While the Dutch are poised to end Spanish defender Carles Puyol's World Cup run this Sunday in the final, it may be instructive to consider how a different Dutchman almost ended Puyol's career before it started years earlier at Barcelona. Louis van Gaal was in charge of the team in 1998 and accepted an offer from Malaga to sell Puyol, whose path to the first team was blocked by two other Dutch players, Michael Reiziger and Ronald de Boer.
Van Gaal had already made clear his feelings about Puyol when, after his first training session with the senior players, he called the defender, then 19, into his office. "What's your problem, can't you afford the money for a haircut?" Van Gaal asked him. "I said nothing," Puyol remembered, "and to this day have kept my hair as it is."
Puyol turned down the option to join Malaga, as he had just seen a teammate from the Barcelona youth academy, La Masia, make his first-team debut for the club and he wanted to try and join him. That friend was Xavi Hernandez;between them, they helped Barcelona win an unprecedented six trophies in 2009, and on Wednesday, Xavi's corner was headed home by Puyol to push Spain into its first World Cup final.
Puyol is something of an anomaly: a throwback to the tough center-backs of the past, more like former Barcelona hero Miguel Angel Nadal, nicknamed "The Beast of Barcelona," than his current club and country teammate Gerard Pique, whose nickname, "Piquenbauer," is homage to the ball-playing ability of German legend Franz Beckenbauer. "Carles plays with maturity, has great positional sense, and above all, has pride in his shirt," said Nadal.
"The players around me, they are the superstars," Puyol told France's So Foot magazine. "I don't have Romario's technique, [Marc] Overmars' pace or [Patrick] Kluivert's strength. But I work harder than the others. I¹m like the student who is not as clever, but revises for his exams and does OK in the end."
His first big exam was in October 2000, and the biggest fixture in Barcelona's calendar: the derby, "el clasico," against fierce rival Real Madrid, who had just bought Luis Figo from Barcelona in controversial circumstances. "Think like a Portuguese," was the SMS message Puyol received from an unknown cell number a few days before the game. It turned out to be from Barcelona's captain, and now coach, Pep Guardiola, who took Puyol aside at training before the game. "Pep realized I would be marking Figo during his return to the club, and was training me to get inside his head." Puyol did not put a foot wrong, Barcelona won 1-0, and the fans had a new hero.
"[On] the Barcelona team, he is the one who is strongest, who has the quickest reactions, and who has the most explosive strength," said head doctor Ricard Pruna, whose tests on his players' power generated during jumps showed an average of 77.5 percent. Puyol scored 87 percent. "He is an exceptional athlete."
Puyol went on to win two Spanish league titles and the 2006 Champions League before Guardiola took over as Barcelona's coach in the summer of 2008. Spain had just won the 2008 European championship, its first tournament success since 1964, and Barcelona was about to enter the most successful period in the club's history. "Barcelona and Spain made a place for ourselves in history, but when you've been through those things, your desire is for it to continue, even if it gets tougher with every game," Puyol said.
He credited Spain's European success to the squad uniting against critics that had turned on them, and it was a similar story in South Africa, where, as the pre-tournament favorites, it lost its opening match to Switzerland. "That hurt us, but it also made us stronger," he told El Mundo Deportivo. And while the Spanish side that beat Germany in the Euro 2008 final had three Barcelona players in the starting 11, Wednesday night's team started with seven from Barcelona.
Puyol, now 31, has said he might quit international football after Sunday's final. Constantly throwing his body in the way of the ball has taken its toll. He will be missed, even if the concept of being a hero baffles him.
"When I see kids wearing shirts with Puyol on the back, I say to myself, "There must be a mistake," he said. "If I were them, I would wear Iniesta or Xavi."