat to ruining the big night for his English equivalent.

How to spot the difference? Well, even as he attempts to convince Sven-Goran Eriksson that the captain's armband should be his property beyond this match, Beckham cannot quite see himself as a "born leader".

Yet when you hear Spanish football's finest drooling about Raul, the phrase keeps recurring.

This is Portugal's Luis Figo, an even more celebrated Real Madrid colleague, on Raul. "He is a leader on the pitch, and I admire his ability to carry the team on his shoulders. He is a born winner and a born leader who lives his football with an extraordinary intensity. Off the pitch, too, he is an exceptional individual."

An individual who, like Beckham, faces exceptional pressures. You could recognise this as Spanish fans milled around in the team hotel yesterday armed with autograph books and tunnel vision.

There were some of the world's best among this squad - Josep Guardiola, Gaizka Mendieta, Luis Enrique - but Raul, the retiring, down-to-earth young hero, was the only catch.

He is the rarest diamond in a squad blessed with the glittering technical gifts capable of making Eriksson's hastily-assembled debut a pretty humbling affair tonight, so it was comforting to remind ourselves that we were talking Spain here, the one football nation to constantly eclipse us in the art of underachievement.

Their latest anticlimax, even if it was not as pitiful as England's, came at Euro 2000 when Raul ballooned a last-minute penalty to gift victory to France. Some cried for him but quite as many slaughtered him for lack of nerve.

Just as Beckham found instant

forgiveness a forlorn hope after his rather more petulant misplaced kick in the Argentina game was perceived to have sealed our World Cup fate, so there was no immediate rush to comfort a kid who earned a billion pesetas a year but apparently still could not shoot straight.

Raul's response, aided by Real Madrid's world-record signing of Figo which deflected attention from him, proved as impressive as Beckham's.

"Look at what he's done since.

Nothing but carry on scoring important goals just as before," remarked his Madrid team-mate, Ivan Helguera, who is with him in Birmingham. "His future in football was never going to be changed by one penalty miss. …

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