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  • Writer's pictureSam Leveridge

Raúl García: LaLiga’s Ultimate Warrior

Football is defined by the fighters. The characters who fans never forget are those who never give up. The players who push the limits, who give their all, who dedicate their blood, sweat and tears to the cause. Fans from abroad are often guilty of ignoring this side of the Spanish game, thinking of the tiki-taka, technical ability of LaLiga. In doing so, they are overlooking Raúl García Escudero.

A player with plenty of heart, he’s faced tough battles throughout his career. Undergoing heart surgery in 2018 was just the most serious of threats to a man who has never done things the easy way. A look at his trophy cabinet could deceive you, but coming through the ranks at Osasuna and later enjoying success with Atlético Madrid and Athletic Club, he’s never done things the easy way.

Such players make their mark, and Raúl García is no different. A marmite character, he is adored and detested across the country. “Defining Raúl García is very simple: He’s the player you hate when he’s playing for another team, but when he’s on your side, you love him like crazy,” Atlético Madrid socio Dani Sánchez explains. “He’s a typical player that Athletic fans like, and even Basque fans in general. It’s true that he plays on the edge, he’s a hard guy, but he’s honest, and when he talks, he comes across like a normal guy. It’s like the footballers of yesteryear,” Athletic Club supporter Beñat Gutiérrez says as he seeks to explain his unique character.

He began his career at his hometown club of Osasuna. Playing alongside Real Sociedad’s Nacho Monreal and under Cuco Ziganda, with whom he would twice be reunited in his career, his side became the first-ever Osasuna youth team to reach the final of the Copa del Rey Juvenil. While many were plucked from that side, the midfielder stayed loyal. “Raúl García is one of those ‘navarro’ players who is a reference point in recent times, especially as a product of Tajonar (Osasuna’s youth system),” Osasuna fan Ignasi Torné explains. “Osasuna fans are resigned to seeing their great Tajonar talents develop elsewhere, they know they can’t compete economically. That’s why those who do stay become such icons for the fans.”

The decision to remain in Pamplona was justified. Javier Aguirre, most recently with Leganés, gave him a chance in the first team, throwing him on at the deep end to make his debut against Barcelona. He would remain with the youth team for much of that debut 2004/05 season, but 2005/06 would be a different matter entirely, as he started 28 of 38 league games as Osasuna secured Champions League football through a fourth-placed finish. “I think that the belief in him of Javier Aguirre, Jan Urban and Cuco Ziganda was key to having him ready to play. Aguirre’s team had plenty of character, it was hard and very physical. Ideal for Raúl,” Ignasi adds.

As Aguirre moved on, Urban and Ziganda stuck with García. A regular, he scored one of the club’s most historic goals to take the lead against Rangers in Glasgow in a UEFA Cup last 16 battle. Domestically, however, results weren’t so good. A relegation battle meant that, at long last, the time had finally come for García to leave his hometown.

Real Madrid and Valencia were among the clubs linked, but as would become a theme in his career, loyalty mattered. When looking for his first crack at the big time, who could be better than the man who gave him his professional debut - Javier Aguirre. The Mexican was in charge at Atlético Madrid and paid 10 million euros for his services. Facing a tough battle for minutes, his first few years at Atlético were tough. As Aguirre departed, García found himself having to prove himself up against far more experienced rivals, such as Thiago.

It was a battle he seemed to be losing. When Gregorio Manzano took over in 2011 and made the same call as Quique Sánchez Flores had done the season before, that Thiago was his first choice, García knew he had to get out and prove his point. Where better to do that than back home?

Back at El Sadar, the loan spell provided just what he needed. Playing under now Eibar boss José Luis Mendilibar, García was pushed to a more advanced, attacking midfield role, free of the defensive responsibilities where he had on occasion been sloppy in the past. Rather than being a battering ram when going forwards thanks to his physique, the Basque coach looked to get the best out of his technical ability too. “We know Mendilibar and his belief in teams of fighters. Beyond the goals, he became a great provider of assists that season. I would’ve loved another year of Raúl García in Mendilibar’s Osasuna,” Ignasi tells us.

Back at the Estadio Vicente Calderón, things had changed. A certain Diego Pablo Simeone had arrived and was looking for players with plenty of character. It was a managerial appointment which not only changed the future of the club, but also García’s career. “Raúl García’s importance at Atleti is a clear summary of what the team was before and after Diego Simeone,” explains Atleti fan Dani. “He was always judged on when he joined from Osasuna, he never really fit in until El Cholo arrived. After that, he was a fundamental pillar and a key member of the team that won the league in 2013/14.”

