Friday, 14 March 2014

“O Captain! My Captain!”: A paen to Puyol

This article originally appeared on the Football Radar blog.

As the seats at Camp Nou remind visiting sides, Barcelona are més que un club. Sometimes it’s tempting to question that statement, especially as a result of the Qatar Airways logo that is now splashed across the team’s shirts, but it still holds true. Barcelona are standard-bearers not only in a football sense – that winning alone isn’t enough, that you must win well – but on a cultural and political level as well, to a greater degree than just about any other club you could care to mention. With that being the case, then, their captain Carles Puyol is més que un jugador, and that’s why coping with his absence after this season poses almost as much of a challenge to the club’s identity as the exit of Pep Guardiola two years ago.

Photo by Gerard Reyes, used under CC.

The feeling that this could be Puyol’s final year in a Barcelona shirt had been building for several months before the 35-year-old confirmed it would be the case last week. A succession of knee injuries since the last World Cup have eroded what pace he had and, understandably, affected the mobility required to play at the top level too. Puyol has not featured in two consecutive games since his most recent surgery during pre-season, and his performance in the 2-1 defeat to Ajax in November – albeit at right-back rather than his usual position in the centre of defence – was perhaps the moment when it became conclusively clear his powers were on the wane. “The injuries I have been suffering from have been worse than I expected and have not allowed me to play at my level,” Puyol said at a press conference on 4th March. It was an honest and direct justification for his departure in keeping with his style as a defender.

Puyol has won everything there is to win at club and international level, several times over. Six league titles, three Champions League trophies, two World Club Cups and two Copa del Reys have been lifted with Barcelona. He marshalled Spain’s defence as they followed up European Championship success in 2008 with the World Cup in 2010. Puyol played all but six minutes of the finals in South Africa and headed Spain into the final when he launched himself at a Xavi corner late on in their game against Germany. However, his knees deprived him of a place in Spain’s squad at the 2012 European Championship and, unless Vicente del Bosque shows a remarkable degree of sentiment, he will not be on the plane to Brazil this summer.

As important as Puyol’s achievements on the pitch are, what separates him from other similarly decorated teammates such as Xavi and Andrés Iniesta is how he bridges the gap between Barcelona the football club and Barcelona the institution. There is an incident during a match against Lokomotiv Moscow in 2002 when, as Sid Lowe pointed out recently, fans refer to Puyol preventing a goal with his heart. If Xavi and Iniesta have been the brains behind the dominance of Spanish football, Puyol has provided the soul. In an age when successful football teams can be assembled almost overnight, or at least during one transfer window, there will always be something missing from a squad of players – however talented or expensively acquired – if amongst their number there is not one who is willing, quite literally, to risk his body for the cause.

It’s not just Puyol’s knees that bear the scars of a career at the top. Several newspapers have attempted to calculate the number of injuries he has suffered during his fifteen seasons with Barcelona, with the total coming in at between 36 and 38. He has dislocated an elbow, fractured a cheekbone and torn numerous muscles in the line of duty. After overcoming such a catalogue of setbacks, then, it’s especially poignant when a player like Puyol realises that enough is enough. The modern footballer has reached such advanced levels of athleticism that to hear one admit that his body has reached its limit of endurance is a reminder that even they aren’t invincible.

While it would be correct to say Puyol has always been one of the less gifted members of the squad at Barcelona, this should not lead to his talents as a defender being denigrated. Quite clearly, he would not have played for the club for over a decade if he wasn’t one of the best in the world at his job. And yet, with his Captain Caveman hair and penchant for Napalm Death, Puyol’s committed and occasionally ragged style of defending often seemed as out of step with the rest of his teammates as his tastes in fashion and music. Leaving Barcelona doesn’t mean that he will stop playing altogether, but it’s unlikely the club will ever see a player quite like him again.

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