Beauty and the beast: the Piqué-Puyol diaries

Beauty and the beast: the Piqué-Puyol diaries

This feature is part of Duology

There exists a 15-second video clip, which does the rounds on the internet from time to time, that replays a moment from the Copa del Rey semi-final clash of 2013 between eternal rivals Barcelona and Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu.

While defending a corner, Gerard Piqué has a lighter thrown at him from the crowd. The perennial showman, Piqué displays his distress openly and pick up the lighter from the hallowed turf to point out to the referees that he had been struck. Before he can continue frolicking before the referee, however, his captain and lifelong disciplinarian, Carles Puyol, plucks the lighter out of his hands and tosses it beyond the field of play, before insisting his partner gets his head back in the game. No nonsense.

A contrasting pairing, Piqué and Puyol’s relationship was never meant to be a success and that 15-second demonstration showed precisely why. Puyol came from the humble beginnings of Pobla de Segur in northern Catalonia, gracing from a conservative family with intrinsic values about modesty.

Piqué came from a background of prestige that he has carried with him through life; the grandson of a former Barcelona director, son of a doctor and husband of one of the most prominent pop stars of the 21st century. Nature suggests that perhaps the two weren’t supposed to get along with each other but it was their differences that made them so great.

What they lacked in off-field commonalities, they more than made up for on the pitch. They loved Barcelona, loved Catalonia and loved winning, and that was what made them so successful over the years for club and country. The two had similar paths to the top, through Barcelona’s famous La Masia, albeit in two different generations and two different positions. Puyol initially aimed at being the man in the nets, but his goalkeeping stint was cut off before he even started at the academy, due to shoulder issues, while Piqué began his career playing in midfield. The two eventually found their calling at the back.

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Despite being at Barcelona since 1999 and even going on to gain captaincy of the senior team in 2004, it wasn’t until 2008 that the two would pair together for the first time. That was due to Sir Alex Ferguson’s plucking of the exuberant Piqué from the Barça academy in 2004 to join the ranks at Manchester United, before selling him back to his boyhood club at the age of 21 having added a Premier League, Community Shield and Champions League honour to his CV. This was to be the start of something special for the two and the stars would align as fans of both club and country would proudly note.

The two became the backbone of Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering side of 2008/09, which romped to a historic treble of LaLiga, Copa del Rey and Champions League trophies, beating Piqué’s former club, Manchester United, in the final in Rome. Despite their different personalities, Piqué could easily be tamed and taught by the veteran Puyol as the captain’s tough love would not let his junior lose focus for a second. Humbly, Piqué learned and grew as a footballer and as a role model for Catalonian pride as the two prove immovable at the back. It also allowed him to make his breakthrough for the national team as they entered an extraordinary new era under Vicente del Bosque.

Having joined the club as cover for Gabriel Milito and Rafael Márquez, praise must be heaped on the 22-year-old for forging his own place in the club’s hierarchy. At times, the greatness of the 2008/09 season is often undermined due to the success of the seasons that followed it, but it could be said that this season was the pairing’s best as a single, cohesive unit. Together, they formed one of the strongest pairings in Spanish football history and circumvented a difficult start to the season with ease having worked towards improving themselves and creating more cohesion with one another. It was the start of something special as the experience and youth would become world beaters.

The 2009/10 season wasn’t as successful as the previous campaign, despite retaining the league title in record-breaking fashion. Barcelona would go out of the Champions League to José Mourinho’s pragmatic Inter Milan side and would also face disappointment in the Copa del Rey, losing to Sevilla in the Round of 16. But the focus of that year was the build-up to the World Cup and Spain, going into the competition as European champions, were favourites to go all the way. From back to front, they had a supreme roster and at the heart of it in defence were the Barcelona duo of Puyol and Piqué.

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Playing in their famous 4-3-3, the back five of Spain consisted of captain Iker Casillas, Sergio Ramos, who was still in his right-back-playing days, with Joan Capdevila on the other side. The Barcelona pairing, of course, defended front and centre. His place among such an embarrassment of riches for his national team made evident Piqué’s remarkable rise through the ranks. Two years before, he was rarely in the plans of Sir Alex Ferguson, now he was one of Guardiola and Del Bosque’s most trusted disciples. It was easy to see the influence Puyol had on him and they were now ready to take on the world.

After losing the opening group match to Switzerland, Spain were unstoppable, overcoming Chile and Honduras to top their group and come up against Portugal in the next round. In a meagre Iberian clash, the Spanish outdid the Portuguese and would set the precedent for the rest of the tournament: effective up top, but untouchable in the back. Paraguay were set aside in the quarter-finals, but for the Blaugrana defensive duo, their iconic moment would come in the semi-finals against Germany.

In a stern clash between Europe’s two best teams, the clash was poised at 0-0 with a little over a quarter of an hour left when Spain won a corner. A supreme Xavi cross was set to meet Piqué, who was ready with his might to thump the ball into the net, but in came the onrushing Puyol, with all the power and ferocity in the world to be a step ahead of his counterpart and smash it into the net himself. In a tournament of few goals by Spain, this was easily one of the best and most iconic, seeing as it eerily resembled a goal the same man scored at the Bernabéu a few years ago. It would send them to the final where, of course, everybody knows what happened next.

