Carles Puyol: The inspiring leader
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After 15 seasons as a Barcelona first-team player, and a decade as club captain, Carles Puyol announced his retirement at a specially held event at the Camp Nou in May. Puyol's longtime friend and teammate Xavi Hernandez spoke from the podium. "We players all thank you for everything -- your courage, sacrifice, generosity," Xavi said. "You were always giving advice, help ... You're the best professional I have ever shared a dressing room with, by far. Both before we were winning trophies and during our successful times."
A video was screened, featuring messages from numerous former coaches and colleagues including Luis Enrique, Andres Iniesta and Pep Guardiola. "You helped us so damn much," said Guardiola. "By setting an example not just in words, but also actions, every day and in every training session, for all this time."
Teams captained: Barcelona, Spain and Catalonia
Trophies won: Six La Ligas, two Copas del Rey, six Spanish Supercopas, three Champions Leagues, two European Supercups, Euro 2008, 2010 World Cup.
Speaking at the event, Blaugrana president Josep Maria Bartomeu said that Puyol was "the best captain in Barca's history." The departing hero's longtime central defensive partner Gerard Pique penned a more personal tribute. "My generation and those that come after do not know what the club will be like without 'Puyi' in defence branding the captain's armband," Pique wrote. "Nothing will ever be the same. By your side I felt protected, you were my guardian angel. Thanks for everything, 'Puyi.'"
The 36-year-old was retiring after 593 games for Barca, during which he won 21 trophies -- all as captain. However -- as Xavi mentioned -- it was not always so easy for Puyol. Given his debut by Louis van Gaal in October 1999 at right-back, he gradually moved across to become a regular at centre-half, but his first six senior seasons were short on success amid turmoil both on and off the pitch.
“Carles has been an example both on and off the field.”
Then Puyol was chosen by his teammates as club captain at the start of 2004-05. His first season as skipper ended with Barca claiming the Liga title. The next year they won both La Liga and the Champions League. After Guardiola replaced Frank Rijkaard as coach, Puyol lifted all six trophies available in the calendar year 2009: La Liga, Copa del Rey, Spanish Supercopa, Champions League, European Super Cup and World Club Cup.
Guardiola, Xavi, Iniesta and Lionel Messi took many of the plaudits, but Puyol's contribution was just as important as anyone else's. There was something almost cliched about his flowing mane, pumping fists and inspirational roars, but nobody doubted that his winning attitude was contagious. Although short for a centre-back, and not the fastest, he was commanding on both the ground and in the air. There was always plenty of aggression and full commitment, but Puyol was not a dirty player -- being sent off only twice in his whole career.
Former Barca player and coach Johan Cruyff said Puyol's attitude was a vital counterpart to his teammates' silkier skills. "He gave 100 percent in every game," Cruyff said. "That allowed the team to enjoy itself. Barcelona needed someone like him, someone with his way of being." An unnamed Barcelona teammate told Sid Lowe that Puyol was "a pain in the arse" before going on to add "that's exactly what we need."
Being Catalan and a homegrown product of La Masia also helped "Puyi" build a bond with the Blaugrana fans. Having grown up locally in La Pobla de Segur, he always had a clear idea of what being Barca captain was supposed to mean. In April 2012 he scolded teammates Dani Alves and Thiago Alcantara for overdoing their celebration of a goal in a 4-0 rout of Rayo Vallecano.
His character most famously came through when he invited Eric Abidal to join him in lifting the Champions League trophy at Wembley in May 2011, just weeks after the French defender underwent a liver transplant. "I can't explain the emotions I have," Abidal said that night. "I'm so thankful for the gesture."
Puyol's influence was also huge at the international level, as Spain won Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, even if Real Madrid's Iker Casillas lifted the trophies. He scored only three times for La Roja -- but one was the late header winner against Germany in the 2010 semifinal.
Appreciative national coach Vicente del Bosque handed him the armband for his 100th (and last) cap in a friendly against Uruguay in February 2013. "Carles has been an example both on and off the field," del Bosque said then. "He deserves this for what he has done; not just his words, but his acts." Puyol also skippered the Catalan representative team in unofficial friendly games through recent years.
A string of knee injuries dogged his last few seasons, but even with this wear and tear, Barca coaches from Guardiola through Tito Vilanova to Gerardo Martino always wanted Puyol on their team when possible -- especially for big games such as Clasicos against Real Madrid. The lack of the fighting spirit he brought was particularly lamented as Barca slumped limply out of Europe in both 2012-13 and 2013-14. In his final season he played just 12 times, scoring two goals. It was clear his playing time was up.
Next year's Barca squad will be very different, with Xavi also looking likely to move on this summer. Messi, Iniesta, Pique, Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano are among those who could take over the armband in the long term. The good news for Blaugrana fans is that Puyol is remaining at the Camp Nou as an assistant sporting director. That role will surely involve passing on his strength of personality and will to win to Barcelona's new generation of leaders.