The year is 2009. The venue is the Stadio Olimpico in Rome. Cristiano Ronaldo, the Ballon D’Or winner, is looking to the skies for divine inspiration as Leo Messi, perhaps the shortest man on the field, scores a towering header past the juggernaut that is Edwin Van Der Sar. Barcelona, the tiki-taka variant announce themselves to the world. A mind-numbingly beautiful ninety minutes of passing, pressing and clinical finishing built on a strong defensive base. Just ten months earlier, Sir Alex Ferguson had sold a certain Gerard Pique to Barca. Not even the wily Scot (now retired and chewing gum in the stands instead of the dugout) could have foreseen the meteoric rise of Pique. But there seemed to be a reason for this. A certain shaggy-haired short and stocky man by the name of Carles Puyol. A man who has just this month announced his intentions to hang up his boots and move on from the club he has called his home for the best part of two decades.
Fifteen years ago, Louis Van Gaal handed the Spaniard his debut and since then Puyol has barely looked back. Sure he was initially not a guaranteed starter but since the departure of Luis Enrique in 2004 and being handed the captain’s armband, Puyol took the reins of the Blaugrana backline and amassed every title possible. Puyol really has won it all, from the La Liga to the World Cup, the Euros to the Champions League, not a single medal missing in his personal trophy haul. And amidst it all he was the dependable rock upon which Barcelona built the foundations for what many argue is the greatest side to ever play club football.
Puyol made the center back position his own, after initially being shunted all over the field. Indeed he started his career as a goalkeeper but after a shoulder injury, he was a striker then a defensive midfielder. On debut he played at right back and then was shifted to the center after injuries to the preferred partners at the Nou Camp. He hasn’t been shunted sideways since. A rock in defence, always enthusiastic in the tackle and a man for all occasions with a powerful header, Puyol is a rock of a central defender who is as difficult to dribble past as he is in the aerial battle. Of course this wasn’t his only quality. A teary-eyed Gerard Pique revealed as much after Puyol’s announcement. The former United man reminisced his early days at the Nou Camp and the pressure he felt saying ‘He (Puyol) was always on my back. Telling me to keep my wits about me. Telling me to fall back, to go mark that player or fall back off that one. He moulded me from substitute to starter. He made me a World Cup and Euro winner and for that I am eternally grateful.’ Glowing praise from a man who for the last five years has played alongside an ageing, increasingly sidelined through injury defensive partner. But he is more than that as Xavi Hernandez himself opined. He said that Puyol leaving will be a major loss at Barca because he is a leader on and off the pitch, keeping the boys in line and ensuring they kept their heads on the task at hand, never letting success inflate their egos.
And Puyol was the epitome of that down-to-earth, no-nonsense attitude. Over his fifteen years, not once did he assert his ego or authority against managers who played him all across the backline. Ever the faithful servant, Puyol did as his manager asked and put a hundred percent and then some into the Blaugrana cause. He lives, breathes, eats and sleeps Barca and is a club icon unlike any other. The last of the true blue defenders still plying his trade – Puyol was never much gifted with technique but is arguably the greatest achievement anywhere on the pitch for Barca’s La Masia academy. His most memorable moments came under Pep Guardiola, as he bossed a defensive line that, while not the best in the world, did enough to shut out opponents when necessary and Puyol also made contributions down the other end. In his 682 appearances (and counting) he has scored 24 goals. Most of them using his fantastic ability to head a ball, and his passion and zeal to contest for the ball in the penalty area.
A rock, a familiar face, a winner and a champion of all those he endeared during his fifteen year stay at Camp Nou – Carles Puyol hanging up his boots comes as a shocker to Barca who have reeled defensively in recent seasons due to his niggling injury problems. With Victor Valdes out injured and probably never to be seen playing for Barca again and Puyol heading out the door, that class of 2008-09 that made the world stand up and stare in awe and admiration is almost completely gone from the hallowed pathways and halls of the Nou Camp. A new era is to begin in Catalunya. But the Captain shall be sorely missed and always remembered, fondly.
For Carles Puyol is FC Barcelona. Through and Through.