The stage had been set at the Santiago Bernabeu. Frank Rijkaard’s men embellished by the famous garnet and blue marched down the tunnel onto the lush green turf. Standing out amongst those walking down the aisle was a certain young Spaniard with his trademark dishevelled hair.
From the get-go, both sides fought tooth and nail. Every passing second raised new tensions in the air. A little more than half an hour had been played, yet the giant screens at the Bernabeu read 0-0. All of a sudden, Real Madrid sniffed an opportunity at their doorstep.
Luis Figo danced against his former comrades and deposited it at the magical feet of Zinedine Zidane. With a tiny glance at goal, the Frenchman pulled the trigger to test Victor Valdes. The ball made its way to the Barcelona goal-keeper, who parried it away right to the feet of Raul Gonzalez. Without a second thought, the iconic forward took his chance on the rebound only to be denied brilliantly by Valdes.
Yet, the ball found its path to Roberto Carlos. The Brazilian left-back had a terrorizing reputation for thunderous shots which reduces even the best of goal-keepers into mere spectators. With Valdes helpless on the ground, nothing, it seemed, could stop the ball from slamming the back of the net.
As the ball was travelling in its lightning speed, the shaggy-haired warrior rose and took the thunderous blow right on his face. The score stayed 0-0, and the Catalans went on to win the game thanks to a late winner by Xavi Hernandez.
Yet, people rarely highlight the aftermath of this iconic moment. After taking a bullet of a shot right on his face, Carles Puyol had gone down whilst the ball was still in play. The haze did not bother him, nor was he perturbed by the concussion. Within a second, he was back on his feet, ordering his defensive partners around and covering up the holes in the defence — a player of unimaginable dedication, and a leader in its truest essence.
The story of Carles Puyol starts back in Lleida, Catalonia. At the start of his football journey, the youngster a baffling case for his managers. Having started as a goalkeeper, he soon made the shift to playing as a forward. His true colours started showing when he played deeper positions, prompting his coach to try him out as a defensive midfielder in the La Masia ranks.
As the years passed, Puyol found himself in the B team for the Catalan giants, however now deployed as a right-back. Time flew, but there seemed to be no signs of an impending promotion for the youngster.
In 1998, Puyol was all set to depart his home to make the shift to Malaga CF. He had not yet made his debut for the first team and was considerably behind in the pecking order. Yet, seeing Xavi Hernandez, his close friend, debut for the first team gave him a glimmer of hope. A small hope that would not just change his life but define Barcelona’s coming decade. A bold decision that every football fan is indebted to him for.
Early years in the Blaugrana
On the 2nd of October 1999, Carles Puyol finally got the break he deserved. In the 56th minute of the game against Real Valladolid, Louis van Gaal subbed on the Catalan for Simao to cover up the right-back position. However, his career was set for one last position change, one that would unleash the inner beast and mould him into a nightmare for even the best of strikers.
Puyol’s advent in Spain began with the #32 on his back. (Photo by Allsport UK /Allsport)
His defensive maturity and fearless yet perfect tackles caught the eye of the manager. The rise of Michael Reiziger at the right-back position saw the young Catalan gun displaced once again. With this, his remodelling into a centre-back began, and Puyol started making a name for himself. The news spread far and wide, right to the ear of Sir Alex Ferguson.
During the 2003 season, Manchester United started their pursuit for Barcelona’s prized asset. It was a move that would see him play for one of the most elite clubs in football history, under one of the greatest managers ever. Yet, Barcelona’s lion chose to be the king of the jungle he was in and grow alongside it. Soon after, he signed a contract extension and committed his future to the Blaugrana.
Receiving the Baton
The period from 2000-2003 was a tumultuous one for Barcelona. Tension in the board, instability in the dressing room added to the unstable managerial position did not farewell. The dark period was a dent in the Catalans history, with them failing to win any silverware for almost four years.
The 2003 elections terminated in the surprise victory of Joan Laporta. A late surge in support and a sudden aura around the Spanish businessman saw him overtake Lluis Bassat to be elected as the president of the club. With him came a series of positive changes, one of which was the appointment of Frank Rijkaard.
The Dutchman brought with him a new yet nostalgic philosophy. With the support of the board, a new project was visible. Under Rijkaard, Puyol saw his first season as a regular starter. The 2003/04 season was a career-defining term for him. The dramatic rise in importance of the young centre-back was justified by his appointment as the club captain at the end of the season, following the departure of Luis Enrique.
Puyol graced the captain’s armband for a decade, starting in 2003. (Photo by F. CASTILLO/MIC PHOTOPRESS)
The combination of Carles Puyol on the pitch and Frank Rijkaard from the sidelines was a match made in heaven. The first season after Puyol’s appointment as captain ended Barcelona’s trophy drought as the Catalans went on to win their first League title in six years.