“If there is one reason why Simeone is considered to have defined Atlético so much then it’s because of his character and his spirit and Raúl García is that kind of player, who leaves everything on the pitch for the shirt which he defends,” Atleti fan and journalist Tania Martín told La Liga Lowdown’s Euan McTear, in his book, Hijacking LaLiga: How Atletico Madrid Broke Barcelona and Real Madrid's Duopoly on Spanish Football. It was just that. As Simeone was looking to put his stamp on the team, he found that he had a player similar in desire and approach to how he was as a player. “He’s a living and breathing example of effort, hard work and desire,” is how Simeone described him.

Pushing him into an even more advanced role as a makeshift striker, García became pivotal. He had won European titles like the UEFA Cup and UEFA Super Cup before, but never had he played such a pivotal role. Much like Marcos Llorente in the current Atleti side, he had struggled to find his place, but when he did, he was lethal. It was this edge, this drive, which helped to push Simeone’s team towards a LaLiga title.

If there was one particular moment which helped to define his importance to the side, it was in that league-winning campaign in 2014. Arriving at the business end of the season in April, he was twice the matchwinner in 1-0 victories over Villarreal and Valencia. They were both headed goals with a physicality which reflected his game. While those around him in the box made intelligent runs to escape their markers, he stood firm, pushing his marker away to make the space he needed, as Euan recalls in his book as he describes it as ”typical Raúl García fashion” as “he used his strength to make the goal happen, pushing Mario Gaspar out of the way and towards the weights room before planting his feet and vibrating a powerful header from Koke’s corner past Sergio Asenjo.” It was a header which would define the title race.

That was the peak of his time at the Calderón. Later on, he would go on to become the club’s leading appearance holder in international competition. While many look back on his role in the team as a bit-part player, never really nailed down as one of the first names on the team sheet, his record proves the impact, consistency and importance that he had.

His character made him a perfect fit. In 2015, just weeks before he left the club, as he signed autographs before boarding the team bus, one persistent child was adamant that he wasn’t interested in García’s signature, but he wanted that of Fernando Torres. Far from suffering a blow to his ego, he picked up the fan and carried him on to the bus, where Torres was waiting to depart, to take a snap of the pair together. It was indicative of how his personality resonated with Atlético Madrid fans. For them, he played and behaved like an Atleti fan living his dream playing for the club of his dreams. While that had been the case at Osasuna, the ease with which he settled in Madrid is particularly impressive.

He would leave Atleti, struggling for regular game time having started just 17 league games in his final season, but his legacy would live on. “We’re losing someone who has done a lot for the club, and when someone gives their heart for this club, they deserve to leave how they want to,” Simeone said at the time. “It says it all that even last season, years after he left Atleti, that many fans I have spoken to would have loved him back,” Atlético season-ticket holder Brendy Boyle states. “Unlike Diego Costa, he has maintained that warrior spirit throughout his career. A fantastic professional and very underrated as a footballer, he’s the type of utility or Plan B player that Atlético could do with right now given his craftiness, commitment and his knack for a crucial goal.”

It would be fair to say that such a fighting spirit in attack is one that Atlético Madrid have not had until Luis Suárez joined the club in the summer of 2020. García was never a prolific goalscorer, despite Simeone making him a far greater offensive threat, but he was a nuisance presence in the final third. Others have followed, Jackson Martínez and Luciano Vietto being just two of those who failed to fill his shoes in the same summer that he moved on, but his absence is still felt to this day.

When he did depart, with his rough and rugged look, it was no surprise that he returned north. With his beloved Osasuna in Segunda and his style not quite matching the elegance of Real Sociedad, it led to a move to Athletic Club. Los Leones had just won the Spanish Super Cup to end a 31-year trophy drought, and Ernesto Valverde had the team playing well.

“It was a controversial signing, even rejected by some,” Athletic fan Beñat Gutiérrez tells us. “He wasn’t much liked, not because of his record against us, but because he was symbolic of Cholismo and Atlético Madrid aren’t exactly a popular team in Bilbao. Also, he came in to replace Javi Eraso, who had been playing well, and he’d been linked a few times before but never spoke positively about the club. It led to some even calling him a mercenary. It’s testament to his professionalism that he turned those doubters into believers.”

