It’s Carles Puyol’s thick, floppy and unstyled hair which gives you the impression that he is a bit laid-back. But that impression is immensely misleading: On field, Puyol is tough and a hard nut to crack when it comes to defending for Spain and Barcelona. A brief glimpse of his abilities was on show last week.
Spain’s friendly game against Uruguay in Doha, Qatar, on 6 February was the footballer’s 100th cap for the national team, and that says a lot about a player who overcame a knee surgery last year and was back again to lead the Spanish defence at the age of 34.
Additionally, Puyol has succeeded in making a name for himself while playing for two teams brimming with flamboyant talent. If Lionel Messi is a goal-machine for Barcelona, he is supported by an extremely fluid midfield line-up of Xavi Hernández, Andrés Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Cesc Fàbregas—all of them part of Spain’s national team as well. Both teams are aware that there is someone reliable like Puyol in their defence who will allow them the luxury of attacking.
His longevity as a player has been admired by Spain manager Vicente del Bosque and opponents but it is his effortless calm and toughness that makes him so valuable. According to Barcelona team physician Ricard Pruna, Puyol has the quickest reactions and possesses the most explosive strength among all players.
“My plan was to continue here (Barcelona). I want to be here for as many years as I can. Staying in shape is important and I’m well aware that I’ve to take care of myself off and on the pitch,” Puyol had said in January after his contract with the club was extended for another three years.
Puyol had not played for Spain since their friendly against Venezuela last February. But the centre-back returned against Uruguay to become the seventh Spanish player to reach the milestone of 100 matches after Iker Casillas (who has so far played 143 matches—a record for the world and European champions), Andoni Zubizarreta (126), Xavi (119), Xabi Alonso (106), Raúl González (102) and Fernando Torres (101).
“I’m delighted that he played his 100th game. He’s always been an example to everyone both on and off the pitch,” said Del Bosque in Doha.
The veteran played the entire first half before he was substituted by Gerard Piqué at the interval. Had his effort in the 29th minute not been disallowed by assistant referee Salem Rashid Al Naimi on the line, the Spain centurion would have celebrated his milestone appearance with a goal.
While Puyol himself did not speak to the press, others were full of praise, like Uruguay’s captain Diego Lugano, also a defender. “He’s an important player for his club and country. It’s difficult to play 100 matches but Puyol has done (that). I wish to see him play for many more number of years,” said Lugano.
Fellow defender Piqué said: “He’s someone who, even if you’re winning 3–0 and there’s a few seconds left in the game, will shout at the top of his voice at you if he thinks your concentration is going.”
The game, which Spain won 3-1, threw up an interesting battle between modern football’s most dependable defender and Liverpool’s prolific Uruguayan scorer Luis Suárez. As it turned out in the first session, the Uruguayan remained subdued and less penetrative because Suárez was up against the man often referred to as “The Wall”.
“As a true Catalan, he can pass. But mostly his job is to let no one past him. The Barcelona fans know him as the Wall,” wrote Rob Hughes in The New York Times in July 2010.
Puyol made his international debut in 2000 and was part of the Spain squad that won Uefa Euro 2008 and the 2010 Fifa World Cup. He served as a long-time team captain for Barcelona after taking over from Luis Enrique in August 2004, and is being hailed as one of the legends at the Catalan club, with more than 500 official games, five La Liga and three Uefa Champions League titles.
It’s not just his ability as a goal-stopper of rare quality that makes him invaluable to any team—give him an air-borne ball and Puyol is sure to hit the target with his powerful headers, as Germany realized when the Spaniard scored a 73rd-minute goal in the semi-finals of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa.
“I don’t have Romário’s technique, (Marc) Overmars’ pace or (Patrick) Kluivert’s strength. But I work harder. I’m like the student who isn’t as clever, but revises for his exams and does good in the end,” Sports Illustrated quoted Puyol as saying in a 2010 article
Aminul Islam is a sports writer based in Doha, Qatar.
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