The following season saw Barcelona not just defend their league title but also taste European success. The captain led from the very front, keeping the team on their toes and at their best, winning the Champions League in a well-fought battle against Arsenal in 2006.
The epitome of leadership
A well-known incident in 2007 reminds us of Carles Puyol’s leadership, one that has never been seen since.
Heavyweights in a dressing room is always a tricky situation, one that can lead to the worst of relations. An internal split is the last thing any club can desire for, for it is a parasite that can eat the team up from the inside. Barcelona found itself in a similar situation in 2007 when there broke out a misunderstanding between Samuel Eto’o, Ronaldinho and coach Frank Rijkaard.
Nothing Puyol couldn’t handle – on or off the pitch. (Photo by LLUIS GENE/AFP)
Things seemed to be going south, and matters had got personal. Yet, holding the team’s interest at the forefront, Puyol interfered in the situation personally. The World Cup winner individually talked matters out with both players and the coach, keeping his own position at stake. Things worked out perfectly and the misunderstanding was cleared. Setting right internal disputes may seem a simple task to do, but very few in today’s world would have gone to that depth to protect the club’s interest. Carles Puyol was as much of a leader off the pitch as he was on it.
Silverware may be a widely used scale to measure a Captain’s leadership ability. Yet, Puyol had so much more than a trophy count to prove the lion he was.
Captains may lead by example, while some may lead by their discipline. Some prefer to yell out orders and command their troops, whilst others choose to let their performances do the talking. A few like to make their dominance known on the field, yet some like to do their leading in the secrecy of the dressing room. Somehow, Carles Puyol seemed to tick every single box. The Spanish legend was not a type of leader; he defined a new concept of a ‘complete leader’.
Lifting the first of his three Champions League trophies as captain – Carles Puyol is historic. (Photo by PASCAL PAVANI/AFP)
Despite being one of the roughest and ruthless defenders around, he was eternally the most disciplined on the field. The number 5’s sole interest on the field was the sport, and his actions are testament.
The harbinger of a new level of focus
The infamous incident at the Bernabeu in 2013 is one that will continue to define Puyol for years to come. Barcelona were playing Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey semi-final when Gerard Pique was struck by a lighter thrown by the Los Blancos fans. As the tall defender was making his way to the referee to express his displeasure, the Captain stood in his path. Without a second thought, he took the lighter and flung it off the pitch. He then ordered his defensive partner to stop complaining and focus on the impending corner.
“He wears me out! I remember the day he came back [after the injury]. In the middle of the game I said: ‘Puyi, I’ve missed you so much.’ He told me to shut the hell up and concentrate. He never stops. One time, the game was stopped, someone was on the stretcher, and he was shouting at me. I said to him: “Calm down, it’s 4-0 and there are three minutes left.” He said: “So what? Focus! I know you.” I was dying with laughter. Puyol keeps you on your toes at all times.”Gerard Pique
Similarly, one fondly turns the clock back to 2005 when Puyol was relatively new to his captaincy duties. In a heated incident, Mallorca’s defender Sergio Ballesteros made his displeasure clear and crossed the limit by slapping Barcelona’s captain on the field. Nevertheless, In a world of football dominated by play-acting, one would expect a player to go down and demand a red card for the offender.
Yet, Barcelona’s eternal captain stood still and calm. Moreover, when Ronaldinho made an effort to confront Ballesteros, Puyol stopped him from doing so. Once again, he reminded everyone that the primary goal of everyone on the field was the game of football. The captain ensured complete concentration from every player, irrespective of the situation in the game. The team played with the same focus, whether seven goals up or chasing four goals.
Carles Puyol: The greatest captain ever?
Carles Puyol was a fantastic sportsman, but moreover a gentleman of the highest order. In 2012, the Catalans were steamrolling a helpless Rayo Vallecano. They had already put 4 past their rivals when Thiago scored another one against the relegation-threatened side. As the young midfielder rushed towards Dani Alves to celebrate the goal, Puyol made it clear that it was not the time for a celebration. After a short stern telling off, the captain sent the duo back to their positions for the restart.
A captain is only a captain if his troops agree to listen to him. Clearly, Puyol had a certain aura around him. One with which he could hardly attract any haters. When he spoke, everyone stayed silent irrespective of seniority. Yet, it was not just his personality that gained him the respect of fans and players alike.
Carles Puyol committed to being Barcelona’s captain through thick and thin, and handles the weight of the armband with grace. (Photo by Denis Doyle/Getty Images)
The World Cup winner fought like a lion. One could never question his commitment on the field. He played for the badge and held the club’s values and prestige high. The Spaniard was a nightmare to opposition strikers, an enigma that just cannot be understood.
A rock in defence
Puyol was never a tailor-made Barcelona centre-back. Sure, he was quick and could carry the ball courtesy of his past as a fullback, but his passing was less than exemplary. The unmatched fervour, though, helped him cement his place in the world of football. Something the Blaugrana defence has never seen since.
