For the second unbelievable year in a row, Barcelona were capitulating in the Champions League, as the world watched on aghast. The Catalans had already allowed Liverpool to score three times, cancelling out the 3-0 lead they’d earned in the first leg, and matters got much worse after a goal that was embarrassing and damning in equal measure.
It was intelligent play from Trent Alexander-Arnold, as the young full-back swept his corner kick into the box, having seemingly walked away from it. Though as quick as the Englishman’s thinking was, there was absolutely no thought from the men in yellow; they had switched off at the worst possible time. It was as the ball spun off Divock Origi’s foot and into the top corner, before he ran towards the corner flag to celebrate, and every Barcelona head dropped, that one thought popped into this writer’s head: “That would never have happened if Puyol was playing.”
Some quotes from his long-time centre-back partner Gerard Piqué – who was playing during that humiliating night – supports this line of thinking. In 2011, he told the Guardian: “I can’t imagine a Barcelona team without him. 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.”
He followed that up with another example: “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.”
It is impossible to imagine how Puyol would have reacted to such a lapse of concentration from his teammates, as there was no way he would have ever allowed it to take place, especially on such a big stage.
The lauded Barcelona of the noughties will always be remembered for the swift, ingenious play great coaches implemented, which swept all aside who dared to stand in its way. It will also be remembered fondly for the fun factor Ronaldinho brought and the rise of the incomparable Lionel Messi. At the base of all this was Puyol, the wavy-haired Catalan warrior who has to be one of the most intense men the game has ever seen. He is also one of its greatest ever defenders.
Puyol’s intensity rarely got the better of him, the defender utilising it in a way that would elevate his game to a level that’d keep him at the very top of the world game for an entire decade, something very few manage. He also had superb control, which he used when tackling, often timing them perfectly to come out with the ball. Though he managed to make each one look simple, the intelligence on show was sublime and timing of the execution impeccable.
His first ever Clásico set the tone for this level of success against top opposition. It will forever be remembered as the game in which Luís Figo had a pig’s head thrown at him by a Barcelona fan after he had defected from the Catalan side to become a Galáctico. Despite the abhorrent act of betrayal, in truth, a young man by the name of Puyol at right-back was probably the biggest problem he had that night. The head was taken off the pitch, but Puyol was there for the entire 90 minutes and he matched Figo every step of the way.
Not only was he a vital player for his club, but also for his country. Puyol represented Spain 100 times and was a central figure in the early stages of their international dominance. He led the defence that would keep a clean sheet in the 2008 European Championship final, meaning Fernando Torres’ goal was enough to secure Spain’s first trophy in 44 years.
While that team will always be remembered for attacking talents – just like the Barcelona team in which Puyol so routinely featured – with the likes of David Villa, Andrés Iniesta and Cesc Fàbregas often taking centre stage, it was actually Spain’s defence which was most prevalent in their victory, refusing to concede a single goal in their three knockout matches on their way to lifting the trophy.
Accolades aren’t always the mark of a man but Puyol’s immense haul between 2000 and 2009 show how incredible he and his teams were. During those years, he amassed a collection including the aforementioned European Championship, two Champions Leagues, four LaLiga titles, one Copa del Rey, five Supercopas and two UEFA Super Cups. For context, he later added a World Cup, another Champions League, two more LaLigas an extra Copa del Rey, three more Supercopas, two Club World Cups and another Super Cup after that. Best of all, he was an integral part in earning every one of those trophies.
He was once quoted in Sports Illustrated as saying: “I don’t have Romário’s technique, [Marc] Overmars’ pace or [Patrick] 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 okay.” To say that he was the equivalent of a kid who ended up doing okay massively underestimates what he achieved in the game, perhaps showing the humility the long-haired defender carried himself with.
That humility is one of the attributes, outside of his talent and influence, that saw him become adored by so many. Another is his loyalty towards Barcelona, representing the team he loved throughout the entirety of his career. When he retired he could surely have taken a step down in the level he played at to extend his playing career – as many before and after him have done – but he didn’t want to play anywhere but the Camp Nou.
With this considered, it is crazy to think he could easily have never made a Barcelona first-team appearance. Having come through the famed La Masia, he had Frank de Boer blocking his path to first-team football. Due to this, manager Louis van Gaal had accepted a proposal to sell the youngster to Málaga. Puyol, however, dug his heels in and refused to leave, having just seen his friend Xavi take his own step up to the first team. This show of character at such a young age showed just how much he wanted to make it at the club, while also perhaps offering a glimpse into the decisiveness he would go on to show on the pitch for the entirety of the decade and beyond.
“I got here as a boy and I leave with a whole family.” This is what Puyol said when he announced his retirement in 2014. Though his relationships with the people at the club are inevitably what he cherished most, he has also gained so many other important accolades throughout his career: an astounding 26 trophies, a whole host of incredible memories, and an enduring legacy that heralds him one of the best defenders in Barcelona and world football history.
By Danny Lewis @DannyLewis_95