On August 28 2007, just three days before they were due to face AC Milan in the Uefa Super Cup, Sevilla opened their Liga campaign against Getafe. After 35 minutes, defender Puerta collapsed close to his own goal. He left with medics for the dressing room, where he collapsed again, and was rushed to hospital after being resuscitated. At 2.30pm, he was pronounced dead, as a result of massive organ failure following prolonged cardiac arrest. His girlfriend, Mar Roldan, would give birth to their son just two months later.
After such an event, we are reminded how football pales into insignificance. But Puerta has been celebrated for seven years through the game he loved, and when Sevilla play in the Uefa Super Cup against Real Madrid on Tuesday, he will be remembered by every Sevillista at home and in Cardiff.
| "He brought great joy and confidence which, often times, professionals don't display. I saw Antonio enjoying it all, every match, every training session."
Born in the suburb of Nervion, where the Sanchez Pizjuan stands, Puerta joined the Sevilla cantera as an apprentice. His grandfather was a founder member of one of the club's most popular supporter groups. He was red and white to the very soul.
In March 2004, at the age of 19, Joaquin Caparros handed him his debut against Malaga. They lost 1-0. His chances in the first team remained few and far between; Juande Ramos took charge in 2005 and suggested he consider a loan move to build first-team experience. He said no; he would wait. When Adriano picked up an injury during the campaign, he seized his chance.
Puerta made 17 La Liga appearances that season but it was in the Uefa Cup where he made history with the club he adored. In the semi-final second leg against Schalke, with the aggregate score at 0-0, Renato swung a hopeful cross from the right that bounced all the way through to Puerta. A flash of his left foot later, the ball swerved in an unstoppable arc past Frank Rost and into the bottom corner. Puerta saluted the sky in recognition of his grandfather: in the 100th minute of the club's 100th year, he had scored, as Sevilla themselves described it this week, "the goal that changed our lives". They went on to win back-to-back Uefa Cups, a Uefa Super Cup - where they thrashed Barcelona - and the Copa del Rey in the greatest ever spell in the club's history. 'The diamond lefty' had shone brightly.
The goal – and the celebration - remains part of modern Sevilla folklore. As the city united for Puerta's funeral, the image of the defender kissing his fist adorned countless murals and flags, as well as big screens when Sevilla faced Milan on August 31. The day of the Schalke triumph is known as Jueves de Feria, occuring, as it did, on the Thursday of Sevilla's famous festival.
"It's not easy to find the right words when you're talking about a man like Antonio Puerta," coach Manolo Gimenez said in 2008, a year after his death – but words were not necessary. His funeral brought Sevilla to a standstill, as thousands lined the streets to cheer, clap and sing just one word - 'Puerta' - as the coffin procession began. Their tribute, their celebration of a young man, needed no lengthy eulogy.
At the Super Cup final, all players wore shirts with his name on the back. "It was difficult to face up to the situation but we proved that we also played for [Puerta] and did it in the best possible spirit," said Andrea Pirlo afterwards. "What has happened in the last few days created a unique atmosphere for this game," admitted Carlo Ancelotti, who was Milan boss at the time and will no doubt recall that evening when he leads his Madrid team out in Cardiff.
As Spain lifted the Euro 2008 trophy, Puerta's old cantera buddy Sergio Ramos and his team-mates donned t-shirts stating 'With you, always'. Ramos and Jesus Navas did so again at World Cup 2010. Ramos initially wore No.15 for Spain but gave Puerta the number for his debut (and only cap) against Sweden in 2006. Last year, he gave up his No.4. "As he had made his debut with my number, I decided to wear that number again in his memory,” he explained. “Whatever happens, I'll always wear that number for Antonio Puerta, my great friend.”
Sevilla named Aitor an official member as soon as he was born, and a new football school was founded in his father's name. They also retired his No.16 shirt, although they had to rescind the decision under RFEF regulations. And since 2008, a friendly game has been held to commemorate the player - the prize, a silver cast of the famous jersey.
"I want to offer my thanks for the willingness of Cordoba. They have a game on August 6, but they offered themselves immediately, when they knew it was for the Antonio Puerta Trophy," said sporting director Monchi after Friday's opponents promised to take part. The match is not simply a tribute; it is a celebration of a young footballer who relished every moment he spent in the game.
"I have the satisfaction of having shared a couple of years with him in the locker room and can be proud of how he is being remembered," said former Sevilla keeper Esteban.
"It was an era that made Sevilla a great team. I saw these young players progress, who brought great joy and confidence which professionals often don't display. I saw Antonio enjoying it all, every match, every training session."
Sevilla's Europa League triumph last season frequently defied the odds: the comeback against Betis; their last-gasp goal to edge past Valencia; the dramatic triumph over Benifca in the final. Another shock against Real Madrid seems unlikely.
But whatever happens in Cardiff, they will celebrate Antonio Puerta; they will enjoy the sheer spectacle, surrounded by those who love the game. He wouldn't have had it any other way.