Despite 10 years as captain of Barcelona, a time in which that club raised the bar higher than it had ever been before, perhaps the defining moment of Carles Puyol's career came in a Spain jersey.
What follows is an extract from SPAIN: THE INSIDE STORY OF LA ROJA'S HISTORIC TREBLE by Graham Hunter. We pick up the tale with the clock running down on the semi-final of the 2010 World Cup. The score is Spain 0 Germany 0.
Before the pre-match team talks, and the studying of the tactical charts on the dressing-room wall, Pepe Reina questioned Carles Puyol about a move via which, just over a year previously, he scored for Barcelona in a 6-2 win at Real Madrid. Using the magnetic pieces on the white board, Puyol shows Reina the concept and the practice.
By half-time in Durban the Catalan, who thought injury was going to ensure he watched this match from the stands, has noticed that Germany appear to be marking zonally and his path into the penalty box at set plays is almost unencumbered. Spain have so far played a couple of corners short, put one in looking for Capdevila, but nothing for Puyol. The Barça captain has, however, missed an easy scoring chance with a diving header which Iniesta puts on a plate for him.
Before they are even off the pitch at half-time, the centre-half has Xavi, who delivered the corner at the Santiago Bernabéu from which Puyol scored, by the arm and is instructing him.
"Let’s use that move from the 6-2 win again. I’ll speak to Ramos, Capdevila and Villa, you just put the ball on the penalty spot for me and we will see how they cope.”
With 17 minutes left, Iniesta wins a corner on the Spanish left. I am at the mouth of the transport tunnel, right in line with the corner flag. As Xavi walks over to take the corner and settles the ball, I am aware of a little old lady, not in official uniform, who has materialised at my elbow without me noticing.
She is diminutive, so I have to lean down a bit to hear her.
“How is the game going?”
“Well, it’s pretty tense and pretty interesting,” I reply. “We just need...”
I look up as I speak and Xavi appears to have used those four or five seconds to erect some sort of rigging so that he can dangle the football precisely where Puyol wants it.
Puyol, this battered, brilliant Catalan warrior filmed a television promotion with me back in Potch. He sits and stares stone-faced down the lens of the camera, holding up a rugby ball.
“They tell me this is rugby country. Well, I don’t know anything about rugby.”
He throws the oval ball out of shot to his right as a football is thrown to him from his left and he catches it.
“But I do know about football.”
This is where he proves it.
Villa has been occupying Neuer on the line. For a split second, the keeper puts all his attention into shoving him violently with both hands and there is now no question of Neuer getting out to punch the corner.
There is a little triangle of players occupying German markers: Ramos to the left, tying up Klose, Piqué more or less static on the penalty spot and Capdevila to the right. The arc of the ball’s movement is taking it towards Piqué, but as Sami Khedira bunches up every muscle to make the jump of his life, a dark shadow falls over the land. Puyol soars over them all, Michael Jordan-style, and crashes the best, most powerful header I have ever seen past Neuer.
Back by the tunnel I am finishing my conversation with the little old lady:
“... we just need a goal.” But my fairy godmother has vanished by the time Spain celebrate wildly and Puyol, carrying four of his team-mates on his shoulders, clenches a fist and wears an expression which says: Let’s not make too much of a fuss of this ... back to work now.
Xavi Hernandez slips in unnoticed. He looks even smaller than he does on the pitch. His jet-black hair still damp from the shower, he is wearing a black Spain tracksuit and has a small boot bag tucked under his arm. No tatts. No piercings. No tidal wave of expensive aftershave crashing in his wake. No fuss. He looks like an old-fashioned footballer.
Backs straighten and gazes are fixed, but he bats away the attention with a round of firm handshakes. He scrapes a plastic chair up close to the table and sits down to talk football.
His voice is deep and authoritative. He leans forward, animated. Frequently, he makes a point, then, as the translator relays his answer, interjects - he wants to clarify or expand on what he has just said. He wants his message to be clear, unequivocal. Then, he is off into the night, leaving the glow of firmly held football beliefs in his wake.
The list of things we didn’t know about Andrea Pirlo before we started working on his autobiography include: how funny he is; how close he came to big transfers to Real Madrid, Barcelona and Chelsea; and how much he loves playing football on the PlayStation.
Pirlo never makes it clear whether he’s a FIFA man, or down with ProEvo. Whatever he’s playing, though, he’s playing hard.
"After the wheel, the PlayStation is the best invention of all time."
"I don’t feel pressure. I spent the afternoon of Sunday, July 9, 2006, in Berlin sleeping and playing the PlayStation. In the evening, I won the World Cup."
"I can’t say with any certainty how many virtual matches I’ve played over the last few years but, roughly speaking, it must be at least four times the number of real ones."
"I sat down with Allesandro Nesta: friend, team-mate, brother, roomie. At half-time in one of our never-ending football games on the PlayStation, I confessed all: ‘Sandro, I’m leaving.’"
