Teamwork is a universally valued quality in football, but it can mean different things to different people. It can mean running for each other, like the clip that went viral recently of Atletico Madrid’s players sprinting to stop a counter-attack like their house was on fire. It can simply mean pressing as a unit, or passing to a better-placed teammate, or making the kind of overlapping run that hurts just to make a defender follow you down a rabbit hole.
To Carles Puyol, teamwork meant all of those things and none of them. To him they were really just the consequence, the natural product of something deeper and more visceral that bound his Barcelona generation together. His was not a team but a family, and his teammates became not competitors fighting for places but allies working towards the same prize.
“I arrived at La Masia aged 17, which was a bit older than some of the others like Iniesta and Xavi,” Puyol tells The Independent. “I learned so much there which had an impact on the rest of my life. We lived alongside each other, and even though it was different ages we were one group, all fighting for the same objective – to reach the first team of Barcelona. So between us we all needed to help each other. What was taught first and foremost was respect to others, and a sense of togetherness, of empathy. These values translated beyond football. It was such a tight-knit community, it was so small we were living in each other’s pockets. I felt a sense of brotherhood. We always helped each other, and we still do.”
Puyol is sitting in a small corporate box looking over Espanyol’s stadium in Barcelona, decked out in black jumper and jeans with ringlets of that supreme mane bouncing off his forehead. Espanyol was once enemy territory, but today he is enjoying the visit, leaning over the side to watch the Danone Nations Cup – the closest thing to a World Cup for kids – on the pitch below, of which he is an ambassador. “I wish I could have played in this tournament when I was younger,” he says. “I started a bit later, but I would have loved to represented my country at this age, to travel and to play.”
Puyol holds more than a passing interest in the next generation. Earlier this month he made headlines after turning down a role as Barcelona’s director of football, and one of the factors behind his surprising decision was that he is so immersed in other work like this. Next week he is unveiling his next big project, an online platform teaching parents and kids the importance of sport to their mental and physical wellbeing. “This was not the right moment,” he says of Barcelona’s approach. “Perhaps one day, but I am developing other projects. I firmly believe in education through sports, that you can learn empathy, resilience, the skills to face adversity.”
You could understand a reluctance to get back into the football world. After retirement, Puyol had spent time working alongside Barca director Andoni Zubizarreta, but was forced to resign when Zubizarreta was suddenly sacked. More recently he watched as his old teammate Victor Valdes was sacked as Barcleona’s U19 coach, too. “I’m not sure of the reasons why Victor was fired, but it is not easy working with the young teams of Barcelona. People focus on results but we need to focus on training our young players.”
After leaving the Nou Camp he set up a football agency with his former teammate Ivan de la Pena. They built some traction, signing players like Marc Batra and Carles Alena to their books, but they also came into conflict, not least with Barcelona themselves after the talented youngster Eric Garcia’s departure for Manchester City. Ultimately Puyol stepped away because he didn’t enjoy it.
He almost left Barcelona himself as a young player. Barcelona had a settled defence and accepted an offer from Malaga, but when he saw his friend Xavi making his debut, Puyol resolved to stay and fight. He did just that, and never left, taking the captaincy aged 25 as he built an extraordinary career. Did he have to learn leadership, or was it something instinctive? “Everyone is born with their own personality, which grows as you grow. Everyone has their own personal flair, and captaincy was what felt natural to me. Football gave me a sense of values. In life I have always wanted to go further and be better.”
He still watches football just as intently as he watches the games on the pitch below him. In Virgil van Dijk, who beat Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo to the Uefa Player of the Year award, he sees some familiar traits. “Van Dijk is one of the best in the world. He is the complete defender, always calm, a great player. The spotlight usually goes to the strikers, so it is nice to see a defender get deserved recognition.
“It’s true that in recent years Messi for me is the best, and it’s difficult to compare to him because to me he’s the best player in history. We’ve also had Cristiano who’s a great player. And the two have always been there, and few players have had the opportunity to win an individual trophy. Having these two players in this era, he’s doing an excellent job and I’m very happy for him.”
With that, Puyol heads off to his ambassadorial duties. Later he kicks off the boys’ final in front of thousands of fans, and at full-time he comforts the distraught young Spanish player who missed a penalty in their deciding shootout against Mexico. For now at least, Puyol has more to give the next generation than the current world of football.
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