There was a grand sense of occasion at the Nou Camp on Tuesday afternoon as a herd of reporters, plus most of the Barcelona squad, had packed into a press conference to hear the words of one man. It was testament to Carles Puyol, who addressed the room, that he commanded such importance as he announced that in the summer he would be ending his time with Barcelona.
Puyol’s announcement comes 2 years into the 4 year extension he signed in December 2012, though that period has been hindered by knee trouble, the surgery he had on his right knee last summer left the defender considering retirement.
He has played on but only sporadically, managing just 12 appearances this season and the Spaniard, at the age of 35, has given in to his deteriorating fitness. Media outlet Marca, prior to Tuesday’s conference, Tweeted Puyol’s explanation “I am tired after so many injury problems and operations. The club will rescind my contract”.
“After two recent surgeries, it has become harder for me to recover the level that I demand of myself and that I need to be at to play here” said Puyol who, during his time with Barcelona, has suffered 36 injuries, 8 of which have been problems with his knees.
There will be few surprised over the decision but for Barcelona this news will be seismic. It is Puyol who has defined the recent history of the club, from making his début under Luis Van Gaal in 1999 to captaining the side from 2004, through the Champions League wins under Frank Rijkaard and Pep Guardiola.
The 14 trophies won under the latter, Puyol lifted them all and he went on to lift another La Liga title, and another Copa Del Rey under Tito Vilanova. In total he has won 21 trophies with the Catalan club and also won the European Championship of 2008 and the World Cup with Spain.
With the Seleccion he captained the wonderful generation of players that finally ended the seemingly indefinite wait for a trophy at international level, leading the likes of Xavi and Andres Iniesta, with whom he had graduated from Barca’s La Masia academy, later joined by Gerard Pique, Cesc Fabregas and Sergio Busquets who also received their scholarship at the famed talent school.
Puyol had emerged into the team that still contained a Pep Guardiola who was in the process of winding down his career, the manager who went on to tap onto the outrageous brilliance possessed by a group of players that remarkably blossomed at the same time. The magical passing carousel, as Sir Alex Ferguson famously referred to it, between Xavi, Iniesta and Busquets was as hypnotising for club as it was country but it was facilitated by the long-haired centre-half wearing the armband behind them.
Comfortable and assured on the ball, personifying the model blend of defensive organisation, resilience and grace when in possession, it was Puyol who was the cornerstone of a group of players who translated their collective talents seamlessly from club to the national stage in a period of dominance that is likely to remain unparalleled.
The 593 appearances he has for Barcelona complimented by the 100 caps for Spain, the defender was a consummate professional, a leader that led by example against any pressures that threatened to undermine the talents of his generation.
“Puyol is the key, not just because he is one of the best defenders in the world but because of his character. He never lets up” said Xavi, the only player to make more appearances than Puyol for Barcelona with 709. “If he sees you relax at all, he’s suddenly at your side demanding more.”
He will leave the Nou Camp in the summer with Victor Valdes, the goalkeeper who also came through La Masia to join Puyol in the first team from 2002. The 32 year old, whose contract runs out at the end of the year, will pursue a new challenge and his departure alongside Puyol’s will represent a change in era, especially at the back where they played together for the past 12 years.
It will inevitably force manager Gerardo “Tata” Martino into the transfer market for a goalkeeper and, finally, for a new central defender after the Argentine remained adamant he would not sign one last summer.
Instead, Martino waited for the return of Puyol and his troubled knees that, according to Spanish football expert Guillem Balague, would leave him crying in tortuous pain, a startling image for a man who embodied such steel at the heart of Barca’s success.
Martino has therefore had to rely on Javier Mascherano to leave his usual central midfield station to partner Gerard Pique, or even to use the 23 year old Marc Bartra who has impressed enough to earn a new contract though is not the talismanic figure that will be required to inherit Puyol’s shoes.
Vincent Del Bosque too has continued to wait patiently for Puyol as he begins to name his squad for Spain’s forthcoming World Cup defence in Brazil, despite the ailing body and the dilapidated knees, there is no argument to suggest he will be easy to replace.
Puyol, who reaches 36 in April, won’t be in Brazil, he will start a short hiatus before he reassesses his future. “I need to rest at the end of the season and then we will see” said the defender at his conference, and it was significant that he would not announce his retirement yet would leave Barcelona, weakening them further as Martino continues to be the subject of unrest over his rotation policy, and the stale style of football that has crept in under his guidance.
The club’s hierarchy has been unsettled by the resignation of president Sandro Rosell amid a dispute over the transfer fee for Neymar and it may be a result of a current lack of discernible direction at the club and the “entorno” that surrounds the Nou Camp that Puyol hasn’t been convinced to continue in a coaching capacity.
There does seem to be something severely wasteful about the defender winding his career down in the backwaters of the Major League Soccer in America when he could be preaching his wisdom in a coaching capacity in Catalonia.
Tarzan however, as he is more affectionately known, has earned the right to make his own decision and it was startling just how many listened. He is after all, the man who stepped in to stop Dani Alves and Thiago from celebrating excessively as he thought it disrespectful to the opposition.
He was the one who led everybody into the ice-bath after a training session at Barcelona, he was one of the greatest defenders to ever play in La Liga. It is undoubted, given the character Puyol is, that he will remain driven and completely focused until the curtain falls on his final season.
“There are three months of the season left and I will not give up. I will help the team” he said, aiming for one last La Liga title and maybe one last Copa Del Rey. Such success will be the perfect send-off to the perfect centre-half.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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