But there were positives too. “His quality had been seen for years and with Ander Herrera having left the team there was a serious need for a leader in that position,” says James Etxegorri of Inside Athletic. Joining a side on the up, he knew that his role would be a difficult one. Not only did he have to force himself into a winning side, with many fans not on his side, but he would also have to develop a new partnership in attack.

While at Atlético he had done much of the battling, he was paired with Aritz Aduriz, dropping off and allowing the veteran centre-forward to look to win the ball in the air and play him in. What at first looked like an unusual combination worked a treat. “It’s almost like they were made to play alongside one another. They were great competitors on the pitch and superb professionals off it – it made them one of the best partnerships in LaLiga,” Beñat says.

At times, Aduriz and García provided all that Athletic had. As Valverde departed for Barcelona, it meant a reunion with his former coach Ziganda, though it would spark a managerial merry-go-round at San Mamés that would require their goals to keep fans positive. In 2016/17, they scored 38 goals between them, while the rest of the squad notched a combined total of 35. When you remember that the list of other players includes the likes of Iker Muniain and Iñaki Williams, it makes it an even more remarkable feat.

In 2019/20, García experienced Athletic without his partner in crime for the very first time. But he stepped up to the plate. No other player even made it close to double figures in LaLiga, with Williams ending the season on six goals, but García reached 15. Only in that league-winning campaign at Atlético had he ever scored more, while he’d never tallied so many in the league. Everything seemed to be on the up, at least on a personal level, as Athletic found yet another forward who was ageing like a fine wine.

This season has not been so kind, though. Still yet to score after nine outings, Gaizka Garitano persists with him as a centre-forward in a role which isn’t best suited to him. His expected goals has plummeted, with his average shot only rated as half as likely to be converted as in 2019/20 (0.17 xG per shot in 2019/20 compared to 0.09 in 2020/21). It’s meant that some have turned to “the Garcías”, Raúl and Dani, as scapegoats as two of those who Garitano is misusing in search of a winning formula.

“Age certainly plays a factor, but Raúl García has also been playing out of position since Aduriz retired. No matter how good of a footballer he is, Rulo isn’t at his best up top,” analyses James. “He still has plenty left to give, but Garitano has to reconsider his role,” Beñat agrees.

The short memory of some does not cloud the fact that Raúl García has had an incredible impact in Bilbao. “If not for the return of Aduriz, Raúl García would be the biggest signing of the last decade,” James enthuses. “From the way he fits into the team and identity of the club to his success on the field he’s been incredible for Athletic. Rulo is a fan favourite at San Mamés for a reason. He embodies what it means to wear the zurigorri shirt and he’s one of the best to do so in recent history.”

There can be no doubting that Raúl García will not call it a day until the very end. As he himself has said, “age is just a number”, but now aged 34, he will have one eye on the future. His contract is up in the summer of 2021, and most expect him to continue his commitment, with no release clause in his existing deal and yearly renewals expected, but a wise man, he’ll undoubtedly be looking beyond the next 12 months.

“I think it would be beautiful way to end his career if he returned to Osasuna, I certainly don’t see him moving abroad somewhere exotic for economic reasons,” Beñat confesses, though Ignasi hints at the difficulties it may bring: “There’s a certain rivalry between Osasuna and Athletic Club, which means that currently many Osasuna fans aren’t too happy to see his good years at San Mamés and not at El Sadar, with his people.” That could be a grievance that he could set right.

Whatever happens, for Brendy, and many others, he’ll be remembered as one of the all-time greats: “He’ll surely be considered as one of the standout players in La Liga outside of the big two over the last 10-15 years for his incredibly consistent level of performance during a time when LaLiga was so technically brilliant.”

At a time when LaLiga has become more economically driven by the superstars and the glitz and glamour of modern football, Raúl García provides a welcome throwback to a time where “effort, hard work and desire” ruled. To a time where dreams could come true. That’s why it’s such a joy to watch him. Direct, honest and clear, both in how he plays the game and how he behaves on and off the field, few men measure up to Raúl García Escudero, he’s the footballer every one of us grew up wishing we could be.

If you'd like to see more up-to-date Spanish football news, match information or want to learn how to stay in shape for as long as Aritz Aduriz - you can find us on Twitter @LaLigaLowdown

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