Carles Puyol, the aging Visigoth of F.C. Barcelona

"All I need is my captain's armband to whip your ass!"

This a guest post by Conor P. Williams. Many of you probably know his work already. If you don’t, you should. More info about him in his tagline at the bottom. Off we go.

With another knee operation this spring, Carles Puyol has reached that point where every knock prompts public murmuring about impending retirement. And who would blame them? Few 34-year old top-flight defenders can overcome annual cuts to their legs without eventually succumbing. At some point, age bends us all to its throne.

The debate will go on longer in this case, for Puyol has been a unique sort of player. The end could be months away —- or it could be years. Puyol’s been part of Barça’s core so long that he makes most club “mainstays” look like nomads.

The verb tenses get tender here —- what sort of defender is he? What sort of leader was he? What did he mean for FC Barcelona? Where would he play next season? Should he have a place in the starting XI? It may be unseemly to mourn a player before he is gone, but some things are better seen in a career’s flickering twilight. Once the light is fully out, retrospective takes over and casts shadows over things that were once obvious. We still have time to gather evidence to answer the most interesting questions: What makes Puyol so phenomenal? Why will Barça someday miss him so?

Start with what he’s NOT: Puyol’s teammate, Leo Messi, exemplifies a certain transitive property of athletic admiration: his fans love him because he loves to play. It’s almost impossible to see him dribble without suppressing laughter. Messi is simply nonsensically fun to watch. He is all joy and creativity and delight and spontaneity as he jinks through one defender and leaps over another. Messi is beautiful genius, superlative magic, and all the other terms that would be hyperbolic in any other instance. Forget “loves” — he simply lives to play.

If Messi is an on-field giggle, if Ronaldinho was live samba, Puyol is a square jaw. If Iniesta is one of Tolkein’s impossibly-precise, stunningly fast elven archers, Puyol is a Spartan hoplite. If Xavi is the brains of the operation, Puyol is the man on a mission. He is a determined yell — YOU SHALL NOT PASS — in human form; a man who would rather burst his lungs than permit an opponent’s incursion. Real Madrid’s Jorge Valdano put it this way: “Puyol must be the only player in the world who gets shot in the head and just stands there.”

Puyol, on the other hand, inspires no such language. It is not obvious that he loves the game, let alone playing it. His heart is on his sleeve, but has more parochial, particular concerns. Puyol loves the squad and the nation behind it. He loves the friction and combat of defending the team hearth. He loves the moments where the game descends from cleverness into the realm of a pure test of wills — who wants the match more?

I should admit that I have a dog in this fight. Years ago, when I was living in Barcelona and trying very hard to immerse myself into being a fully authentic FC Barcelona fan, I couldn’t help but idolize Puyol. He had none of Ronaldinho’s sultry gloss, nor was he one of the blaugrana’s vaunted tiki-taka midfielders. He wasn’t great with the ball at his feet — as much a sin at Barça then as it is now—and he had terrible hair (which happens to resemble mine). When my girlfriend visited me in Catalunya, she was a wee bit disappointed that I’d bought the jersey of “the ugliest guy on the team, except for Ronaldinho.”

But forget all that: it had to be Puyol. I loved his single-minded devotion. I loved the unassuming approach. I loved his toughness. There are faster players. There are craftier players. There are taller and stronger and younger players, but no one works harder. Anywhere. On a team of so many ineffably brilliant stars—nothing describes Messi or Xavi et al so much as their indescribability — Puyol has always been recognizably human. No fancy trickery proceeds from his feet. He makes sense. Nothing he does appears to threaten various laws of physics. Tough as he is, Puyol is recognizably human. While it was clear that I’d never sashay my way through a defense or flick a one-touch through ball to a cutting teammate, I could chase the hell out of the ball. I could sacrifice my body to block the ball. I could care that deeply.

Put another way, the formula for Puyol’s stardom is more accessible than his flashier teammates’: he is great because he works hard. It’s not obvious that he’s been blessed with unique athletic advantages (other than his coiffure). Middle-class folks like me can appreciate high-end scoring excellence up front, but we recognize something of ourselves in Puyol’s unflagging diligence.

As the indeterminate end draws nearer, it’s worth considering how Puyol is now more idiosyncratic in the squad than ever before. In Barca’s post-Eto’o iteration, his ferocious directness stands out amongst a team of touch-passing possession merchants. No other Barça player goes as hard after crosses into the box—because no other Barça player is quite as heedlessly committed. If you want a give-and-go replete with sexy backheel passes, talk to Xavi, Alvés, or Iniesta. If you want full-length, blood-curdling, caution-to-the-wind self-sacrifice, count on Carles.

