By guest contributer, Andra Nasrie
If Barcelona were a club sandwich, then Carles Puyol would be the meat in a team of frilly toothpicks. A vital balancing ingredient that, upon his imminent departure, will find both Barcelona and Spain in serious need of some cojones.
October 23, 2002. It’s hard to imagine now, but back then FC Barcelona were on the back foot for much of a Champions League duel against Lokomotiv Moscow at the Nou Camp. The Catalans hadn’t lifted a trophy since 1999, and were looking for answers in all the wrong places.
Louis van Gaal, back in his second stint at the club, fielded a high-line, three-man defense that included an aging Frank de Boer and an unproven Fernando Navarro. A brittle back line, especially considering the absolutely minimal protection provided by the flair players in midfield such as Gaizka Mendieta and Juan Roman Riquelme.
In the 66th minute, a Lokomotiv counter led to striker James Obiorah running through on goal, unmarked from the half way line. Skipping past the hapless Recber Rustu, Obiorah had an open goal at his mercy, still way outside Barca’s penalty area. Sprinting back was 23-year-old Carles Puyol and his iconic lion do. In moments, Puyol found himself between Obiorah and the open goal.
What happened next was the stuff of legends. Acting like a goalkeeper with no arms (unlike a certain Uruguayan), Puyol dove left to meet Obiorah’s shot on goal. The shot bounced off him and away to safety. The ball had hit him in the most appropriate spot imaginable: right on the FC Barcelona badge that rested above his heart.
Thanks to Puyol, Barca held on and came out 1-0 victors courtesy of a Frank de Boer header. Thanks to Puyol, Barca in subsequent years would enjoy the greatest period the club has ever, or will ever see.
It wasn’t until 2005 that Barcelona finally picked up their next piece of silverware. Since then, three coaches in Frank Rijkaard, Pep Guardiola, and Tito Vilanova have come and gone. Superstar geniuses Ronaldinho, Deco, and Samuel Eto’o have all passed on the baton to the likes of the all-conquering Xavi, Iniesta, and Messi. ‘El Capitan’ Puyol has remained the constant lynchpin, never ceasing to growl at Barca’s glittering ballerinas when needed.
Puyol has never been blessed with the technical skills to equal those of the players he rubbed shoulders with. But it is through his influence and unacceptance of anything less than victory that has driven Barcelona, and then Spain, to the pinnacle of world football for many years.
Fast and agile, Puyol played every conceivable position in his youth before breaking into the Barcelona first team as a right back. He eventually settled and made a name for himself as a no-nonsense centre back, using brute force more often than not to send shivers down the spine of even the most seasoned opposition strikers.
One might say that Puyol is awkward on the ball, but his sheer determination to win has seen him conjure up magical moments. When Spain’s tiki-taka failed to break through Germany’s defense in Euro 2008, Carles Puyol rose above the rest in perfect flight and form to head home the only goal of the tie, sending Spain to their first major tournament win since 1964. Months later, Puyol reproduced that exact header to lead Barcelona to a famous 6-2 victory over Real Madrid at the Bernabeu.
Now 35 and with 24 trophies under his belt, it seems a shame that Puyol is calling time on the biggest stage, where he has shone so brightly. If not for a spate of injuries over the past couple of years, he would likely have fulfilled his dream of playing for Barcelona into his 40s.
But with six La Ligas, three Champions Leagues, two Euros and a World Cup among many others, Puyol has undoubtedly earned his place in the pantheon of football greatness. Having achieved what only a small number of footballers ever could, he has selflessly and gracefully decided to exit the Barcelona stage before he becomes a burden to the club.
Will Barcelona’s defense be shaky without him? Gerard Pique, defensive partner and the yin to Puyol’s yang throughout Barcelona and Spain’s golden years, isn’t too optimistic. In a heartfelt open letter addressing Puyol’s departure, Pique wrote, “I find it amusing when they talk about signing ‘the new Puyol’. They can talk all they want, but they’ll never find it.”
What’s next for Puyol? No one knows. It’s a testament to his love and respect for his club that he won’t reveal his destination until the end of the season. The only thing that matters to him now is that, “there are three months of competition left and I’m not giving up.”