The footballer formerly known as Mr Real Madrid has settled in Germany far better than anyone could have expected
It was a classic Christmas party karaoke moment: urged on by a rowdy, inebriated crowd, the poor guy with the microphone had, by his own admission, "no idea about the words" but manfully struggled on regardless.
"It was a traditional Schalke song," Raúl explained, a little flustered. Somehow, him not speaking more than a handful of German words and having visibly no idea about the lyrics had not detracted from the festive fun in the Veltins-Arena. Maybe someone had unplugged the mic, just as malicious jokers suggested they did with Andrew Ridgeley's guitar in Wham!'s twilight years.
Raúl, in any case, seemed moved after singing with the S04 supporters in the stand. "I really like it here," the 34-year-old said in a TV interview with ZDF, "I can see myself staying here. I would never have thought that the people would treat me with so much respect. Everyone's been incredibly nice to me." He looked as if he meant it.
Schalke's day had already been made by the result, a 5-0 win over a frighteningly inadequate Werder Bremen. "We need to think about signing a new team for the away games," said a shocked sporting director Klaus Allofs in light of the club's third successive, heavy defeat on the road.
The Royal Blues, though, go into the winter-break in third place, level on points with champions Dortmund and only three points off leaders Bayern. Even allowing for the visitors' complete unwillingness to defend to the standards of a Regionalliga side, Schalke were spectacular in a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond.
Raúl, the hat-trick hero, shone in his preferred, free role behind the equally unstoppable Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who scored his 25th goal in 26 games in all competitions, and the pacey Teemu Pukki.
"I never have players playing against their nature," said Schalke's coach Huub Stevens to wide-scale disbelief. The Dutchman found reason to grumble about "five bad minutes in the second half" but is now in acute danger of shredding his lifelong reputation as the Bundesliga's version of popular TV ad character Klementine, the clean-sheet fetishist.
Raúl has not been the only beneficiary of a more attacking set-up, powered by midfielders José Jurado, Lewis Holtby and Julian Draxler as well as the flying left-back Christian Fuchs. But the Spaniard can rarely have had more fun in recent years. In fact, the Werder demolition was so emphatic that it seemed to change his plans for the future, as well as those of the club.
Not long ago, there was virtually no chance that Schalke would renew his contract beyond next summer, when Real Madrid's €2m subsidy of his €7m (£5.8m) wages lapses. Following his TV interview, however, Schalke want to "keep [him] forever," as Bild put it in big letters on Monday.
Fortunately, on closer inspection, it turns out that this headline does not relate to plans to put him up in the Schalke museum in frozen carbonite, in lieu of the championship bowl. The concept of "forever" is applied quite flexibly in this case too: Schalke are putting forward a one-year extension with the addition of a testimonial and a – no doubt – strenuous "ambassadorial role".
"We want to extend the contract," said sporting director Horst Heldt. "He's playing a first-class game and the fans love him. I'm not sure what his demands are but contracts can be drawn up quite creatively."
A decent chance to reach the Champions League gives S04 more leeway but it will be mostly down to Raúl. If he insists on playing on for two years, an agreement might not be reached in January after all. There is apparently a lucrative offer from Qatar and the MLS might well take an interest, too.
The player's position has certainly been bolstered by excellent performances and it might just improve further if Spanish whispers about a possible return to the national team materialise. Unlikely, but stranger things have happened, especially to him. What were the odds that the man seen as Mr Real Madrid over the last decade would find himself playing in the post-industrial Ruhrpott (Ruhr area) one day, singing strange German songs and loving every minute of it?
• "It was a victory for football," proclaimed Mario Gomez after the match. That might be overstating the case a little bit but league leaders Bayern certainly felt that FC Köln deserved nothing from a game in which they had defended "with ten men at the back" (Gomez) – even after the hosts had been reduced to ten men, with Franck Ribéry getting sent off after 30 minutes for an incident described as "Materazzi light" by sporting director Christian Nerlinger. Ribéry, possibly unnerved by a court verdict that he must pay €3m to a former agent, reacted badly to Henrique Sereno's suggestion that he had dived in the box. The Frenchman kept raising his hands until a caution was followed by an extraordinary stupid dismissal. "Zidane light" would perhaps have been a more apt description but it ultimately mattered little as Gomez, Toni Kroos and David Alaba "broke through Köln's concrete" (Kicker) in the second half. The president Uli Hoeness was in such a jolly mood after the win that he compared Bayern's season under Jupp Heynckes to "that Jack Daniel's film (sic), As Good As It Gets". Cheers.
• Dortmund, meanhwile, kept in the running thanks to a 4-1 win at sorry SC Freiburg, and Gladbach's 1-0 win over Mainz concluded the Foals' best first half of the season in 35 years.
• Leverkusen, on the other hand, will enjoy the festivities considerably less. The 3-0 home defeat by Nürnberg on Saturday increased the pressure on the coach Robin Dutt. The sporting director Rudi Völler said that "everything will be on the table" during the winter break, including Dutt himself – if not literally, one hopes. "One could see over the whole course of the season that something's not right," said Völler. "A few small successes and a series of six games without defeat only masked the problem." Dutt, it seems, has lost credibility in the dressing room thanks to his constant changes and defensive focus. The irony is that he'll probably be no longer be there in February, when a Bayer side designed to play dominant, attacking football could actually benefit from shutting up shop, for once, against smallish favourites Barcelona in the Champions League.
• Late on Sunday night, Markus Babbel was fired in the capital. The former Bayern and Liverpool defender's dismissal two weeks before Christmas was both inevitable and needless in the extreme; Süddeutsche Zeitung called it "an absurd comedy". Babbel, 39, had effectively accused Hertha BSC of lying about his unwillingness to sign a contract extension beyond next summer. In his version, Babbel had told the sporting director Michael Preetz weeks ago of his wish to leave at the end of the season. Preetz, though, was briefing the local press that the club was expecting an answer soon and kept painting Babbel as a ditherer. "I didn't have another choice," Preetz said, after pulling the plug on the coach who had won promotion last season. Michael Skibbe will take over in time to sit on the bench for Wednesday's cup game against Kaiserslautern. Babbel's last words in the job were a hearty "you arsehole", an ironic reply to his friend and Hoffenheim colleague Holger Stanislawksi after their 1-1 draw on Saturday. Stanislawski had asked "Herr Babbel" with mock-journalistic fervour whether he'd still be around for Hertha's Christmas party on Monday night. He must have known the answer.
Results: Bayern 3-0 FC Köln 3-0, Hamburg 1-1 Augsburg, Leverkusen 0-3 Nürnberg, Schalke 5-0 Werder Bremen, Freiburg 1-4 Dortmund, Wolfsburg 1-0 Stuttgart, Hoffenheim 1-1 Hertha, Kaiserslautern 1-1 Hannover, Gladbach 1-0 Mainz 1-0.