Conor Williams is a freelance political writer who fancies himself an occasional sports journalist. Past work has been published by the Run of Play, Washington Post, and elsewhere. Find more at http://www.conorpwilliams.com or on Twitter: @conorpwilliams. Email him at: punditconor@gmail.com, especially if you’d like to pay him to write.

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In my fantasy life, I’m a Barca-crazed contributor over at Barcelona Football Blog. In my real life, I’m a full-time journalist at the Chicago Tribune, based in Chicago, Illinois.

60 Comments

  1. May 29, 2012

    Really nice article, Conor! Although whenever anyone mentions the words “aging” or “retirement” in the same breath as Puyol I have an overwhelming urge to stick my fingers in my ears and go LALALALALALALA until they stop talking. Anyway, I do have one bone to pick:

    He wasn’t great with the ball at his feet

    I honestly don’t know why people keep saying this about Puyol. No, he’s no Xavi or Iniesta, but his ball control is excellent and he rarely misplaces a pass. It would be difficult to find another CB with his level of technical skill. It’s just that he is surrounded by extraordinarily talented midgets (and Busi) that make him look somewhat pedestrian. 😛

    • May 29, 2012

      Well, sure…depending on the standard you apply, Puyol is either: terrible/average/phenomenal/etc with the ball at his feet. Put him next to, say, some of the clodhoppers rumbling around at Chelsea, and he’s a passing, dribbling maestro. He’s a goddamned whirling dervish in comparison with most center-backs.

      HOWEVER, if you put him up against the other FCB jerseys I was choosing from, he’s relatively pedestrian, i.e. “wasn’t great” as far as that particular skill set goes.

      For what it’s worth, it would be interesting to check the footage to see if he was better/worse with the ball at his feet than Rafa Márquez. I suspect that it’s close.

      • Messiah10
        May 29, 2012

        Ray Ray always used to mention that he was a midfielder at the very early stages of his career. You see glimpses of it once in a blue moon. I love watching Pique and Carles take the pigskin up the pitch. They look so unsure of what they want to do. 🙂 It’s like their thinking, “o.k., there’s space, wait, I’m supposed to dump it off to one of the guys that knows what to do with it, wait, more space, oh hell, just go and if something happens I’ll dump it to Messi, Xavi, or Ghostface!

        • 505
          May 31, 2012

          he’s been everything — started as a keeper until he had a shoulder injury, then he played as a striker. after that he was moved to the midfield, i think when he was in barca b. from there it was on to defense — and i think he’s played every defense position, too 🙂

          i’m totally biased, but when people talk about “the complete footballer”, i think of the captain (not messi, and most certainly not crynaldo)

      • May 29, 2012

        Oooooooooh…that’s a nice move, and good to see the ghost of Torres’ past scoring 🙂

        Puyi did a similar move against Valencia in the CdR.

  2. icemel
    May 29, 2012

    True Story:
    When I work out, especially doing lat pull downs for some reason, I visualize myself as Carles to get those last 4 reps beyond exhaustion completed.
    Happened completely spontaneously one day and is completely efficacious.
    …maybe ’cause I’m 7 years old in soccer years.

    • hansh
      May 29, 2012

      I’m a defender, and when I play I pretend I’m Carles. It gives me the extra little motivation saying no, you will not score on my team while I’m on the field!

    • Cam
      May 29, 2012

      I just tried this Puyol visualization tactic at the gym and it worked wonders. Tomorrow at work I am going to yell at my co-workers to keep a flat back four.

  3. mom4
    May 29, 2012

    Yup. sums up the man and why we love him very nicely.

    But he is, as Blitzen said, pretty darn good with the ball at his feet (was THAT move that I’m recalling against Valencia?) and reliable with a pass. He is just overshadowed by the midgets (he’s above average, they can’t even remember what average felt like).

      • mom4
        May 29, 2012

        It can only happen with our midgets…they’re just that good!

      • Messiah10
        May 29, 2012

        That’s hilarious. However, I know the term “midgets” is fondly used when referring to our teams pint sized players, but I believe the more politically correct term now is “dwarf” or “small-person”. The word “midget” is offensive to most small people nowadays. I’m not trying to criticize. Just don’t think we should use the term loosely. We wouldn’t with terms of ethnicity, religion, and race.

