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A Last Minute Tribute to Captain Caveman

Fernando Hierro—captain of the national team and Real Madrid, ardent Castillian—is approached by a ten-year old autograph seeker.

What’s your name, Hierro asks.

Jordi, the boy replies.

Jordi? Hierro barks. No, I’m not signing for Jordi. Your name is Jorge.

But my parents named me Jordi, the boy apologizes.

That fact does nothing to appease: Jorge! Jorge! Your name is Jorge!

Jordi is, of course, the Catalan iteration of Jorge. And the incident captures a mindset that too often prevailed on the national team. Players from Barcelona were denied their rightful place in Spain’s starting XI, or treated disrespectfully by defenders of Castilian purity, often producing a self-defeating lack of cohesion in big tournaments.

Hierro’s little outburst jumped to mind as Carles Puyol headed home his goal against the Germans. Puyol, after all, is in many ways the Catalan version of Hierro—his successor as defensive bulwark. The fact that Spain now depends on Puyol, and other Catalan graduates of Barcelona’s youth academy, is a very sweet reversal. Another sweet reversal: Hierro is in charge of the Spanish football federation as it has come to rely so heavily on players from Barca. 

The Puyol header wasn’t just a fitting symbol of Catalonia’s outsized role at this World Cup; it is a fitting late chapter in a great career.  Sid Lowe has called Puyol "captain caveman". In fact, nearly every commentator seizes the easy opportunity to note his, um, rugged looks.  (Howard points out that one announcer has described him as looking "like a bass player in a heavy metal band.") Of course, this is somewhat understandable. I don't think Puyol will make the starting lineup of the Cheesecake XI. But I’m quite sure that his appearance accounts for the fact that he hardly ever receives his due as one of the greatest defenders of his generation. He is simply not material for a Nike ad or a Vanity Fair shot in his banana hammock. The international machinery of hype has no interest in him.

If he looks like an ass, that it because he is one. Or more precisely, he is a culés, which is Catalan for ass. It is one of those terms of derision meant as loving tribute. It refers to the working-class Barcelona supporters ensconced in the nose-bleed sections. When an observer strolled past the old Barca stadium during game time, they would look up and see the derrieres of these supporters. So, the term is meant to celebrate the club’s working class base, as opposed to the cigar-smoking men in suits who also populated Barca’s stadium 

Puyol is the archetypal culés. He comes from provincial Catalonia, where Barca has theological import. And he has spent his career flinging himself in front of strikers with that kind of fervor. As a Barca fan, I’ve always been fretful of the moments when he is all alone chasing his man. He is by no means fast, but looks even slower than reality. I worry about the drag from his un-aerodynamic mien.  His run is also painful looking, like he’s pushing himself beyond what a man of his age should safely impose on his body. Yet, in the end, he always (barely) gets the job done. Spain’s run of clean sheets in this tournament is stunning.

It wasn’t always so. A few seasons back, Puyol seemed spent, on the brink of getting booted from the lineup and perhaps on his way to a last pay check in the Emirates. Somehow he found a way to recover from this deep slump and the encroachments of physical decay.

There’s a certain softness to the Spanish game—at least relative to the other European teams. The Spanish don’t foul. Look at how few cards this team has accumulated. And they expect fouls to be called against their opponents for minimal contact. In this context, Puyol is the hardman. But he is a particularly appealing specimen of the species. He barks at teammates but only projects humility in interviews, and there’s none of the meanness like the type that Dunga or Van Bommel spew.  If he is an arse, he is a nobel one.