I watched the Ac Milan-Barcelona game on Wednesday night, and Barcelona didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory. Slow, predictable passing, poor decision-making, defensive frailty-all there, present and correct. Even Messi, usually so explosive, didn’t seem to be there in spirit. The whole team, it seemed, were just going through the motions, always taking the simple risk-free five-yard pass without any incisiveness, or any desire to be incisive, any attempts to beat a man or power past an opponent, scared of being dispossessed or hurt by the admittedly impressive Italians.
Except for one man. One proud, defiant man, who for 90 minutes before his enforced substitution put everything on the line for his team, one man who can look back on the game from a Barcelona perspective and not be disappointed in himself. Carles Puyol.
One image from the game really epitomises why I love Puyol so much. It was the 84th minute, his team-mates looking like they’d already resigned themselves to pegging back the 2-0 deficit at the Camp Nou, when Xavi swung in a corner and Puyol, bloodied bandage flying off his head, leapt to meet it. You could hear the thud as the ball hit his head on the spot where it had been stapled back together twenty minutes previously, a visceral summation of Puyol’s style, his hair flying everywhere as he put all his power into the header. It was amazing, pure physical effort imposing itself on what had until now been an entirely turgid performance.
In a team that, Wednesday excepted, are usually so clinical, anaesthetising, hypnotising teams with a thousand passes until the operation is completed with surgical precision by Messi, Puyol is like a punch to the face; not elegant, not beautiful, but knocking the opposition out all the same. In a team full of intricate passers with quick feet and quicker brains, Puyol looks like he’d be more comfortable hoofing the ball up to a big man up top; he’s a British player in a Spanish team and he knows it. The other players of Barcelona look calm and assured on the ball; Puyol looks terrified every time it comes near him, and he tries to send it back from whence it came as quickly and frenetically as he can. Not that he can’t play, his record speaks for itself-18 major titles won in 14 years of first-team football- but he knows his limitations and plays to his immense strength, using his heart as well as his head.
He’s a tyrannosaurus rex hunting with a pack of velociraptors, and it’s so endearing. In a team full of clones, small dark-haired Spaniards relentlessly passing the ball to each other, he is the one who stands out, his leonine hair flying free as he leaps into another full-contact header. He makes Barca, and Spain, less boring, not least because when you watch him you feel like Jamie Carragher has put on a wig and snuck his way onto the pitch. Who can forget that header against Germany, world-cup semi-final, 2010, winning goal from a corner as his team looked to be running out of ideas, a thumping reminder that brawn has its place alongside brain. That is Puyol, a meshing of physical strength with a great understanding of the game, a player who’ll never accept defeat and, in a Barcelona team that seems to be finding the going hard, a reminder of the power that sheer determination can have.