Number Seven: Raul, A Wonder Of World Football

The Real Madrid legend broke yet another record on Sunday on his way to becoming one of the greatest footballers of all time...
Another game goes by, another record is broken by Raul Gonzalez Blanco. The Spanish striker struck a sweet volley into the bottom corner of Sporting Gijon's net just 15 minutes into Real Madrid's visit to El Molinon on Sunday. That was his 308th goal for los Blancos and makes him the club's all-time leading goal-scorer, surpassing the legendary Alfredo di Stefano.

This is, without doubt, the most significant record to be broken by the bullfighting No. 7, and he is now just one strike away from beating di Stefano's all-time league goals record too. Raul is already the leading scorer in the history of the European Cup/Champions League and has the highest tally of all UEFA competitions.

He is Spain's most capped outfield player of all time and also their leading scorer, though he controversially missed out on the EURO 2008 triumph last summer. One record left in his sights is Manuel Sanchis' 712 appearances for Real Madrid, with the current captain not far behind on 685.

Suffices to say, by the time he retires, he will hold all of the above records and many more in a list that stretches beyond my word limit.

Cliches have come from all quarters in years gone by; fellow professionals and the press alike have paid homage to Raul and his achievements at the Santiago Bernabeu. There is no need to rehash the exhaustive list of his redeeming personal and professional qualities, nor his bouncebackability to recover from his and the Galacticos' slump to bring back silverware to the 'White House' and rediscover his own goal-scoring touch in the process.

Comparisons to di Stefano have been unrelenting in recent weeks but ultimately offer little conclusion. Don Alfredo would, say many, be mentioned in the same breath as Pele and Diego Maradona had it not been for his lack of exposure on the international stage, such was his incredible talent.

He, like Raul, would rampage to all parts of the pitch and impose himself on the game whilst seamlessly racking up an astounding goal return. His goal-scoring ratio was almost 25 per cent more prolific than Raul's, but the 31-year-old's longevity at the highest level, facing demands more rigorous (though also far more luxurious) in the modern game makes conjecture of one and all attempts at comparisons between himself and the 1950s phenom.

It is even harder to separate each player by their legacies. Di Stefano won 14 major honours during his time at Madrid to Raul's nine, and though 'el Siete' is far from finished, he may be little more than a passenger if he is to last long enough to collect another six major honours; particularly with the fight for European silverware being so much more competitive now than it once was, and with Barcelona priming themselves for another golden era in the Primera Division. On the other hand, Raul has broken far more individual records - many of which were set by di Stefano - and could yet go on to set more of his own.

Perhaps the most significant difference between the two legends is Raul's lack of technical ability in comparison to 'la Saeta Rubia', who for his time, was one of the most gifted players in the world. It is what often works against the likes of Raul; the lack of an outstanding burst of pace, the piledriver shot, the mesmerising stepovers or towering headers. He has no defining attribute beyond his goal-scoring and even that, while epic in its own right, has come at an impressive but not exceptional, not inimitable ratio.

Raul is not di Stefano. He will not be a Pele, Maradona or Johann Cruyff. He may not even be a Michel Platini, Zinedine Zidane or Ronaldo. Then there are those such as Lionel Messi with ability nothing short of phenomenal, Cristiano Ronaldo and his growing status as the biggest player in world football. David Villa looks increasingly likely to become Spain's most legendary striker, both in terms of goals and of course, after a EURO 2008 triumph and Golden Boot that will live long in the memory.

What Raul has is equally important though. The Madrid native has achieved a status similar to that of Paolo Maldini at AC Milan, who yesterday, after playing his last ever Milan derby that ended in defeat, lauded the achievement of Raul, who he described as a "true champion".

Most, if not all of Raul's records could well be broken five, 10 or even 15 years down the line, but what he will be remembered for is making and breaking as many as he did across different eras, each fraught with a new brand of turbulence. His achievements have nevertheless faced belittlement due to preferential treatment he has received from coaches over the years. His overwhelming political influence on the squad remains as yet mostly unfounded speculation, but it is a certain truth that the 'untouchable' status he maintained through his darkest days - and to this date when he misfires - has even infuriated staunch Madridistas: they want loyalty, but not too much, obviously.

The perfect balance is rarely struck, but what Raul has done as an individual in spite of the political pandemonium at the Bernabeu and yes, a without being blessed with outstanding natural ability, cannot be disputed. He is what many purists would describe as a 'true' footballer: from his sportsmanship, work-rate, professionalism and team-work to his incredible footballing brain, reading of the game, class, composure, and of course, his very own legacy.

Sulmaan Ahmad,