50 Greatest Players in World Cup History: #48 Carles Puyol
It was half-time in the 2010 World Cup semi-final between Spain and Germany. With the score reading 0-0, the players trudged off the pitch, heading to the dressing room in silence. No one said a word except for Carles Puyol.
The defender sought out his Barcelona teammate Xavi and the two were seen speaking animatedly as they headed to the dressing room. Puyol told him, nay, instructed him to do just one thing.
"We've taken 3 or 4 corners. If you cross the ball to the penalty spot, I'll make the run and we can cause some damage for sure."
It was a move they had perfected at Barcelona. Spain coach Vicente Del Bosque gave them the go-ahead if there was an opening. David Villa was tasked with blocking Manuel Neuer. Gerard Pique and the others would provide the screen for Puyol's run to ensure he was unmarked.
In the 72nd minute, Spain won a corner. Xavi spotted Puyol and crossed the ball with a perfect looping trajectory directed at the penalty spot. The ball seemed to be heading to Pique who had leapt into the air to head it home.
"Of course, I was going to head that cross. But at that moment I was overtaken by an aeroplane..." - Pique.
Sure enough, Puyol had made the run and launched himself into the air near the penalty spot. Unmarked.
It was the figurative "HULK SMASH!" moment that saw the centre-back make sweet contact with the ball as it sailed past Neuer - who had been too busy pushing Villa out of the way to get back into position.
In a team of technically gifted players that loved having the ball at their feet, Puyol was their warrior who used brute force to break down the wall that was Die Mannschaft - a team that had conceded just two goals prior to the semi-final.
Full time: German 0-1 Spain. Puyol had scored the all-important goal that took them to Spain's first-ever World Cup final. To eventual glory.
Heck, the goal was so important in the history of the country that Puyol even got away with meeting the Spanish Queen wearing nothing but a towel around his waist when she came to the dressing room to congratulate the team as the rest of the squad chanted, "Puyi, Puyi!"
Spain had never really had any luck in FIFA World Cups. Their best finish prior to 2010 was fourth place back in 1950. La Furia Roja had reached the quarter-finals in some editions, while they had simply failed to qualify for many others.
And Puyol has known heartbreak with the Spanish national team. He was a right-back in 2002 when Spain were effectively robbed of a semi-final place when two goals against South Korea had been ruled out. The co-hosts would eventually win in a penalty shootout to advance.
In 2006, he had moved to centre-back. But Franck Ribery, Patrick Vieira, and Zinedine Zidane had packed them off in the Round of 16 as France beat them 3-1. It wasn't until Spain won Euro 2008 that the pressure started to mount on them to win the big one.
Nicknamed Captain Caveman for his locks and all-around rugged looks, Puyol was a player who knew no pain. The man was stone cold in the face of pain.
He has refused treatment for cuts to his face, only jogging to the touchline on the referee's orders to get his scalp stapled without flinching even one bit before trying to get the referee's attention to return to the pitch ASAP.
When he was once told by the physiotherapist that he had dislocated his elbow, his first response was: "You mean I won't be able to play on Sunday?" The man was an embodiment of the never-say-die attitude that slowly rubbed off on his teammates.
His knee surgery towards the end of his career had prevented him from playing in Euro 2012 but he suffered in silence. He wasn't one to make a fuss and distract his teammates.
What Puyol does best is he keeps everyone on their toes. If his teammates mucked about, he would be the first to chide them before ordering them to get on with the game.
When Pique once gave him stick for having a go at him at 4-0 up with three minutes to go, all Puyol said was: "So what if it's 4-0? Focus! I know you."
2010 was make-or-break for Spain. Although he wasn't the official captain, he was definitely a bonafide leader. The oldest member of the squad (along with another veteran in Joan Capdevila), Puyol marshalled a defence that listened intently to every word he said.
That was the kind of man Spain needed to be world champions. A no-nonsense centre-back who would take you by the scruff of the neck and drag you across the finish line - even if there was nobody else left in the race.
Puyol was the only player to score in that crucial semi-final. But he didn't come up with the goods simply because it was a semi-final.
He made the difference because he treated every game like it is the final.
It's why he is on our list of 50 Greatest World Cup Players.