Puyol's love of labour not lost on fans

Photographs of the Barcelona captain Carles Puyol adorn the bars in the small Catalan Pyrenean town of La Pobla de Segur. Puyol is the local boy done very well and images of his unmistakeable, almost medieval looking torso confirm the adoration. Everyone claims to know "Carlito" - reverential short-hand for Barça's assiduous warrior defender - the son of the humble bread man.

La Pobla is not wealthy. Its last period of relative prosperity came when Franco sent workers to build the reservoirs to retain the water which gushes from the mountains, but it is proud to be Puyol's birthplace.

"Everybody in La Pobla is a cule [nickname for Barcelona fans]," says Puyol. "They are more than a club and they affect the mood of the people. Barça are the team who every Catalan child wants to play for. You see Barça on television from an early age and they influence you. When I was young I played as a goalkeeper but I had a back problem and stopped. I played striker too. My parents were sceptical about me becoming a footballer and encouraged me to study but I joined Barça aged 16 after trials. I was in the 'C' and then 'B' teams. Now, my parents are happy. They don't tell me to study any more, but to work as hard because there is competition for places at Barça."

Not that Puyol, 28, need worry about starting in the Champions' League final in Paris on Wednesday. The first name on Frank Rijkaard's teamsheet, he may not boast the raw talent of Ronaldinho, the vision of Deco or the attitude of Samuel Eto'o, yet he is one of Barça's most popular players - an honour rarely bestowed on a defender.

"The fans appreciate that I work my hardest all the time," he explains. "I need no encouragement because I've always been a cule - I've never hidden that fact. I am living the dream playing football for Barça and it is my dream to retire playing here. I know someday that I will have to leave and I am not looking forward to that day. I will work hard to realise my dream but if I can't then I would like to play in another country. I wouldn't want to play in Spain. I would go to England or Italy - Italy first to play where my hero [Paolo] Maldini is."

Barça were last week crowned champions of Spain for the second successive season, but at the start of 2004 they looked washed up after five dire seasons. The Catalans were wrecked by political in-fighting off the field which led to instability and inconsistency on it. Puyol was one of few players to emerge with credit from the dark days of 2000-04, so what went right?

"We found the right way of playing under Mr [Frank] Rijkaard," says Puyol. "He was a top player and he knows what we are thinking. He gives us freedom and doesn't always pressure you, but he can be demanding too. He is very direct and clear in his ideas.

"We win games with tempo - even against the best teams. The team is united and the spirit good. We trust each other and we've worked hard to get to this level. It's time to win the European Cup again. A club of Barça's size should have won more than once."

Nobody could accuse Puyol of not being focused ahead of the final. He might spend what free time he has in the summer in Ibiza, yet he hasn't visited a nightclub on the island for three years and didn't know the name of David Beckham's wife a year into the England captain's Spanish sortie.

"I lead a very quiet life and people leave me alone," he says. "I've not been to a nightclub in Barcelona for years either. When I go out, I stay in a restaurant with my friends."

Puyol, an automatic choice for Spain too, might allow himself a celebratory drink should Barça overcome Arsenal, but he refuses to be drawn on talk of the Catalans being clear favourites.

"We're not into possible favourites," he says. "The final is 50-50; it's the press that say these things. We'll just do our best. We're good enough to win. Now we have to show the people that." The people will be watching closely in La Pobla.

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