Tonight's Schalke friendly has had more hype surrounding it than either of the Philadelphia Union's previous games against European giants Manchester United, but not because of the fame of the opposing team. Instead that hype was created by a single player, whose retirement from European soccer comes at an opportune time for the Union.
Raul, a legend with his former team Real Madrid, is expected to play his last game with Schalke tonight, meaning that his testimonial match could happen in front of his future supporters. The Union have been rumored to be pursuing the former Spanish international striker as they try to fix their offensive woes.
Philadelphia, said one former Union, La Liga and Bundesliga player, would be the perfect place for Raul to continue his career.
"I don't know about Raul´s economic pretensions," said Veljko Paunovic, who played half a season with the Union last year, in an exclusive interview with the Brotherly Game. "What I believe is that Raul needs the place to be loved admired and embraced by fans, where he can still enjoy playing what he loves the most - soccer, and scoring goals - and have a great experience for him and his family."
"If he asks me, I would tell him that Philadelphia is the best place for that," Paunovic said. "Hopefully he will become the first "Spanish of Ben," just like I became the first and proud "Serb of Ben."
Paunovic has an amicable professional relationship with Raul, though he hasn't talked to his former adversary in years, because of their mutual time in Spain's La Liga.
"My relation with Raul is professional, and we always had a great treat on the field. I have a huge collection of jerseys of the best players in the world, but I still miss his. He's the best Spanish player ever."
The two crossed paths multiple times from 1996-2005, the nine years that Paunovic spent in Spain, mostly at Atletico Madrid (Real's crosstown rival) and also at Mallorca, Oviedo and Tenerife.
"Not a lot of people know in the US that he was an Atletico fan and an Atletico raised player," said Paunovic. "Jesus Gil, Atletico's president at that time, suppressed the Atletico academy for a couple of years, so Raul migrated to Real Madrid. Bad move... just joking."
The 34-year-old also made the move to the Bundesliga before Raul's own transfer to Schalke in 2010, playing a year in Hannover in the mid-2000s.
"The soccer culture is I would say in the different way but the same passion as in Spain," Paunovic said. "Schalke, Bayern [Munich], [Borussia] Dortmund, Werder [Bremen], [Borussia] Mönchengladbach, Hannover, Hertha [Berlin] and Hamburg have amazing fans. Germans play very good soccer, their physical, direct and strong mentality way of playing soccer was a great experience for me."
An injury prevented Paunovic from reaching his 23 games played per season that he had for the previous nine years, leaving him with the ability to only get on the field six times in Hannover's 2004-2005 Bundesliga campaign.
"Unfortunately, I got injured (groin) there very early and couldn't perform up to my best level as I wished," Paunovic said. "I finally had surgery in Munich with Dr. Muschaweck. But I noticed that very soon Bundesliga would become one of the best leagues in the world, as it is now."
After 16 seasons with Madrid, Raul joined the Bundesliga as Paunovic had six years beforehand. As with much of the rest of their careers, there connections between the two in the move beyond just the league.
Paunovic revealed to the Brotherly Game that he himself had been on the cusp of a move to Schalke.
"My ex coach Lienen gave me a call for Hannover, that was decisive," Paunovic said. "Schalke is a great place, a great club and great fans too. But I did it choose it right in Hannover, they also have all these great things."