Andrés Iniesta scored the winner in Johannesburg to give Spain their maiden World Cup. Casillas made a crucial save from a one-on-one with Arjen Robben, and David Villa finished the tournament as Spain’s top-scorer, but this defensive pairing deserve just as much credit. La Furia Roja never conceded in the knockout rounds and the stability that was learned from the chemistry these two had at club level came in good effect on the international scene. The golden generation had earned their fair reward and these two – one a seasoned veteran and the other a young man still learning his trade – were just as important and had just as much shine as the other stars on Spain’s brightest night.

Back from the World Cup and in line with the national team’s success came glory at domestic level as well. Guardiola’s team were all at the peak of their powers and playing some of the finest football known to the sport, with the 2010/11 season providing evidence to support that statement. However, this season described the collective strength of the back-line more than the greatness of Puyol and Piqué as the former spent most of the season on the sidelines – playing nearly half the games that his younger partner played as Javier Mascherano often proved to be an able deputy.

Original Series   |  Duology

Puyol’s injury concerns limited him to just 25 games but when he did show up, he would win. The captain went on a run of 18 successive victories in the middle of the season, a record only be beaten by the great Ferenc Puskás, and his effectiveness was apparent. The duo would also have to adapt to varying conditions in the squad, with Puyol often playing at left-back due to Eric Abidal’s health problems. Nevertheless, they were still successful. Despite sourly falling to Real Madrid in the Copa del Rey final, they would overcome their Clásico rivals in the semi-finals of the Champions League and would also triumph in LaLiga with a magnificent 30 league wins.

The LaLiga success was their third in succession and their defensive record in that period is as impressive as it gets. Between 2008/09 and 2010/11, they conceded just 80 goals in 114 matches and had a combined goal difference of plus-218, which also says a lot about the attacking unit Guardiola had at his disposal. The team closest to them was Real Madrid who had conceded 120 and had a goal difference of plus-167. Although numbers tell only half the story, it is a testament to the solidity and consistency of Puyol and Piqué. They were now established as one of the club’s greatest pairings and had the record and honours to back it up.

Their greatest honour at club level came at Wembley as, 19 years on, they returned to the scene of their greatest triumph to win a second Champions League title in three seasons. Barcelona started with their traditional back four of Dani Alves and a recovered Abidal flanking Puyol and Piqué and despite conceding Wayne Rooney’s equaliser in the first-half, they were hardly troubled. Lionel Messi’s magic at the other end did the trick for them as they were confirmed as one of football’s greatest ever teams on a night where even a manager of Sir Alex Ferguson’s prestige had no answers to overcome the brilliance of this Barcelona team.

Between 2008 and 2011 Piqué grew in terms of skill and stature, while his trophy cabinet also grew. One can site incredible management or the brilliance of the players around him, but he should be afforded just as much credit as any, and so too should his partner in crime and captain, who performed a stellar job in building a fine leader out of a young, immature defender and helping to establish the club’s immense back-line.

Piqué only ever had kind words for him, and in an interview just weeks after Puyol came back into the side, he spoke highly of his captain: “I can’t imagine a Barcelona team without him; he wears me out! I remember the day he came back [after injury problems in 2010/11]. 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.”

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Guardiola’s last season in charge of this magical side bore less fruit. Real Madrid won their first LaLiga title since 2008 and Barcelona also fell to Chelsea in the semi-finals of the Champions League. meaning that the Copa del Rey was their only success of that season. However, the centre-half duo were able to play more frequently as Puyol was able to regain full fitness and came back to the form of old.

Unfortunately, it would be the last time the two would have consistent runs in the first team together. At peak age and fitness, Piqué was a mainstay in the first team, going on to become one of the icons at the club both on and off the pitch as his pro-Catalan stance drew the admiration of his fans, but Puyol would see age catch up to him.

Between 2012 and 2014 – his last years at the club – he was able to play just over 25 times across all competitions and was almost forced into retirement due to injury, even missing out on Spain’s Euro 2012 success.

The captain proved impossible to replace as Barcelona failed to find a consistent stalwart to match his influence. Marc Bartra and Javier Mascherano were utilised, but inconsistencies and age caught up to them and it wasn’t until Samuel Umtiti that the Blaugrana faithful could be given any long-term assurances. Piqué now takes on the role that Puyol had in building up Umtiti’s confidence and if he proves to be even half as inspiration as his former captain was on his development then it seems certain that Umtiti will have a long, successful career in the sport.

Between 2008 and 2011 with these two at their peak, they were unbreakable and formed the core of Barcelona and Spain’s unprecedented success. Gerard Piqué was young, Carles Puyol was wise, and together both were committed to their teams and their colours, making a perfect pairing that will never be forgotten.

By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26

Edited by Will Sharp @shillwarp

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