Carles Puyol: Barcelona’s Greatest Ever Captain?
Think of the Barcelona side that dominated the start of the 21st century and immediately your thoughts are filled with the fleet footed wizardry of Lionel Messi, the infectious joy with which Ronaldinho entertained fans and rivals alike, the intricate tapestries threaded across the field by Xavi and Iniesta, the boundless energy of Dani Alves, the economical finishing of Samuel Eto’o and the impactful cameos from the likes of Henry, Larsson and Yaya Toure.
Each an entertainer in their own special way but lurking behind the razzmatazz lay a very different kind of showman. A shaggy-haired dog of war. A player who drew oohs and aahs from the galleries in a different way. Sometimes it would be a thunderous tackle, clean but robust. Other times it would be his barrel-chested obstinate in the face of an opposing shot, his frame a magnet to any incoming barrage. He had headers that would arch for miles and his sense of position would mean that no sprint would have to be too far for a pair of knees that had lived through it all.
He was a player who at 17 had yet to set foot in Barcelona’s famed La Masia academy but would go on to play nearly 600 times for the Catalan side’s first team, be part of the first Spanish squad to lift a World Cup in 2010 and captain his childhood heroes for more than decade. He was Carles Puyol and he is probably Barcelona’s greatest ever captain.
It all could have been very different if a then 20-year-old had acquiesced by agreeing to a move to Malaga, a fee was in place with the Andalucian side but Puyol wasn’t interested. He had taken the long road to play for La Blaugrauna and he wasn’t about to give up at the first sign of trouble. Having already seen his academy team mates make the breakthrough he remained resolute in his belief he soon would too. A belief that would be rewarded.
Initially starting as a right back under Louis van Gaal, the always forthright Dutchman having once asked if Carles Puyol couldn’t afford to cut his hair, it was his move into the centre where his abilities and strength of personality were truly allowed to bloom, a mind boggling chest save from Lokomotiv Moscow striker James Obiorah in a 2002 Champions League tie a particular highlight of those early years as was the time he blocked a Roberto Carlos thunderbolt with his face during a Clasico.
Continuing to impress on the arrival of another Dutchman, Frank Rijkaard, he would soon be handed the red and yellow striped armband for the start of the 2004/05 season. A season where Barca would start the first of two periods of dominance during his time as captain.
From the beginning of the 2004 season to the end of the 2006 campaign Barcelona would win two La Liga titles, two Supercopa’s de Espana and one Champions League title under Rijkaard. In La Liga Puyol would only miss one game over the course of those two campaigns and while it would be a foul from the defender that would result in Arsenal taking the lead in the 2006 Champions League Final he would eventually triumph there too.
Whilst that spurt of success is still remembered fondly it was the arrival of former midfielder Pep Guardiola as coach in 2008 that saw the emergence of a Barcelona side widely considered to be one of the best ever with Puyol continuing to play an important part as on-field commander and a guiding light to his up-and-coming defensive partner Gerard Pique.
During Guardiola’s four year spell in charge Barca would win 14 titles and Puyol’s on and off field class would frequently come to the fore throughout an unprecedented period of success. In that first season under Pep, Barca would win all six of the competitions they competed in and, as the crowds began to dissipate, the scene would remain the same, that of a joyous Puyol thrusting a trophy skyward between his arms.
In a close league battle the Catalans would thump eternal rivals Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabeu with five games to go with Puyol scoring the second during a 6-2 victory, with a stereotypically thumping header ensuring that the league title was heading to Spain’s north-eastern coast. The year’s triumphs would be rounded out by Copa del Rey and Supercopa victories over Athletic Bilbao, a Champions League victory against Manchester United, a European Super Cup win over Shakhtar Donetsk and a World Club Championship victory over Estudiantes of Argentina.
Following Barcelona’s 3-1 demolition of Manchester United in the 2011 Champions League Final, a performance now held up as perhaps the most complete a club side has ever produced, Puyol forwent the opportunity to hold the prize aloft instead passing the armband and the trophy to team-mate Eric Abidal. The Frenchman, who had battled back from a tumour in his liver, still speaks of the wave of emotion that washed over him when the gesture was made. One that Puyol would repeat, this time with the La Liga title in 2013, in an act of solidarity with Abidal and Tito Villanova, who had both overcome serious illness.
Yes, Puyol fought hard, but he also fought fair, he would diffuse on pitch rows, and keep teammates humble. Having scored a fifth against Rayo Vallecano in a league match Puyol had no time for the choreographed routine of Thiago and Dani Alves. Bulldozing his way into the fray before ordering them back to the centre circle in quick time. During a Clasico in 2013 Gerard Pique would be struck by a lighter from the Madrid crowd. Keen to show the referee what had happened he picked the offending item up and headed towards the official only for Puyol to step in and tell him to focus on the impending Real threat from the corner, throwing the lighter of the pitch and chastising Pique for his histrionics in the process.
Success continued but injuries began to take their toll on the Spaniard with repeated surgeries on his right knee eventually leading to the defender’s retirement from football in 2014 at the age of 36, a true one club man.
We can’t finish talking about Carles Puyol without giving a nod to his international success. Capped 100 times he was part of a Spain squad that would win the 2008 European Championships and the 2010 World Cup in South Africa and it’s telling that in Morbo a book focused on that side’s success by Basque based journalist Phil Ball, the author chose the image of Puyol holding the World Cup aloft, and not that of Iker Casillas the captain on that day, as the front cover. Even without the armband, Puyol was seen as a leader.
In a 2010 interview with Sports Illustrated he said, “I don’t have Romário’s technique, Overmars’ pace or Kluivert’s strength. But I work harder than the others. I’m like the student who is not as clever, but revises for his exams and does OK in the end.” Both this humble appraisal of his own brilliance while operating at his peak and the way in which he carried himself for both club and country have ensured Carles Puyol will go down as one of the games modern legends and an immovable icon in the red, blue and yellow of the club he was proud to call his own.