Newspaper article International New York Times

Last Shot at Glory for Barca's Aging Captain

Newspaper article International New York Times

Last Shot at Glory for Barca's Aging Captain

Article excerpt

The Copa del Rey final against Real Madrid will be Carles Puyol's final opportunity to win a trophy before he leaves Barcelona after this season.

Real, visible leadership in sports needs no translation.

In a cafe here on Las Ramblas, a group of fans watched a rerun of Liverpool's big match against Manchester City on Sunday. Their eyes told the story.

As the Liverpool players grouped into a huddle after their 3-2 victory, the team's captain, Steven Gerrard, addressed his players. The men and women at the cafe saw that Gerrard was tearful. They could tell that he was doing all the talking.

They didn't need a visitor to inform them what he was saying. I told them anyway.

Gerrard was emotional because he was a true Red: a Liverpudlian who had played for only one club and who was now close to the Premier League title that he feared he might never win as a player.

Gerrard's exact message was: "Listen, this is gone. We go to Norwich.

Exactly the same. Come on!" That, I explained, was a captain telling the troops that while beating City was crucial, the championship depended upon Liverpool winning Sunday at Norwich, and maybe then winning the next three games as well.

The Catalans seemed unimpressed with a know-it-all imparting what Gerrard said. It was the way that he rounded up his men that impressed them; the fact that the leader so obviously cared and so demonstrably cajoled the others to stay aware that their work was not yet done.

"We had a leader like him," one of the Catalans told me. "But he got old, and sick." The reference was to Carles Puyol. Born Catalan, nurtured at Barcelona's La Masia soccer school, Puyol is not one of the refined tika-taka players who have bewitched others with their touch, finesse and movement.

Puyol is to Barcelona what Gerrard is to Liverpool. Puyol is the warrior, the tough man with the tangled mane of hair who raises the battle cry. Puyol isn't the tallest of men, yet few get the better of him in the air. He isn't the smoothest runner, but for 15 years he barely stopped running for Barca.

And that takes a toll. Whereas Gerrard, 33, has led Liverpool to F.A. Cups and an unforgettable comeback win over A.C. Milan in Champions League final of 2005, he despaired of ever leading his beloved Reds to Premier League title.

He thought it was gone. Some years ago, he almost did the unthinkable and defect to Chelsea. Not for money, but in the belief that Chelsea could buy its way into winning the league. Gerrard is England's captain too, but barring a miracle, he admits he is unlikely to bring home the World Cup this summer.

Puyol has been there and done that. He won all that could be won with the Spanish national team and got his hands on more than 20 trophies, among them six La Liga and three Champions League titles, two King's Cups, two European national team championships and one World Cup. …

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