        • mom4
          May 29, 2012

          I believe the preferred term for someone with ‘dwarfism’ is little person. But the term only applies to people under 4’11” if I recall correctly, which clearly doesn’t apply to our guys. Not even closely. It is obviously a term of endearment here. One of these days people are gonna fear to write or say anything as there will be no words left in the English language without a negative conotation.

        • mom4
          May 29, 2012

          And is your ‘pint sized’ really any better?

        • May 29, 2012

          “Dwarf” denotes a medical condition. “Midget” specifically refers to a small person with “relatively average bodily proportions in comparison with other human beings”.

          One of my best friends is a dwarf and I would never refer to him as a “midget”. He also severely dislikes the term “little person”, because he’s just a “person”, you know?

          Every word is loaded with meaning and some people will or won’t like it depending on their own preferences. I think we all know we use the term “midget” to refer to our players with love in our hearts. No actual midgets were harmed in responding to this comment. 🙂

          • mom4
            May 29, 2012

            Anywho, 5’7” isn’t really that short. It’s pretty average, just shorter than most of the other footballers. They’re giants talent wise.

          • May 29, 2012

            How ’bout we retire midgets for “sprite,” which in the context of what our players do, makes more sense anyhow:

            Sprite:

            1. A small or elusive supernatural being; an elf or pixie.
            2. An elflike person.
            3. A specter or ghost. (COUGH! Iniesta! COUGH!)

          • mom4
            May 29, 2012

            Sprite and by extension elf or pixie would be more politically correct?

            Has it come to this?

          • May 29, 2012

            Nah…midget is fine. Agree with Mom4, let’s not be too sensitive about everything.

          • Messiah10
            May 31, 2012

            I wasn’t trying to start anything or imply that no one’s sensitive to the term. Just pointing out that in recent films and articles I’ve watched/read that the term “midget” is offensive to most people of smaller stature. It’s hard to not use the term since it’s been widely “accepted” or the most widely “used” word describing someone of smaller stature. I like “sprite”! Our players do have mystical powers! 5’7″ is small! Well, I guess since I’m 6’4″ most people are small to me! 😉

  4. ooga aga
    May 29, 2012

    just horrible news about cuenca. it’s the meniscus of his right knee.

    • May 29, 2012

      On Thursday I’ll have minor surgery on my knee. It’s nothing serious, don’t worry! I’ll keep you informed. Hugs.” (@CuencaIsaac)

      • ooga aga
        May 29, 2012

        thats good. whenever i hear “meniscus,” i cringe. hopefully he’s not just being optimistic and it really is minor.

  5. Messiah10
    May 29, 2012

    Thanks Conor and thanks BFB for asking him to write a piece on here. I’m so happy it was a Capt. Tarzan one. He is what I feel. That’s the only way I know how to describe my passion for FCB and football. I say, “watch Carles”. I see a lot of myself in him. I used to play basketball the way he does. I WANTED it sooo much. I would dive, take elbows, guard someone 6 inches taller, so we could WIN the game. Glory, Glory, Carles!

    P.S. Conor, I am a huge Run of Play fan. It’s a shame it moved to Tumbler. That eliminates readers posting comments on pieces. Is there talk of having it back to the way it “used” to be? Any insight would be appreciated and very grateful for your thoughts on our Capt.

    • May 29, 2012

      No idea on RoP. I miss it really badly—esp. b/c a friend and I were talking about writing a “Mario Balotelli as Folk Hero” piece for them.

      • Messiah10
        May 29, 2012

        Ha. That’d be hilarious. I can only imagine…(sigh)

  6. May 29, 2012

    Nice article! But what is a visigoth? Google tells me the term relates to ancient Germanic peoples. In your opinion, how does this term characterize Puyi? Sorry, I’m not too familiar with Western civilization history.

  7. May 29, 2012

    Puyol must be the only player in the world who gets shot in the head and just stands there

    He did indeed get stapled on his forehead and didn’t flinch!

    the ugliest guy on the team

    In defense of Puyi, he does have great hair. And you know, curls are in 😀

    On a serious note, he is a true leader. Guillem Balague, who claims to “write” Pep’s authorized biography, said one reason Pep decided to leave was the attachment he had toward those players. He didn’t want to be the one to tell Puyi and Xavi that they have to play less games as they age. Mascherano is probably the only person on that team who can match Puyi’s intensity.

  8. Ryan
    May 29, 2012

    I thoroughly enjoyed that, thanks!

