Carles Puyol spent 15 years playing at the highest level for Barcelona, where he won every title on offer in club football, and nearly as long marshalling the defence of his national team, picking up a FIFA World Cup™ and UEFA European Championship along the way. Yet persistent knee problems finally took their toll, prompting the centre-back to hang us his boots in May of this year.
As a key component of the most successful Spain team of all time, Puyol is ideally placed to assess the end of a golden era for La Roja and the rebuilding process that will inevitably follow their early elimination at Brazil 2014. And it was while in Brazil, where he officially handed back the famous trophy on behalf of the reigning champions at the Maracana ahead of the Final, that FIFA.com caught up with the 36-year-old. In a wide-ranging interview, the former captain spoke of the difficult decision that was his retirement, what the future holds for La Roja and the next phase of his Barcelona career.
FIFA.com: How would you explain Spain’s poor performance at Brazil 2014, where they unwittingly provided one of the biggest surprises of the tournament?
Carles Puyol: That elimination has been hard to take as we had high hopes. In my case, having to watch it from afar was even worse, as you can’t help the team and just feel powerless. Small details made all the difference. In the opening game against the Netherlands, we could so easily have gone two up, but then they went and made it 1-1, which affected us. They were the better team after the break, but if we’d scored that [second] goal, it would’ve been a whole different story. When you suffer such a heavy defeat (5-1), it’s always hard to pick yourself up for the next game. Then we were unable to beat Chile, a team that have been playing well for a long time now.
I don’t see it as a problem of motivation – for many of the squad this might be their last World Cup – and what could be more motivating than playing a World Cup in Brazil? No one wants to win more than the players, but sometimes things don’t work out as you’d like. Added to that, some players came into the tournament carrying injuries, others after a very tiring season, and that takes its toll in the end.
I’m not a big fan of revolutions. The rebuilding should be done in a measured way, without undoing what has already been accomplished.
With everything indicating the end of an era, how do think La Roja should go forward from here?
I’m not a big fan of revolutions. People nearly always call for them when a team that’s triumphed a great deal goes a year without winning anything. For me, however, the experience gained in previous victories is important. The rebuilding should be done in a measured way, without undoing what has already been accomplished. As we say in Catalan, you need to use seny (common sense). We have great players and, while some of them may have taken part in their last major competition, we should let them and the coach discuss the future, and not make rash decisions in the heat of the moment. I still believe that the current crop is very good and that there’ll be top quality players in the years to come. Right now we have to be strong, look to the future and learn from our mistakes.
On a personal level you also marked the end of an era when you retired from football last May. How did you arrive at that decision?
Over the previous two seasons, I’d really tried everything. I had surgery twice, tried lots of different treatments, but my knee had had enough. Although it was very difficult, I knew retirement was the correct decision. It’s frustrating to see part of your body not responding – even more so given the way I am, and the way I like to train and always give 100 per cent. You experience sadness, anger and powerlessness… you really want to do something but you can’t. In the end, however, you have to be honest with yourself and those around you. I’m paying the price for all the exertion, all the injections over the last two years and forcing the knee to the limit. Right now I’m undergoing a new type of treatment, but it’s not with a view to playing once more. It’s just to have a normal life again as, at the moment, even walking down a flight of stairs is difficult.
In September you begin a new phase of your career in Barcelona’s Technical Department. How will you tackle this new role? Many people have told me I could be a coach, but it doesn’t appeal. Ideally I’d be playing, but those days are over. You need to find your niche, and in the end you need to be involved with what you know. Barcelona have given me this opportunity, for which I’m very grateful. Initially there will be a period of learning where I won’t be taking big decisions, but I’ll face up to it with the same determination and anticipation I showed during my playing days. Over time, I hope I can use everything football has taught me over the last 19 years.
Right now I’m undergoing a new type of treatment, but it’s not with a view to playing once more. It’s just to have a normal life again as, at the moment, even walking down a flight of stairs is difficult.
Although you’re not yet involved in club transfers, how would you assess the signing of Luis Suarez – aside from what happened to him in Brazil – and the search for central defender to replace you?
There is no justification for what Suarez did, but things like that occur when you lose your head – it can happen. At any rate, he has apologised for it. He’s a great footballer, extremely competitive and scores a great deal. I think he can bring a lot to an attack that’s already brimming with quality. With Luis, we can be even stronger.
As for the defence, for some time now Barça have been looking for centre-backs. Then again so has half of Europe, so it’s not easy – even less so for us, given our style of play. To represent Barcelona, it’s not enough to possess technique and the ability to come out with the ball, you also need to have pace, as we defend so far from our goal. When you look over your shoulder and realise just how far out you are, you feel dizzy sometimes.
It’s also a time of change at Barcelona with the departure of some great players and at least two former captains – you and Victor Valdes. How will the club deal with these changes?
Yes, players who have made history with the club have departed, but that’s the way life is. Sometimes the moment just arrives, whether it’s because of injury, as in my case, or the desire for a change of scene, as happened with Victor. When we first came here, others were also departing, and so the cycle repeats itself. What matters most is that the team always comes ahead of the players.