THERE are several things that spring up to the mind when Carles Puyol is mentioned: time and space, clockwork and camaraderie, history and eternity. Barcelona’s eternal captain seemed to have all the time in the world when he was on the pitch for the impeccably-unified Catalan side that worked like clockwork when at its spectacular best. Time was at a premium though for an interview with the Spanish legend on Sunday afternoon.
In Karachi as part of promotions for the upcoming World Soccer Stars event, which will see him play two exhibition matches in the country next month, Puyol had to go for lunch. He only had a few minutes — eight to be very precise — to talk before other engagements post-lunch that, amongst others, included his first taste of cricket: Puyol was to attend the Pakistan Super League (PSL) final at the National Stadium.
As a player, Puyol was an embodiment of aggression and commitment. One thing he hasn’t lost from his playing days though is that he remains a picture of concentration. The blue eyes on his long, drooping face are wide open as he takes questions. He referred to “being focused” several times as he spoke with Dawn about the past, present and future.
He realises his legend wouldn’t have been as great if it hadn’t been for one man: Ronaldinho. Puyol had already been in the Barca first team for four years when the Brazilian superstar joined the club in 2003. Silverware had eluded the club in each of those four seasons.
“He arrived at a difficult time for Barca as we hadn’t won anything for a long time,” Puyol reflected as he spoke about the Brazilian superstar. “But then he arrived with his ever-smiling face, quality and style of play. That changed the dynamic of the club. He took pressure off everyone, he played with a smile on his face and turned the situation around. He’s one of the most important players in Barca’s history.”
Managing that Barca team was Frank Rijkaard and Puyol, ever concentrating, was quick to make sure he didn’t miss out on giving credit to his Dutch boss. “Rijkaard was a great manager who trusted the players and he was key in changing our mindset and making us winners.”
Barca’s long trophy drought ended in Ronaldinho’s second season with Puyol, named captain at the start of that season, getting his hands on the La Liga title. A season later, Puyol’s love affair with the UEFA Champions League began. On a rainy night in Paris, Barca became kings of Europe for the first time since 1992 after beating Arsenal.
“It remains the most memorable moment of my career,” said Puyol, fierce Catalan, who also won the Euro 2008 and the 2010 FIFA World Cup with Spain, “… in part because it started an era of dominance for Barca.”
That victory also marked the beginning of Puyol’s growing legend. “After Rijkaard left in 2008, Pep [Guardiola] came and took us to a different level and then of course we had [Lionel] Messi.”
With Ronaldinho’s career on the wane, Argentine Messi became Barca’s talisman, going on to become one of the world’s greatest players. Puyol, though, believes that even if Ronaldinho hadn’t brought those winds of change at Barca, Messi would’ve still become what he is today.
“Messi would still have gone on his journey and done well irrespective of Ronaldinho coming to Barca and changing the club,” said Puyol, who rates the Argentine over the Brazilian.
He regrets, however, that Messi and Ronaldinho, who left Barca in 2008, didn’t play together long enough. “It was a pity that the best moments of both didn’t coincide because it would’ve been amazing to have had both of them at their strongest level,” he said. “It wasn’t meant to happen but it was still good for the team.”
The careers — and best moments — of many other Barca greats did coincide, though. Puyol, along with Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Gerard Pique and Messi — all products of the club’s famed ‘La Masia’ academy — were part of the Barca team that won an unprecedented treble of the Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey in 2009. Another Champions League title followed in 2011.
All of that came with unwavering focus. At the Soccer City in Johannesburg, after Iniesta had scored the most famous goal in Spain’s history — the extra-time winner against Netherlands in the 2010 World Cup final, Puyol was barking at his team-mates to keep their heads.
“It was an exciting moment but I knew there were four minutes still left to play so it was very close,” he remembered. “Of course it was a very hard game and we needed to concentrate, keep our focus and see it out.”
Disappointment followed two years after the World Cup for Puyol, with injury preventing him from being a part of Spain’s successful defence of their Euro crown. “It was a hard time being injured three weeks before the tournament but I was on the outside, supporting the team and I was very happy that they won a third international title in a row.”
Five years since hanging up his boots, he continues to follow Barca. The club haven’t won the Champions League since 2015 and having seen arch-rivals Real Madrid win the title for the last three years in a row, Puyol wants his former side not to lose focus in their pursuit of continental glory.
“Champions League is a very tough competition,” said Puyol, two days after Barca were drawn to face Manchester United in the quarter-finals. “You can see from the past games that one mistake and you’re out so teams need to be really focused. United are a great team and Barca will need to keep their concentration through the two legs to go through.”
On Saturday, throngs of fans came to see Puyol at a local mall. A day later, he said he was “thoroughly impressed with the interest in football in Pakistan”. Yet a non-existent football structure means it’s difficult to envisage someone from the country reach the heady heights scaled by Puyol. TouchSky Group, the organisers of the World Soccer Stars event, have reached an agreement with the Pakistan Football Federation (PFF) for football development and Puyol is willing to play his part.
“The event will hopefully kickstart football development in the country and I’m excited to be a part of it,” he said. “Development has to start from the base, the kids need to be playing and the institutions have to come forward. There needs to be focus on grassroots.”
Focus remains the keyword; just as with everything Puyol did on his way to becoming a legend.
Published in Dawn, March 18th, 2019