Pitchside

Puyol departs Barcelona a Catalan hero and a legend

Pitchside

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Photos of the Barcelona defender Carles Puyol adorn the bars in the small Catalan Pyrenean town of La Pobla de Segur. Puyol is the local boy done good and pictures of his unmistakeable, almost medieval looking torso, confirm the adoration.

Everyone claims to know ‘Carlito’ - reverential shorthand for Barca’s assiduous warrior captain - the son of the humble bread man.

La Pobla is not wealthy. Its last period of relative prosperity came when Franco sent workers to build the reservoirs to retain the water which gushes from the mountains, but it is proud to be the birthplace of Puyol. La Pobla is, unsurprisingly, a Barca stronghold.

"Everybody in La Pobla is a cule (the nickname for Barca fans),” says Puyol. "They are more than a club and they affect the mood of the people. Barca are the team which every Catalan child wants to play for. You see Barca on television from an early age and they influence you. When I was young I played as a goalkeeper but I had a back problem and stopped. I played striker too."

He soon left for the big city a three-hour drive away, only returning for holidays as he made his town proud. Today, La Pobla is absorbing the news that their hero will leave Camp Nou at the end of the season after 19 years at the club. With 593 first-team games since he made his debut in 1999, only Xavi has played more times than the defender. Before that, Puyol was a regular in the C and B teams for three seasons.

"My parents were sceptical about me becoming a footballer and encouraged me to study but I joined Barca aged 16 after trials," he said. "I was in the ‘C’ and then ‘B’ teams and then the first team. My parents were happy then. They didn't tell me to study any more, but to work as hard because there was competition for places at Barca.”

Puyol thrived. “The fans appreciate that I work my hardest all the time,” he said by way of explanation. “I need no encouragement because I’ve always been a cule – I’ve never hidden that fact."

He changed too. A decade ago, he was asked the name of David Beckham's wife who lived in Madrid.

“I’m very different to Beckham,” opined Puyol defensively. “He is married to, what’s her name … Victoria? I’m not sure if he’s married to her but he’s with her, I think."

He holidayed in Ibiza, but his friends teased him.

“When I go to Ibiza all my friends say: ‘why are you going there? You never go out’," he said. "But I go because I think the island is paradise. Ibiza has everything. People think that you only go to Ibiza to go out every night, but for me it’s totally the opposite."

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Puyol went three years without visiting a nightclub. Then, in 2008, Gerard Pique joined Barca and began to play alongside him on and off the field. He introduced Puyol to the world of beautiful women and clubs. He liked what he saw and began to date underwear models, though his intensity never slacked on the field.

And all along he won trophies, lots of them: six league titles, three Champions Leagues, two Spanish Cups and two Club World Cups. He also made 100 appearances for Spain, winning the Euros in 2008 and the World Cup in 2010.

He suffered 36 injuries and in recent years they began to take their toll, slowing him and making recovery harder. He's played in just five league games this season and decided to call time at Camp Nou, despite having a contract until 2016. He could have taken the money, he chose to retire with dignity.

Puyol will remain a player for the remainder of the season, but he doesn't know what he'll do next.

When I first met him 12 years ago, he said: "I’ve never hidden that I am living the dream playing football for Barca and it is my dream to retire playing here. I know someday that I will have to leave and I am not looking forward to that day.

"I will work hard to realise my dream but if I can’t then I would like to play in another country. I wouldn’t want to play in Spain. I would go to England or Italy - Italy first to play where my hero (Paolo) Maldini is.”

His dream came true. And the day he will have to leave is now imminent. Football will remember him as a great, La Pobla will remember him as their proudest son.

Andy Mitten - @AndyMitten

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