Carles Puyol’s decision to leave Barcelona after 19 years with the club probably means the curtain will now come down on the La Liga career of one of the greatest defenders in the history of the game.
Whether football has seen the end of the shaggy-haired colossus that is Puyol remains to be seen. For now, in a brief press conference on Tuesday that lasted just a couple of minutes, he announced that he would be leaving the club at the end of the season—and make no decision about his future until after he’s had a long rest.
Puyol added that he was tired after so many injury problems and operations, and that the club and he had agreed to rescind his contract, which had been due to run until 2016.
The departure and possible retirement of the defensive linchpin, who symbolised everything strong and successful about the modern Barcelona, marks the end of an era for both the club and the player who spent his entire career with his beloved blaugrana.
"Tarzan," "the Wall," "Sir Charles"—call him what you will—has enjoyed a stellar club and country career that has seen him make 682 appearances for Barcelona (593 for the first team), 100 for Spain, winning six La Ligas in the process, two Copa del Reys, three Champions Leagues, one World Cup and one European Championship.
Born in 1978 in the small Catalan town of La Pobla de Segur in the province of Lleida, Puyol started life as a goalkeeper before an injury to his shoulder led him to start playing as a forward.
In 1995, he joined the Barcelona academy at La Masia, where he became a defensive midfielder before converting to right back with the Barcelona B side.
It was Dutch coach Louis van Gaal who gave him his chance with the first team, and he made his debut with it on October 2, 1999, in a 2-0 away win at Real Valladolid.
The transition to central defender followed soon afterward and at the end of the 2003-04 season, he was appointed club captain following the retirement of Luis Enrique.
A leader and icon, the beating, passionate heart of the Barcelona side, Puyol bleeds Barcelona blood and is the very personification of what the club represents throughout the world. Stories about him are legendary.
When Thiago, now at Bayern Munich, and Dani Alves celebrated a goal in a way that demonstrated elements of Brazilian excess, Puyol was quick to take Thiago to one side and remind him that this wasn’t the way things were done at the club—that there were standards that had to be maintained.
David Villa also liked to recall how at Valencia when it was time for players to endure the ice baths, he would always make sure he had some excuse to avoid them. At Barcelona, however, with Xavi and Puyol always the first players in, this became impossible.
Here indeed was the man who always led by example—from the front.
Fellow club and international colleague Gerard Pique once said of him: "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."
Another colleague who The Guardian's Sid Lowe chose not to name was more succinct. "He’s a pain in the arse, but sometimes that’s what we need," he said.
In the 2010 World Cup he played every game, missing out only on the last six minutes of the match against Paraguay when he was replaced by Carlos Marchena.
Off the field, he is polite, reserved and discreet, and always aware that his duties as a representative of Barcelona FC extend far beyond the time spent just training or playing.
The way he has orchestrated the announcement of his departure is typical of the man. No fuss, no fanfare, either before, during or after his announcement. There had been lots of rumours circulating as to his future, but nothing had been revealed to anyone until Tuesday.
Injuries, in particular knee problems, have taken their toll, the last one being so painful that he effectively shut himself away from everyone other than those closest to him, so no one could see the agonies he was going through.
He had been close to moving on as long ago as three years back but stayed on with Barcelona to help see through the crisis that engulfed the club during the illness of Tito Vilanova.
Now less involved and more distanced from the centre of power, he naturally feels the time is right for him to move on.
Puyol dreamt in the past of playing 4 AC Milan. MLS would welcome him. But his recuperation has been tortuous, made him cry lots in pain— Guillem Balague (@GuillemBalague) March 4, 2014
The question then will be where, if anywhere, will he go? When he’s made up his mind, he will surely announce it, no doubt with the same minimum amount of fuss as he showed on Tuesday.
Of himself, Puyol once told So Foot magazine (h/t Sports Illustrated): "I don't have Romario's technique, [Marc] Overmars' pace or [Patrick] Kluivert's strength. But I work harder than the others. I'm like the student who is not as clever, but revises for his exams and does okay in the end."
Carles Puyol certainly did okay. Barcelona and Spain will miss him. But has football seen the last of him?
Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.