While the Dutch are poised to end Spanish defender
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
Puyol is something of an anomaly: a throwback to the tough center-backs of the past, more like former Barcelona hero
"The players around me, they are the superstars," Puyol told France's
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
"[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
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
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."