El Clásico #3
La Liga: 2011
Barcelona’s team doctor is pointing at Carles Puyol’s knee.
Doctor: How does it feel?
Puyol: It's fine.
Doctor: No pain?
Practice just ended. As players and coaches pick up pennies and cones outside, Puyol stands in the First Aid Room. His hands are un-clenched fists. The doctor and Pep Guardiola are in there with him. Puyol has been out since January, missed 17 matches with tendon damage in his left knee. He’s not supposed to be back yet, but tomorrow, Barcelona will travel to the capital, where they’ll play Real Madrid.
Doctor: Have a seat.
Puyol: I can stand.
Pep puts his head down, crosses his arms.
The doctor grips Puyol’s knee and squeezes it.
Doctor: No pain?
Puyol: I’m fine.
The 2010/2011 season is Puyol’s eleventh at Barca. He grew up in Catalonia, idolized the club as a kid. He worked his way through their youth system, through the B-team, and now he captains the club whenever he’s healthy enough to play.
Doctor: You’re sure? This is early to come back.
Puyol: I’m fine.
Doctor: You trained hard today?
Pep: You can go 90 minutes?
Puyol: Of course.
Doctor: You feel no pain?
Puyol: I’m fine.
Nowadays, it takes less to knock Puyol out. Eleven years of professional soccer is a grinding assault. He knows his body won't last forever. He's seen other players limp through the end of their career, probably had doctors warn him about it. But when a man competes for a living, when he’s given his life to a cause, to a team he leads, he will know how to silence the forces that try to stop him. He wouldn’t achieve so much if he didn’t.
Pep scratches his head. It’s not an itch, it’s a nervous tick.
Puyol: So I can play?
Puyol waits like a man getting sentenced.
Doctor: You seem healthy. It’s up to Pep.
Pep: If you can play — you play.
Kickoff, Barcelona vs Real Madrid: Puyol is on the field, wearing the captain’s armband. His position is in the center of the Barcelona defense. He’s a sweeper, a libero. From here, he balances the team. He adjusts his depth, taking the ball to alleviate pressure, switching the point of attack, backing up teammates when Barca defends.
When a player in this position makes a mistake, the other team scores. A striker can mess up nine times out of 10, score once, and be a hero.
The 1st minute, Barcelona 0, Real Madrid 0: Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets is fiddling with the ball around midfield. He’s not supposed to be.
Puyol: Hey! Get off the ball.
Madrid’s Karim Benzema is running at him.
Busquets starts stumbling.
Puyol: Off it!
Benzema hits Busquets with a forearm to the neck and the face.
The referee blows his whistle.
Puyol: Hey Benzema.
Puyol: What sport you playing, man?
Puyol: You suck. You’re playing some other sport.
Barca take the free kick quickly.
They start another attack.
The 30th minute, Barcelona 0, Real Madrid 0: Barcelona can't get anything going. From Puyol’s position in the back, he has witnessed Barcelona at its best. When Barca play well, they are as creative as they are ferocious. Messi especially, he's one part executioner, two parts poet.
Right now, Barca are working the ball up the right side. They have it up to Madrid’s back line, so Puyol has time to think.
What’s the problem? Madrid is pressuring higher up the field than normal. That’s part of it. The Madrid midfield triplet of Xabi, Pepe, and Khedira have been winning the center of the field. That’s a big part of it.
And then there were those reports, pre-game, that the grass hasn’t been cut all week. That it’s 3 cm longer than usual.
Really? It doesn’t feel any longer.
That’s just Madrid bullshit.
Barca work the ball around, looking for the breakthrough. Madrid’s Xabi and Pepe chase.
Xabi nearly pokes it off Busquets, but he passes to Pedro.
Pedro to Dani Alves.
Pepe is charging. He has his timing right. He nicks it free.
Puyol begins the retreat.
In a snap, it’s Pepe to Di María, and Puyol has three thoroughbreds running at him — Di María, Ronaldo, and Benzema. Only Piqué is back to help defend.
2 v 3?
Not a problem.
Puyol has defended the Barca goal from the likes of Zinedine Zidane, Luis Figo, the Brazilian Ronaldo, so what can these three punks try and pull that he hasn’t bagged before?
Puyol gives some ground, but always lets Di María know he’s there. There’s going to be a confrontation if he wants to try and take him on. This slows the Madrid attacker down, giving time for Alves to recover, which he does at full sprint.
Alves and Puyol surround Di María, which cuts him off from his teammates and makes 2 v 3 into 2 v 1.
Di María tries to thread the ball through to Ronaldo, but Piqué is able to hook that clear.