    Puyol has been such a mainstay for Barca and Spain that it’s hard to envision either team without him. He does have quite a few moments of great technical skill, though. I remember in one of the CL finals where he successfully dribbled himself out of the team’s own corner rather than concede a throw; he may not be the most technical player but he can hold his own!

  9. Messiah10
    May 29, 2012

    I can really envision Puyi swinging thru the jungle on a vine from tree to tree. He’s clad in his blaugrana tarzan shaped covers. His curls act as a Medusa type defense. He spots the proverbial poacher about to bag a goal. Wait. AAAAAAAAAA(not sure how to spell Tarzan yell, just imagine it). Out of know where he’s flying thru the air and slide tackles the ball away from the poacher. The villagers all wipe the beaded sweat from their brows. Capt. Puyi to the rescue again. Happens at least once a game he suits up for. I hope he finds the Fountain of Youth.

    Question: Who steps up to be our leader should Carles ever retire? Xavi, is the clear favorite. Would he have the same influence that Puyi does? I think he’d go about it the same way. Once Xavi retires? Cesc was captain of Arsenal at a very young age. I’m not sure Iniesta is a captain. Though I don’t know locker room dynamics. Sergi?

    • May 29, 2012

      People talk about Pique as a future captain, but I don’t know if he has the necessary gravitas. Valdes is 3rd captain and I can see him being 1st captain after Xavi retires. Goalkeepers have a long shelf life.

      Don’t underestimate Iniesta, though. He has been captain of many of his youth teams, and he has a lot of drive and determination. He may not be as vocal on-field as Puyol or Xavi, but he has the ability to inspire a team.

      For the future, I could definitely see Cesc as captain. He has the intelligence and leadership skills. And I also think Busquets could make a great captain in 5 or 6 years. He needs to mature a bit but I can definitely see it.

      Masche would be a great captain too, but he’s, you know, foreign. 😉

      • Dani_el
        May 29, 2012

        What about Messi?

        I can see Valdes, Iniesta, Messi and Cesc. Cesc will have to wait his turn. It depend though. I remember reading that Pep made an election for the captains. Will we have another election? I don’t think so, different times. But they have to be Masia raised and know our values. Still I would love to see Masche with more standing in the team. He sure know how to talk. Him I see as a coach..

        • May 29, 2012

          I’m not in favor of having a goalkeeper as lead-captain. Iniesta would be a great captain but he’s not a “puyi commander on the field type.”

          I don’t see Cesc as a captain. He’s just too sulky/bitchy when he’s on the pitch. I also don’t see Pique as captain, unless he can show me that he can concentrate on playing the game for 90 minutes and not dreaming of something else. For some reasons, I just don’t these behaviors changing over time.

          Since a foreigner might not suit the Catalan ethos, the closest person I can think of is Busi. Yes, he has his diving moments. But this season, he has improved a lot. He’s only going to get better as he matures. Yes, there was the racial allegation, which in the end had no conclusive evidence. He works hard for the team, very skilled, comes from a humble beginning, and doesn’t create off-field controversy. For me, he should wear the number 4. He is captain material for me.

          • Jafri
            May 30, 2012

            Making Pique captain might just be the best thing for his concentration. He looks like the kind of guy who’ll raise his game when they give him the added responsibility.

          • Messiah10
            May 31, 2012

            Agree with you on goalkeepers being capt. I don’t think it’s wise since a keeper can be booked for leaving his box. You need someone who’s able to go anywhere on the field to talk to a teammate, ref, or opposing player. I like the idea of Busi wearing the #4, but not for a few years. I’m just not sure of Messi being a Capt. He’s definitely earned it, but you need someone who’s authoritative, vocal, a leader, etc. Messi is a leader, but a quiet one who goes about his business.

  10. nia
    May 29, 2012

    To me, Puyi is the most handsom guy on the team. He’s a mans man, very rugged and strong. Every inch of him is covered in muscles, ever seen him with his shirt off?:). Yum. I also like his work rate and dedication, you can tell he’s an honest guy and loveable.
    Ok, he’s cute but, Pique is cuter.

  11. Huckleberry
    May 30, 2012

    Puyol is a very good looking guy.
    I will never understand, why my wife doesn’t agree…

  12. Gogah
    May 30, 2012

    I have another interesting question..
    How good would we perceive Puyol to be, if he had short hair?

    • Jafri
      May 30, 2012

      Awesome question – he definitely has a Samson thing going on :p

    • Oil_Can
      May 30, 2012

      He’d definitely lose his Tarzan/Caveman reference.

      but he’d still be the captain with the big heart and busted lungs.

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