“You were my guardian angel.”
That was how Gerard Pique, FC Barcelona’s star central defender, said goodbye to club captain Carles Puyol, who announced he will leave Barca at the end of this season.
It’s hard to overstate how much of an icon Puyol has been at Barca. His trophy haul is ridiculous: six league titles, three Champions Leagues, two Copa Del Rey trophies, two European Supercups, two World Club Cups, six Spanish Supercups with Barca and one World Cup and one European Championship with the Spanish national team. But it was his spirit and his impeccable character that will live on in the memory.
Puyol debuted with Barcelona’s first team on Oct. 2, 1999. The manager at the time was the controversial Dutchman Louis Van Gaal, and he needed someone to come in for the injured Michael Reiziger (remember him?) at right back. Out came a 21-year-old guy with a ludicrously unfashionable Tarzan-like mane of hair. Puyol was not a highly rated prospect at the time. Everyone assumed he was a temporary solution for an emergency, as he seemingly lacked the skill required for a future first-team fixture.
Those were dark times for Barcelona. The club was mired in institutional turmoil. Longtime President Josep Lluis Nuñez left and handed the reins to Joan Gaspart, widely considered one of the worst presidents in recent memory. The feeling among the fans was that the club had lost its identity. That summer, the star player and captain, Luis Figo, left for hated rival Real Madrid.
At the time, Puyol was a refreshing alternative to his overpaid and underperforming teammates. It was nice to see a kid from the youth teams play with such unbridled determination, no matter what the circumstances. Though still seen as a limited player who probably wouldn’t amount to much, his attitude was seen as an example for the rest of the squad. In Puyol’s first full season at Barca, the team finished fourth in the league and was eliminated from the Champions League in the group stages.
Five seasons passed before Puyol would lift his first trophy. The club was stuck in a perennial crisis as managers and players came and went. Throughout this time, Puyol continued his steady progression from scrappy-yet-limited right back to a dominant center back. He worked on his game methodically, even taking tactical classes and watching old tapes of the great AC Milan sides of the ’80s and ’90s to master the position, which was completely new to him.
He took over as captain when Luis Enrique retired in 2004. This began one of the most remarkable runs in the history of world football. Barca won the league in his first season as captain. The next year, it won the league and the Champions League. Puyol and Barca never looked back.
As a player, Puyol was a monster. Physically, he could dominate anyone. He was excellent in the air despite being relatively short for a central defender. He combined physical prowess with an almost insatiable desire to dispossess his rivals – the same way a great forward is hungry for goals, Puyol seemed to be hungry for the ball. Despite this, he was only red-carded twice in his 15-year career.
Off the field, Puyol was even better. Equally adored by his teammates and rivals, he was seen as an honorable and honest competitor. He was a natural leader and always shied away from any controversy. He famously chastised his teammates Dani Alves and Thiago Alcântara for showboating after scoring a goal in a 4-0 rout at Rayo Vallecano.
Puyol was incredibly generous with his colleagues. In 2011, Puyol’s teammate Eric Abidal was diagnosed with liver cancer. This forced Abidal to sit out for several months while he underwent treatment and ultimately a liver transplant. That year Puyol won his third Champions League, and instead of lifting the trophy himself as club captain, he ceded the honor to Abidal. After the game, Abidal said, “I can’t explain the emotions I have. It’s spectacular. I’m so thankful for the gesture.”
In 2011 Puyol took interest in Miki Roque, a defender for Real Betis who was diagnosed with cancer. Roque was from Puyol’s hometown and they had developed a friendship. After winning the 2011 Champions League final Puyol wore a shirt supporting Roque. Puyol even paid for all of Roque’s medical expenses before Roque finally succumbed to the disease in 2013.
The last few seasons have been very difficult for Puyol. Age and knee problems have prevented him from playing consistently for club or country. It is still difficult to imagine Barcelona without its warrior. The memories of his goal against Real Madrid in the famous 6-2 win or his epic goal against Germany in the semifinal of the 2010 World Cup are on every fan’s minds. As Gerard Pique said in his farewell message:
“I find it amusing when they talk about signing ‘the new Puyol’. They can look all they want, but they’ll never find it.
Thanks for everything, Puyi.”