The Madrid attack is dead.
Puyol just had to stand in front of it.
The 50th minute, Barcelona 0, Real Madrid 0: Ronaldo hits a free-kick that dings off the post and careens out of bounds. Nobody was going to save that. His deadball shot looks like Tiger Woods hooking a 7-iron stinger.
The 51st minute, Barcelona 0, Real Madrid 0: Barca's David Villa has a reputation among the Madrid players as being a faker. The Madrid players like to take shots at him off the ball, watch him flail, yell, fall, then go point at him and scream he never was touched.
That’s what’s happening right now, Sergio Ramos just clipped Villa on the heels, and Villa is down.
Ramos is yelling at him.
Villa is yelling right back.
Puyol: Head in the game, David! Head in the game!
The Barca players continue to attack.
Busquets has the ball inside the Barca half, and he does a very uncharacteristic thing. He hits the ball long, boots it up over the Madrid back-line. It’s Barca playing Route 1 — keeping Madrid honest.
Madrid mishandle the pass. They let the ball bounce.
Nobody attacks it, and Villa gets there first.
Never let the ball bounce.
Villa is about to have a clear shot on goal, so Madrid’s defender, Albiol, pulls him down by his neck.
Villa falls like a star from a Hollywood B movie.
ALL OF BARCELONA: Penalty!
Albiol is red carded.
Madrid are down to 10 men.
Messi will take the penalty kick.
He steps up to the ball then locks into a dead stare at it.
Puyol: Nice and easy.
Messi may have heard him, but he doesn’t turn.
A green light pops onto his face. It’s a laser from a Madrid fan in the crowd. It’s a neon green dot about the size of a quarter on his mouth, rubbing his neck, scribbling on his chest.
It does nothing to him.
He knocks the ball in.
When you watch Puyol celebrate, you see the passion he has for his club. The club has not only paid him, it's brought him comradery, and allowed him to watch the likes of Rivaldo, Ronaldinho, and Messi make some of the greatest plays this sport has, just yards in front of him. That’s a blessed man.
He may still be a little kid in his loyalty, but his body is 33. He’s a symbol of the club, but there was always going to be a point when he would be a symbol only in pictures, only in video clips, not in person.
The 55th minute, Barcelona 1, Real Madrid 0: Puyol’s is not all right. He’s rubbing his left leg. Is it his knee again? A hamstring? He’s still commanding from the back, still taking the ball on the rare occasion to keep possession, but he’s moving very gingerly out there. In this situation, some players would want to go on, to embrace their warrior mentality, but their reasons are purely selfish. They’re thinking only about what playing on would mean for their tough-guy legacy. Not Puyol. Puyol thinks of the good of the team. He is a man being asked to identify and cover all the weaknesses of the defense. And he’s just found one. It’s himself.
Pep whips around to see who on the bench can replace him.
Was Puyol really painless after practice? Was he really fit to go?
To put him in for even 60 minutes means a lot to this team. It’s not just about how many tackles he makes, how many goals he stops — it’s presence. Carles Puyol’s presence mollifies, his determination is a firestarter, and taking him off in front of the whole team builds his mythology.
The ball is knocked out of bounds, so the stretcher can be brought out.
Xavi, Messi, Victor Valdes, almost all of Barcelona walk over to Puyol.
The players hover above him.
Victor Valdes: Is it the knee?
Xavi: They ought to take that knee out.
Puyol: Take it all out.
Puyol tosses Xavi the captain’s armband.
This is the beginning of Puyol’s descent. To the players who’ve grown up at Barcelona — that’s Messi, Busquets, Iniesta — Puyol is the guy they’ve always been a little scared of, but instantly revered and wanted to please. He’d always been there, remained passionate, was the heartbeat, and now they can see that he isn’t going to be around forever, the old man is gonna go.
He can’t even finish a game.
He can’t walk.
What kind of hole is going to leave when he’s gone?
He’s the heart.
They’re not going to have a heart?
The medical crew get Puyol to lay down on the plastic stretcher. It’s a cold night, so they cover his legs with a blanket, tuck it in around his feet. Only Messi is still watching. He’s at the foot of the stretcher, watching what happens to Puyol with his usual child-like wonder.
He looks to the sideline. Madrid are ready to bring on two attacking players, Mesut Özil and Emmanuel Adebayor. They're down a player, down a goal, and now look ready to either get that goal back, or lose five-nil doing it.
Puyol: Hey Leo.
Messi tilts his head back.
They lift Puyol and start carrying him off.
Puyol: Go beat their ass.
We'll finish this game in El Clasico's next story.