Zero. Zero. The number of trophies Carles Puyol had won with both Barcelona and Spain by the beginning of 2005. A young man who had come through the ranks at his hometown club of Barcelona had yet to win a major competition by the time his sixth year as a Barcelona first team player had begun.
Back then, those were dark times at Barcelona, a period of underachievement for the Spanish national team.
A Barcelona debut in late 1999, Puyol’s early Barcelona career was in an era of multiple-managers, sub-standard signings, mis-management of the club off the field whilst fellow La Masia graduates were being shipped out without much of chance at breaking into the first team.
It was during that period that Real Madrid’s Los Galacticos had won two European Cups and two league titles. Valencia had won two league titles, a UEFA Cup and made two Champions League finals in that period. Deportivo La Coruna had won a league title too, with a Copa Del Rey in addition.
In fact, such had been Barcelona’s decline during that period that even Real Sociedad – who almost won a league title in the 2002/03 season – cam close than Barcelona to winning La Liga in that period. Staying loyal to his local club, Puyol turned down offers to join AC Milan and Manchester United – whilst both were winning trophies – and he was not.
Then, the drought burst. Puyol would become the captain of two of the most successful eras in Barcelona history, one under Frank Rijkaard, the other under Pep Guardiola.
From 2005 to 2013, Puyol would captain Barcelona to three Champions League, six league titles, two Copa Del Reys, 2 UEFA Super Cups, 2 FIFA Club World Cups and six Spanish Super Cups. He is their most successful club captain ever.
On the international stage, Puyol’s career followed a similar path. Part of a Spanish side that had carried the tag of underachievers and chokers through generations of footballers, Puyol’s experiences on the international stage involved the heartbreak of South Korea’s dubious string of refereeing decisions at the 2002 World Cup, group stage elimination at Euro 2004 and another refereeing mistake resulting in Spain’s elimination in the last-sixteen of the 2006 World Cup.
All Puyol had to show for his national team efforts was a silver medal form the Sydney Olympics after a defeat in the final to Cameroon.
Then, Spain struck gold. Puyol would provide the defensive rock and the heart of a backline that would win the European Championships in 2008 and the World Cup in 2010 - Spain’s first World Cup triumph. Whilst injury force the Barcelona skipper to miss the Euro 2012, his role in breaking the glass ceiling with his teammates in 2008 was as vital as any contribution as Spain retained their title in 2012.
Whereas Guti and Raul were often seen as the ‘bad eggs’ in the Spanish national side and the causes of cliques within the national setup, Puyol was the polar opposite. A second-in-command - alongside Xavi - behind Iker Casillas as the the clique-free assortment of talented Madridistas, Andalusians, Catalans and Basques finally came good.
Puyol’s legacy may be that of a world class, non-nonsense, rugged defender, a great team man and an inspirational leader of men, but his story is that of a man who also leaves a legacy of being able to endure periods of disappointment and frustrations to reap rewards of footballing dynasties – for club and for country.
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