Re-Born In The U.S.A.
My career in Spain was amazing, but a chance to play and help develop the next generation with the Cosmos was too much to pass up.
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When I look at any of the young players that take part in the Cosmos’ Training and Development Program coaching clinics, I see the one thing that, for all of my own career success, I can never have again: untapped potential. The ability to work with these blossoming talents and to impart my own lessons and experiences from over two decades of professional soccer is why I’m here now in New York, preparing for a new season in a new country when perhaps I thought my own playing days were finished.
On a personal level, I’m thrilled to be here. This is a wonderful opportunity for my family and we have very much enjoyed our time here so far. A city like New York is a great place to live and will allow my wife and me to give our five children a great education and opportunities for the future. Living here is like living in a movie, with a lot of things to do and to discover every moment. It’s not easy to move to a new city with a large family, but after six months now, the kids are well integrated in their new school, have made new friends, and my wife is very happy, which you know is quite important!
One famous No. 7 points to another in Times Square. (Photo: New York Cosmos.)
My family settling in so well also has allowed me to really focus on starting my work with the Cosmos, both as a player and as a major piece in establishing their landmark training academy. The Cosmos brand is known worldwide — fans recall the days of world legends like Pele and Giorgio Chinaglia and Franz Beckenbauer — and I look forward to helping establish the next generation of stars at the club. There remains massive potential for soccer in the United States, and I like that the Cosmos are looking to do something a little different in cultivating that potential, breaking away from the traditional ways in which American youth players have been developed.
That said, there still is some culture shock here when it comes to soccer and what it takes to succeed at the game’s highest levels, even with more and more access to the matches of famous clubs from overseas. The players I work with know me mostly from my time at Real Madrid, the world’s biggest club. There isn’t a superclub like Madrid in the United States yet, but I try to get them to understand what life was like at such a club, to help them further calibrate their dreams as they continue to develop as players.
I’m extremely honest with them. It’s very difficult to fashion a good career as a professional, let alone stay for so long at a club like Real Madrid. I joined the first team there when I was only 17, and I was lucky that my teammates at the time welcomed me with love. Real Madrid is like home to me. I grew both as a person and as a player there. Yes, you have the constant pressure from the media, both locally and globally — if you lose two matches in a row there’s a “mini-crisis” — but you wake up every day with the desire and passion to keep getting better and to try to make millions of people happy by winning and scoring goals.
Real Madrid’s Raúl Gonzalez reacts after scoring against Tenerife during a Spanish La Liga soccer match at the Heliodoro Rodriguez Lopez stadium on the Canary Island of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, Spain, Saturday, Feb. 27, 2010. (AP Photo/Arturo Rodriguez)
At Real Madrid, I also got to play with a host of world-class players, which helped push me to elevate my performance to keep my spot. I never liked the term “Galacticos” when it was coined in that era in the early 2000s when the club added a lot of top players — to me, it was just a marketing phrase — but there’s no denying the level of talent that arrived and wore the white with distinction. I got to play, practice and share a locker room with players such as Zinedine Zidane, David Beckham, Ronaldo, Figo, Fernando Hierro, Roberto Carlos, Iker Casillas and others — so many great players who have had world-class careers. It was a team that had so many fans and played such great soccer. It will always be remembered.
Overall, I am blessed to have spent 16 years at Madrid, but when I departed, it was the right time to say goodbye and to try different experiences. My subsequent years in Germany (with Schalke) and Qatar have helped me a lot and were great experiences that provided me with special memories, but I know I can always come back to Real Madrid to give back a little of what the club gave me for so many years. My wife and I are both from Madrid, and we know what the club has meant to us and to its supporters.
I have similarly good memories about my time with the Spanish national team, even though my run with the team ended just before the now-famous run of three straight major championships from 2008–12. I spent 10 beautiful years proudly representing my country with distinction. While I obviously would have loved to have been a part of the teams that won those European and World Cup titles, my time had passed, and I still enjoyed the victories immensely because I have a lot of friends who were embracing those moments that were so important in our nation’s sporting history.
During my time with the national team, there was talk about chemistry and possible discord in the locker room, especially between the players who represented Real Madrid and Barcelona. While it’s true there is a great rivalry between those clubs and their supporters, talk of issues within the national team were overstated.
When you are representing your country, professionals know how to put aside the tensions of club affiliation and pull together. Whatever happens in matches at the club level doesn’t take away focus on the common objective, which is to win trophies for Spain.
The national teams I was a part of were very good and had the ambition to do something big, but it never fully happened for us. At times, we were just a bit unlucky; maybe another bounce or call in our favor, and we would have broken through sooner. The 2008 squad also was talented, but perhaps a bit more balanced, and they were finally able to gave Spanish soccer what had been long due. Then they had four or five years in which Spain was the team everyone looked up to, and everyone loved to watch them play. As a former captain, seeing the world admire Spanish soccer made me very proud. It’s what we aspired to and knew was possible, and it finally was attained.
Raúl in a preseason match with the Cosmos in Hong Kong. (Photo: New York Cosmos)
Now, my journey has taken me to the United States. While I know my playing career is winding down, I still feel like I have a lot to offer on the pitch, and I look forward to showing that to the Cosmos, their fans, and the rest of the NASL starting with our home opener at Hofstra’s Shuart Stadium on April 18. I know that whatever happens in the competition, though, I also will have the ongoing opportunity to help shape this country’s next generation of soccer talent. For decades, this the U.S.A. has been considered a sleeping giant in world soccer, and its performances in recent World Cups shows its budding potential. Combine that with the opportunity for my family to experience life in New York City, and I’m very much looking forward to what these next few years have to offer.