Defending the caveman

11 July 2010 - 02:23
By Ian Hawkey

One Spanish commentator used to call him 'The Shark'. On the popular satirical Catalan TV show, Crackovia, a sort of Spitting Image about life at Barcelona, he is caricatured as a Captain Caveman, a comic-book warrior who uproots trees and tears through obstacles forever on the verge of a Neanderthal rage.

Then there is the Carles Puyol who studies yoga and Pilates, and eats his favourite Japanese food with chopsticks. Or the Puyol who retires to his hotel bedroom after a game of cards or a chat with his Spain team-mates and opens up his laptop to complete his contribution to squad "bonding" while they are away on long tournaments: "Puyi" is in charge of the squad's sweepstakes, and on his computer keeps tallies of whose predictions, or results and goalscorers are doing best and whose worst: Puyi is their meticulous book-keeper.

Partly, it is the hair, that thick, floppy, unstyled mane that gives off a mistaken impression of Puyol The Primitive. But it's also the in-your-face-competitor Puyol enacts so vividly on the field for his club, Barcelona, and for the Spanish national team.

"He's someone who, even if you're winning 3-0 and there's a few seconds left in the game will shout at the top of his voice at you if he thinks your concentration is going," remarks Gerard Pique, who forms a formidable central defensive pairing with Puyol for club and country. Ninety minutes alongside Puyi means an hour and a half of roar and rant. He is not from the, say, Franco Baresi school of centre-half that believes the task is best interpreted exuding calm.

Without Puyol, Spain would not be in their first World Cup final; or at least they may very well have not reached the appointment without extra time against Germany in their semi-final. His third goal in 89 internationals, 17 minutes from full-time, decided the outcome. After goalkeeper Iker Casillas, Puyol is probably the last man you would stake money on to score at the beginning of a fixture involving Spain. He is the defenders' defender in a back four where the two full-backs, Joan Capdevila and Sergio Ramos, like to get forward and where Pique is in charge of the long passes.

Not so last Wednesday night in Durban. Puyol's goal - as much as any of the many Spain goals whose seed gets planted with a tight knit of short passes, grows in the flourish of a quick exchange between a Xavi, a Xabi or a Iniesta and flowers with the sting of a David Villa shot - bore witness to the good, second-nature habits that a team containing so many close colleagues cultivates.

It was, as any of the seven Barcelona players or the three Real Madrid footballers on the field would have recognised instantly, a close replica of the last, seismic goal scored by Puyol, in a 6-2 victory by Barcelona over Madrid 15 months ago: A Xavi cross from a dead-ball, a crashing Puyol header from some distance, his impact powered by a thunderous charge to address the ball.

Xavi and Puyol are connected by so many matches, so many strategic discussions, so much telepathy that when Xavi, who aimed the corner to meet his colleague's run, says "I knew it was going to be goal", he can be assumed to be speaking the truth. He and his club captain have been playing football in the same sides since they were children at the Barcelona academy. They played their first matches for Spain on the same day almost a decade ago - against Holland, neatly - and have shared in six league titles together, two Champions League triumphs and a European championship 14 months ago in Vienna. "He is a luxury to have in your team," says Xavi of Puyol.

Once upon a time, it used to be said of Carles Puyol that he was too much of a luxury. His physical assets are several: strength, a firm tackle, the sort of pace that once made him a marauding full-back, the kind of speed useful in recovering on those occasions when his positional instincts have let him down. As a young footballer, growing up in a Barcelona that emphasised sure touch, nimble movement and precise passing, some coaches doubted if Puyol, a Catalan from a remote Pyranean town, would develop as their style of player.

"He has worked very hard for everything he achieved," his club coach Pep Guardiola says.

With Barcelona, he has known plenty of highs in 13 years in their first team. With Spain, the first eight years would be unfulfilling.

He recalls inheriting the role of squad sweepstake organiser from the now retired Luis Enrique who told him it could be a frustrating hobby because Spain always left tournaments before the end so there was little chance to see out together the results of the betting. Yet here Spain find themselves in their second successive major final, poised to match France's achievement of a decade ago and hold both the world and European titles.

The World Cup had been in important target for Puyol. He has looked rejuvenated over the past 12 months. When, in May 2009, he raised the Champions League trophy for Barcelona, there was a hint of uncertainty over his future.

He played as a fullback in the Rome final against Manchester United - and won a bruising duel with Cristiano Ronaldo - not as a central defender, where Pique, still only 22, had begin to thrive and where Guardiola appeared to prefer other candidates. His contract was due for renewal.

By October, he had reconfirmed himself as Pique's best partner at the heart of defence, both for Barca and Spain. Here's a statistic that should chill the Dutch. In 78 matches as partners in central defence, Pique and Puyol have been on the losing side only three times.

"They are good for each other," says the former Barcelona and Spain goalkeeper Pepe Reina.

"Puyi gives them that energy and strength, and Pique the elegance and distribution."

This evening's collision with the Dutch marks a watershed in the career of Puyol, 32. He may call time on international football after his 90th cap, on 10 years of representing Spain.

It's also possible an even more significant part of his identity may be shed.

"We reckon we should shave off his hair if we win the final," chuckles Capdevila. All 22 squad members would need to pin him down first and then get busy with the scissors.