"All I need is my captain's armband to whip your ass!"

This a guest post by Conor P. Williams. Many of you probably know his work already. If you don’t, you should. More info about him in his tagline at the bottom. Off we go.

With another knee operation this spring, Carles Puyol has reached that point where every knock prompts public murmuring about impending retirement. And who would blame them? Few 34-year old top-flight defenders can overcome annual cuts to their legs without eventually succumbing. At some point, age bends us all to its throne.

The debate will go on longer in this case, for Puyol has been a unique sort of player. The end could be months away —- or it could be years. Puyol’s been part of Barça’s core so long that he makes most club “mainstays” look like nomads.

The verb tenses get tender here —- what sort of defender is he? What sort of leader was he? What did he mean for FC Barcelona? Where would he play next season? Should he have a place in the starting XI? It may be unseemly to mourn a player before he is gone, but some things are better seen in a career’s flickering twilight. Once the light is fully out, retrospective takes over and casts shadows over things that were once obvious. We still have time to gather evidence to answer the most interesting questions: What makes Puyol so phenomenal? Why will Barça someday miss him so?

Start with what he’s NOT: Puyol’s teammate, Leo Messi, exemplifies a certain transitive property of athletic admiration: his fans love him because he loves to play. It’s almost impossible to see him dribble without suppressing laughter. Messi is simply nonsensically fun to watch. He is all joy and creativity and delight and spontaneity as he jinks through one defender and leaps over another. Messi is beautiful genius, superlative magic, and all the other terms that would be hyperbolic in any other instance. Forget “loves” — he simply lives to play.

If Messi is an on-field giggle, if Ronaldinho was live samba, Puyol is a square jaw. If Iniesta is one of Tolkein’s impossibly-precise, stunningly fast elven archers, Puyol is a Spartan hoplite. If Xavi is the brains of the operation, Puyol is the man on a mission. He is a determined yell — YOU SHALL NOT PASS — in human form; a man who would rather burst his lungs than permit an opponent’s incursion. Real Madrid’s Jorge Valdano put it this way: “Puyol must be the only player in the world who gets shot in the head and just stands there.”

Puyol, on the other hand, inspires no such language. It is not obvious that he loves the game, let alone playing it. His heart is on his sleeve, but has more parochial, particular concerns. Puyol loves the squad and the nation behind it. He loves the friction and combat of defending the team hearth. He loves the moments where the game descends from cleverness into the realm of a pure test of wills — who wants the match more?

I should admit that I have a dog in this fight. Years ago, when I was living in Barcelona and trying very hard to immerse myself into being a fully authentic FC Barcelona fan, I couldn’t help but idolize Puyol. He had none of Ronaldinho’s sultry gloss, nor was he one of the blaugrana’s vaunted tiki-taka midfielders. He wasn’t great with the ball at his feet — as much a sin at Barça then as it is now—and he had terrible hair (which happens to resemble mine). When my girlfriend visited me in Catalunya, she was a wee bit disappointed that I’d bought the jersey of “the ugliest guy on the team, except for Ronaldinho.”

But forget all that: it had to be Puyol. I loved his single-minded devotion. I loved the unassuming approach. I loved his toughness. There are faster players. There are craftier players. There are taller and stronger and younger players, but no one works harder. Anywhere. On a team of so many ineffably brilliant stars—nothing describes Messi or Xavi et al so much as their indescribability — Puyol has always been recognizably human. No fancy trickery proceeds from his feet. He makes sense. Nothing he does appears to threaten various laws of physics. Tough as he is, Puyol is recognizably human. While it was clear that I’d never sashay my way through a defense or flick a one-touch through ball to a cutting teammate, I could chase the hell out of the ball. I could sacrifice my body to block the ball. I could care that deeply.

Put another way, the formula for Puyol’s stardom is more accessible than his flashier teammates’: he is great because he works hard. It’s not obvious that he’s been blessed with unique athletic advantages (other than his coiffure). Middle-class folks like me can appreciate high-end scoring excellence up front, but we recognize something of ourselves in Puyol’s unflagging diligence.

As the indeterminate end draws nearer, it’s worth considering how Puyol is now more idiosyncratic in the squad than ever before. In Barca’s post-Eto’o iteration, his ferocious directness stands out amongst a team of touch-passing possession merchants. No other Barça player goes as hard after crosses into the box—because no other Barça player is quite as heedlessly committed. If you want a give-and-go replete with sexy backheel passes, talk to Xavi, Alvés, or Iniesta. If you want full-length, blood-curdling, caution-to-the-wind self-sacrifice, count on Carles.

Conor Williams is a freelance political writer who fancies himself an occasional sports journalist. Past work has been published by the Run of Play, Washington Post, and elsewhere. Find more at http://www.conorpwilliams.com or on Twitter: @conorpwilliams. Email him at: punditconor@gmail.com, especially if you’d like to pay him to write.