Carles Puyol may prove to be the last genuinely world class defender ever to play the game, in the purest sense of the phrase. As uncompromising and committed as they come, he is the principal no-frills footballer, right down to the unkempt appearance, straggly hairstyle and the brutal honesty of his performances.
He doesn’t spread the play to commence attacks. He doesn’t become involved in intricate passing triangles. He doesn’t have to, even in one of the greatest teams of them all. He’s a defender. 'The Wall', as Barcelona fans call him. That’s all he’s ever needed to be, and there have been few better in this discipline.
It’s somewhat ironic that his partner-in-success for Barca’s recent glory years, Gerard Pique, in many ways defines the modern, fully-formed center back; graceful, fashionable, completely comfortable in possession. And also, by his own admission, heavily reliant on Puyol to keep him in check.
“I can’t imagine a Barcelona team without him,” Pique said in 2011. “He never stops. He wears me out. He tells me to shut up and concentrate.”
Observers of Barca in its current guise can point to two things; Pique doesn’t look to be the same player without Puyol’s relentless guidance and insistence on total concentration. And now that he has officially announced he is leaving the club, the feeling is that Barca may never suitably replace the organizational skills and unshakable respect that he commands.
The veteran’s departure has been agonizing, and perhaps in hindsight should have been a decision taken months ago. But the memory of what he has helped the modern Barca achieve should never be allowed to disintegrate. Lionel Messi, Xavi, Pep Guardiola – those men have their roles. Puyol’s legacy should stand proudly alongside them.
Then, at international level. Spain, a fragmented country not aligned with patriotic support or flag-waving of any kind, has enjoyed unprecedented success. If ever a moment could define a player, Puyol’s flying header in the 2010 World Cup semifinal against Germany was it. A denial to accept anything other than victory. It’s as close as Spain has ever come to uniting behind the national team.
Players such as Puyol find public support behind them because they transcend football teams, backgrounds or talent. They are the players every fan believes they would be if they could wear the jersey of their favorite team. Whatever they may lack in discernable ability would be compensated by love, affection and desire for the cause. Puyol is a testament to perseverance and, as Vicente del Bosque exclaimed, “an example to us all.”
Puyol claimed he hasn’t decided on his future, that he will look at his “next steps” at the end of the season. When a man is so defined by his role in football like Puyol is, it’s understandable that it is difficult to let go.
He wants to continue – hence why he’s battled injuries that would, should, have finished him by now. But he’s given the club his best years, as well as his heart and soul. They should be eternally grateful for the Barca he has helped build.