"Pirlo v Nesta was a classic duel back in our Milanello days. We’d get in early, have breakfast at 9am and then shut ourselves in our room and hit the PlayStation until 11. Training would follow, then we’d be back on the computer games until four in the afternoon. Truly a life of sacrifice."
"Our head-to-heads were pure adrenaline. I’d go Barcelona and so would Sandro. Barca v Barca. The first player I’d pick was the quickest one, Samuel Eto’o, but I’d still end up losing a lot of the time. I’d get pissed off and hurl away my controller before asking Sandro for a rematch. And then I’d lose again."
You can pre-order Andrea Pirlo’s autobiography, I Think Therefore I Play here.
We publish it on April 15.
Happy St Valentine's Day, from Andrea Pirlo.
Here, direct from I Think Therefore I Play, his autobiography which we publish on April 15, the bearded genius shares some thoughts on matters of the heart. More or less. Like, the first one? That's taken totally out of context. In the book, it's a metaphor for the warm-up, which Pirlo detests. Bar Refaeli is Barcelona. Sex is the football match. Ah, never mind.
"If you’ve got Bar Refaeli lying naked in front of you, you can’t just wink at her and say: “Wait there, I’ll be with you in 15 minutes.” All you’ll do in that quarter of an hour is think of her. You’ll hold everything back until you’ve got her in your arms and can throw yourself into the moment."
"Del Piero’s last year at Juventus sticks in my mind as a kind of sporting agony; the drawn out death of an intense love that’s destined to disappear, second by second, piece by piece, until it’s nothing but one-way affection. And if there’s only fondness on one side, the whole thing becomes a bit pointless."
"As soon as Matri had gone off to
sleep, I went and got a poster of Andrea Barzagli, one of those they give away
with the Hurrà Juventus magazine, and pinned it up above his bed. I took
a photo on my BlackBerry and sent it to a load of mates along with a three-word
message: Now that’s love."
"Getting bored of Milan was a risk I didn’t want to run. That’s why at that last meeting I was sorry, but just the right amount. We said our goodbyes without regret. In the space of half an hour (probably not even that), I was out of there. When you’re in love, it’s time you need. When the feeling’s gone, having an excuse can help."
"If we’re talking longing looks, nothing compares to the ones I got from André Schembri one ordinary night in Modena. I’m convinced the Malta midfielder had fallen for me: I could almost see the love hearts dancing about his face. He had his eyes glued on me from the very first minute of the match. Those eyes became fully his again only when we were back in our respective dressing rooms.
"Had he been in possession of a ring, I’m sure he’d have got down on one knee and proposed. 'I, André, take you, Andrea, as my lawful wedded target. To kick you, follow you and chop you all the days of my life, until ref do us part.'"
* You can pre-order Andrea Pirlo: I Think Therefore I Play here
THERE are plenty of surprises lurking inside the brilliant autobiography of Andrea Pirlo, which we publish on April 15. Including an apparent obsession with the movies.
He doesn't just run through his favourites for the sake of it, though. Throughout the book, he uses films as a way of describing or explaining the events, the people and the problems encountered in the life of one of the greatest footballers of his generation.
Here's some of the ones we've spotted so far. BE WARNED, the first two are a little scary and there is some bad language going on here, too.
Children of the Corn (1984)
Pirlo on Children of the Corn: "We ended up in a ghostly spot with no lights, surrounded by fields that looked like they’d been taken straight out of Children of the Corn, the worst film I’ve ever seen."
Silence of the Lambs (1991)
"Every day there was post for Daniele De Rossi. The postman always rings twice, but if we were expecting to see Maria De Filippi on the doorstep, it turned out to be Hannibal Lecter, standing there with poison pen letters in his hand."
"Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Oguchi Onyewu looked like they were trying to kill each other: there were definitely some broken ribs, despite silence and denials from the king’s buglers who said it was just a “lively confrontation”. Those of us who’d witnessed it were put in mind of a Mafia-style settling of the scores. It was like something out of Highlander – there can be only one. "
(on the aftermath of the 2005 Champions League final) "I didn’t dare look in the mirror in case my reflection spat back at me. The only possible solution I could think of was to retire. And what a dishonourable retirement it would have been. My last performance had been so comically pathetic they wouldn’t even have taken me on Zelig."
Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)
"I’ve always thought of Gattuso as being like a character from a film by Woody Allen, my favourite director of all time. I picture him with that No.8 shirt, foaming at the mouth as he tries to deliver lines like: I will not eat oysters. I want my food dead. Not sick. Not wounded. Dead. Or: There’s nothing wrong with you that can’t be cured with a little Prozac and a polo mallet.”
Any Given Sunday (1999)
"Just for a moment, Agnelli reminded me of Al Pacino and his extraordinary performance in Any Given Sunday, the cult film where he plays an American football coach. Unforgettable words – cinema to make your heart race. I looked at our president and saw Pacino as he delivered his lesson in that husky voice."