Carles Puyol: The raggy-haired Barcelona defender who even gained the respect of the Real Madrid faithful
The man known as 'The Wall' calls time on his career at Nou Camp
Wednesday 05 March 2014
Six La Liga triumphs, three Champions League winners’ medals, two Copa del Reys, six Spanish Super Cups, two European Super Cups and two Clubs World Cups. Carles Puyol played through Barcelona’s golden era and is one of the club’s most decorated players but it will be the end of an era this summer with the 35-year-old announcing that he will call time on his days at the Camp Nou at the end of the season.
Puyol revealed the news at a press conference at Barca’s Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper training ground on Tuesday, citing that he does not believe he can continue at the level required to play for the Blaugrana beyond the end of the campaign. Two operations on a troublesome knee injury, that has hampered his playing time over the last 18 months, were cited as the reasons for his decision and the Spanish international has reached an agreement with his club to end his contract early - his current deal runs until the summer of 2016.
Fifteen seasons in Barca’s first team and 593 official matches. Twenty-one major trophies. The centre-back, affectionately known as ‘The Wall’ by his adoring Catalan public, will be hoping to add three more before he finishes his playing days with the club where it all started and could all finish. Barca trail Real Madrid by one point in La Liga, meet their capital foes in the final of the Copa del Rey and still have eyes on the Champions League. Puyol was emphatic in appealing to the press that he’s not left just yet and there’s plenty of work to do - he’ll be desperate to go out on a high.
With the announcement came a collective sigh of relief from strikers up and down La Liga. The La Pobla de Segur-born player has been a constant menace to attacks since he made his debut in October 1999 in Barca’s 2-0 victory over Real Valladolid. Louis van Gaal promoted him to the first team and handed him his chance as a defensive midfielder before switching him to a centre-back. Puyol has never looked back and nor have Barca.
Nor have Spain. The announcement came just a day before the reigning World and European champions were due to host Italy in a friendly and although Puyol won’t be involved, he will go down as one of the country’s best-ever defenders. On top of his domestic success with Barca Puyol also lifted the European Championships with his country and the World Cup. His winning goal in Spain’s 1-0 semi-final victory over Germany in South Africa in 2010 typified his qualities, a net-bulging header that saw him beat away club mate Gerard Pique to win it and send Spain to a final date against Holland.
Those no-nonsense qualities prevailed during a period that saw his club change the way football was adhered to. The Barca of late have been celebrated thanks to their attacking prowess, tika-taka and players such as Lionel Messi, Xavi and Andres Iniesta. Passing triangles, keep-ball, teasing of the opposition. Think of Barcelona now and you think of an attack that can confuse and beat the best defences in the world week-in, week-out. Their defence has been good but, such has been the quality of their attack, it has rarely been noticed.
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Despite those changes in the style of play, preached by former player and manager Johan Cruyff but put into best practice at the top level by Pep Guardiola, Puyol has remained the same - and it’s worked. While Barca play the beautiful game in its literal sense, Puyol does the dirty work at the back. No time for tika-taka, just tough in the tackle and well organised at the back. Let the rest play with the ball and the opposition. For that, Puyol has remained a firm fans’ favourite at the Camp Nou, despite the flair and flavour of Messi and company.
Not just in Catalonia, either. Few Madridistas have time for anyone that pulls on the shirt of Barcelona but Puyol is a player that crosses that divide. In some part for his performances for the national side, who get more support from the capital than they do in Barcelona, and in some part mainly due to the fact Madridistas wouldn’t mind him in their team, either. Dare it be said that the defender may even get applause from the Bernabeu faithful later this month if he plays in what could be his final Clasico contest in the Spanish capital.
His off-the-field behaviour has also helped him become one of the more likeable characters in today’s game. Not one to court the cameras, Puyol lives a relatively quiet life away from the hustle and bustle of Barcelona. While today’s players will make a trip to a nightclub whenever possible, the defender can more likely be found having a quiet meal in a cafe or restaurant or spending time with his family. He’s a player who can comfortably separate work and leisure.
His support of former Liverpool and Real Betis player Miki Roqué, who died after being diagnosed with pelvic cancer just weeks short of his 24th birthday, is just one heart-warming story. Miki discovered he had the cancer two years into his spell with the Seville club and after Betis failed to fully raise the money to help fund the player’s treatment despite their best efforts, Puyol stepped in and paid it. The only link being that his mother came from the same town as Puyol. In an era where sportsmen on mega bucks don’t have the best reputation, Puyol proved there is more to life than football.
On the pitch his injuries may have hampered his performances and his legs are not getting any younger, but his departure from the Camp Nou come the end of the season will still be a big blow for Los Cules. Not only on a personal level, but Gerard Pique’s progression since rejoining the club from Barcelona owes a lot to Puyol helping him along his way. When the former Manchester United man’s mind drifted, Puyol soon got it back on track. He didn’t miss a beat. The beats of his preferred music of choice before matches will probably not be missed as much. The defender was a big fan of metal music, namely Napalm Death. That much was probably reflected in his performances.
One thing that will be missed is his long, raggy hair that can be noticed by supporters high in the upper tiers of the Camp Nou. The story goes that former boss van Gaal, who handed him his debut, asked Puyol to get his hair cut on his progression from La Masia to the first team squad but he never did and the long locks live on until this day. Puyol wouldn’t be the same without them.
On top of his team accolades the Barca captain picked up plenty more individual awards too. Six times in UEFA’s Team of the Year, three times in the FIFA/FIFPro World XI, four times in the European Sports Media Team of the Year and once in the FIFA World Cup All-Star team amongst others. The Prince of Asturias award and the Gold Medal of the Royal Order of Sporting Merit also hold prime places in his cabinet.
Only Puyol knows what the next chapter of his exceptional book will be. The player stopped short of announcing his retirement this week and will take some time in the summer to decide what awaits him next. He will not play in Spain’s top division and a big-money move to Asia or the MLS could well be tempting - there will be no shortage of suitors. That much may well depend on how his knee holds up between now and the end of what is set to be another hectic climax to the season for Barca.
A coaching role could also be in the offing and you’d expect that training to be in the place that helped him become the player he is. Barca’s set-up is such that it welcomes the help of former players such as Guardiola and Luis Enrique with open arms and Puyol could well follow in those foot-steps. There could be more Napalm Death at the Ciutat Esportiva Joan Gamper yet.
Barcelona assistant coach Jorge Pautasso said as recently as Sunday’s 4-1 victory over Almeria, in which Puyol netted the third goal and played the full 90 minutes, that the 35-year-old “as a lot of playing time left. He has a lot of authority. Every time he plays he gives us answers. He's always there to help the team and he's an example for us all.” Whether that was a last-ditch attempt to keep the defender at the club or an admission that he’d soon be on the way only Pautasso and Puyol know.
He still does have plenty to offer Barca, though. In an era where trophies have arrived at an astonishing rate for the Catalan club this season could be up there with the best if Puyol and company complete the treble. The Blaugrana may not have hit the performance heights as they did under Guardiola but they are still on-track for a clean sweep of domestic trophies this season and that would be the ideal leaving present for a player who deserves the best present one of the biggest clubs in the world can give him.
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