There were tiny moments of doubt when the Spaniard was screening the goalkeeper. A shot to the face, a tackle to the shin, a header to the teeth, Puyol faced it all, but got up, wiped the sweat off his face, and continued stronger than ever. He also formed an unlikely partnership with Gerard Pique — a duo which was called off very early in their time together.
An unlikely partnership that worked for half a decade. (Photo by JOSE JORDAN/AFP)
He was the kind of footballer who would never give up — he would chase you to the gates of hell to win back the possession before spraying it forwards, or rouletting his way out of trouble. Examples of these are the several times he would get humiliated – mostly during the twilight of his career – by quick forwards, a certain Angel di Maria in particular. However, what those clips on the internet do not show is how quickly Puyol was up on his feet and winning the turnover.
Nothing better than a certain quote by Tony Adams that describes everything Puyol did as an athlete: “Play for the name on the front of the shirt, and they will remember the name on the back.”
A certain night against Lokomotiv Moskow in 2002 comes to mind, which echoes the quote louder than ever. Tracking back, Puyol was up against James Obiorah, who had found his way around Victor Valdes in front of an open goal. His route to goal was gem-laid, and little to nothing could stop the Russian outfit from taking the lead. In a race against his own capabilities, Puyol reached the six-yard box in time, taking the shot to the chest. The moment went down in history and etched Puyol’s name in gold as the Camp Nou crowd stood up to chant the then 24-year-old’s name in disbelief.
A gentleman of the highest order
Above everything, Carles Puyol was one of the most selfless players to have ever graced the game. A true gentleman in every sense of the word.
One reminisces the night at Wembley in 2011. One of the biggest nights in Barcelona’s history. The world rejoiced, the players were ecstatic, the celebration around created an atmosphere like no other. It was every player’s dream come true. Barcelona had schooled a Manchester United side to taste European glory again.
Carles Puyol himself had just come back from injury to be available for the final stage of the tournament. It was his chance to lift the trophy one last time. He was the man of the moment, the captain of unarguably the best team in the world.
Abidal lifts the Barcelona trophy with the armband — a tribute to him by Puyi. (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)
How unselfish can a man be, one ponders. It would be any captains dream to lift the UCL trophy, irrespective of how many times they have got the chance earlier. It was, is, and will remain a moment of unparalleled prestige.
Yet, Puyol did not hesitate for a second. The captain took off the armband and handed it to Eric Abidal, who had just won his battle against Cancer. History speaks for the rest. The left-back hoisted the trophy as Catalonia rejoiced, while Puyol joined in the celebration.
A heartwarming moment, brought on by none other than captain Carles Puyol. (Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP)
The memories keep flashing, as one travels back to the Joan Gamper in 2010. Ronaldinho returned to the Camp Nou in the Red-and-White outfit of Milan. As the Barcelona players posed for their team photo, the #5 called his former teammate to join the Blaugrana in the photo. Further, when Barcelona won the event, Puyol offered the trophy to the Brazilian magician as a token of gratitude. Such golden memories truly bring tears to one’s eyes, for Puyol was an unparalleled captain.
A dying breed
Puyol did not have the sweetest of starts to his career at Barcelona. He stood form through the storm and went on to see the royal rewards that life gave him. From almost leaving the club to becoming one of the most vital players for the red-and-blue outfit, Puyol had a journey like no other.
Even during his final juncture with the Catalan outfit, Puyol stared down the hailstorm of injuries, fighting on till his body let him. Eventually, he called his time with the club after he could not take no more, deciding to retire after the 2013/14 season. Barcelona ended the season with no trophies, but that was not even a mere dent on Puyol’s legacy.
Puyol was in the eye of the storm through several moments in his career, but did not give up. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
Puyol was not just a role-model for his team-mates but also to every single one of us. He exuded confidence, yet stayed humble. Though he led from the very front, he did not crave the benefits that come associated with that role. He fought bravely through the rough times, yet had the same fire even when his position in the team was set. The fiercest of defenders with the softest of hearts, the loudest of leaders with the softest of commands. The passion, the zeal, the determination are something this club will cherish for eternity.
Every drop of sweat that Puyol shed on the field had the blue and garnet of Barcelona. The blood in his veins stood for Catalonia. His mind eternally served the great sport. The confidence that his mere presence on the field provided stands for his greatness.
They say Old is Gold. The Spaniard’s personality and contribution are far beyond gold, something the world of football will remember forever. Puyol has left a void that has never been filled since and will be very difficult to fill in the coming future. His name will go down as a synonym to the words leader and captain. Truly, the greatest Captain in Barcelona’s history. To Spain’s endeared warrior, Catalonia’s eternal captain, the man with a golden heart: Gracias, every Culé’s heart still pumps your name.