Real Madrid great Raúl González was UEFA's guest at its Grassroots Conference in Minsk, and spoke of the importance of respecting football's key values, as well as sharing his memories of being a grassroots player.
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From "playing football in my mother's stomach" to winning fame and recognition as a worldwide superstar, the footballing path followed by Raúl González is one of outstanding success and lasting renown. It is also a shining example of respect for football's values, and how never to forget one's roots, not only on the road to the top, but also after reaching the summit.
Raúl was an emblematic figure in a 16-year career for Real Madrid. The instinctive and dangerous front-runner scored 323 goals in a record 741 appearances for the club from the Spanish capital, and won 102 caps for Spain, finding the net 44 times. This week, he came to Minsk as guest of honour at the UEFA Grassroots Conference in the Belarusian capital.
A three-time UEFA Champions League winner and six-time La Liga champion; a born winner who won a wealth of accolades and personal awards; Raúl shared memories of his days as a grassroots player from a humble background, and offered fascinating insights into his journey through the game.
"I think I started playing football before I was born," he told grassroots delegates from across Europe during an hour-long interview and question-and-answer session. "I've got loads of memories… particularly of playing with a ball since as far back as I can remember."
Raúl is now 41 and, after working as a youth coach with Madrid, is now coaching the club's second team. He expressed the view that grassroots football had changed dramatically in the years since he was a boy besotted with the game in San Cristóbal, on the outskirts of Madrid. "There were no football schools, people would play in the parks and streets, at school during breaks, and in the playground, then you'd go out and play with friends.
"People would play everywhere – it was a very different world. My mother used to call me in to eat, and I wouldn't want to come in!
"We always had a football at home. Until I was 11, my football education was with friends on the street," he added. "If I didn't have friends to play with on any occasion, I'd kick a ball against the wall. The wall was my best friend. If I managed a good shot, the ball would come back to me, if it was a bad shot, I would have to go and fetch the ball."
Raúl realised quickly that his passion for the game would be life-long. "I wanted to be a football player – I would watch TV and listen to the radio, and I would try to do what the radio commentator was describing." He went on to join his first club at the age of 11, thanks to understanding parents and encouragement from his friends.
The role of Raúl's parents, and especially his father, was crucial in those early years while he blossomed into a player of immense potential, setting out at a higher level with Atlético de Madrid before moving across the city and making his debut for Los Blancos at the age of 17. Raúl’s father actually predicted big things for his son, saying that he would go on to be a star. The son cherishes the memory. "I think every parent would like their child to be a football player," Raúl reflected. "And my father really did get it right with his prediction.
"My father was an electrician, we were a working-class family. He was with me all the way through the early days – he drove me to matches, he supported me. He was demanding, but he would always encourage me. Families are such an important source of support.
"I'm happy that I was eventually able to give joy and a better life to my parents – some children suffer disillusionment and frustration when playing football, because of what their parents might say to them. They become afraid of making mistakes – and the only way that you learn is to actually make those mistakes!"
Raúl holds the proud honour of never having been sent off in his career. He underlined in Minsk that certain values have been engrained in him from the time he joined his first club. "It was a nice, positive group, so I swiftly learned all the good values in a team sport – respect, being generous, teamwork, supporting team-mates, respecting opponents, respecting the referee."
That way of behaving stayed with Raúl throughout a glittering adventure lasting over two decades that brought him fame with Madrid and, later, German outfit Schalke, and which has made him an enduring footballing icon. Groups of fans were waiting at his Minsk hotel for a photo or autograph on the evening after his appearance at the UEFA event.
"I've always tried to be a respectful person," he emphasised. "I tried to live the values that I had learned at an early stage. I've certainly been passionate about what I do, but I try to respect others – football gave me that.
"Not everything goes in football," he went on. "I feel it's important to have very high ethical standards. There are beautiful ways of winning a match, and there are other ways, and these are not my ways. Respect is part of my being. You have to be connected with your own values… and I will always try to be connected with things that I think are good in football, and try to leave aside what is negative."
Raúl told the audience in Minsk that passion, rather than any talent out of the ordinary, had been the key factor in his rise to the top. "Passion has driven me in life, because I didn't consider myself as the most talented player," he explained. "Talent isn't everything… you really have to have the passion."
Raúl emphasised the importance of futsal in helping to develop his technical skills, which had a big impact on his future footballing career. "I found it was very good for coordination and agility," he recalled. "I played a lot of futsal, and I can tell you that quite a number of the goals I scored in football were the product of having played futsal – the reflexes, the tight spaces…"
Raúl stressed that children, especially those between the ages of eight and 11, should just be allowed to play. "They've got to enjoy the game. It can be damaging if they're subject to any pressure to succeed or perform. Kids of that age have to be able to play in a comfort zone – their real footballing ability doesn't come through until they are 14 or 15."
Coaches of children at a young age, Raúl added, required special qualities and specific training to look after such young charges. "Children have to be taught to enjoy themselves and shown the values they'll need to play in a team: camaraderie, solidarity, selflessness and the confidence to go out and really be themselves. I think that football has a duty to educate these youngsters along the way. As a coach, you therefore have just as big a responsibility for the children's upbringing as their parents.
"It's very important nowadays that the youngsters are educated and taught in the right way. There are now loads of academies and places to play. I think that all of the academies and clubs, where children begin to play from a very young age – at six, seven or eight – have a big responsibility.”
Raúl urged Europe's grassroots managers and coaches to keep up their outstanding work and maintain their dedication. He called on them to help youngsters, particularly those with potential, to follow the same dreams that he held when he was kicking a football against the wall as a child.
"I had a really clear aim – to be a footballer and have a career. And I feel privileged to have realised my dreams. I would encourage boys and girls to work hard and fight for their own dreams."