World Cup 2006

Puyol Puts English Stars to Shame by Valuing Team before Ego

Recent days have seen Barcelona Captain Carlos Puyol rule himself out of contention for Spain’s Euro 2012 campaign. And whilst most people won’t think anything more of it, the Spaniard’s thought process here should be a lesson to England and some of their star players’ attitudes in previous years.

Firstly, Puyol is injured. He picked up a knee injury in a recent game against Espanyol and has been advised he will be out of action for six weeks. It may seem common sense that he would miss out on this summer’s international tournament. But when you think back to England’s World Cup campaign in 2002 it was a different story when one of the supposed “Golden Generation” picked up an injury in the months leading up to the tournament. When an Aldo Duscher (then of Deportivo La Coruna) tackle caused injury to David Beckham’s metatarsal bone in his foot, there was no suggestion in England that it might be better for a player in first-class condition to go to the tournament in his place.

Instead, the next couple of months of British media was dominated by the embarrassing long drawn-out saga of whether Beckham would be fit in time, reporting his every visit to a physio and front page headlines in tabloid newspapers wishing for his foot to recover in time. This could lead to another debate of how the British media consistently over-hype and build up players into “stars”, which then contributes to the “disaster” story of one of them being injured. But sticking with the topic, Beckham fought hard to get himself fit for the tournament. There is no criticism for this in itself, as you would expect any professional to do the same. What you would also expect though, when the time comes for the tournament squad to be announced, is that there would be a bigger emphasis placed on the team as a whole, a bit more honesty and a lot more common sense. Beckham went to Japan and South Korea and captained the squad despite being no-where near fully fit. It showed in his performances. He earned praise for scoring a penalty against Argentina in the Group Stage but bottled a challenge in the build-up to Brazil’s equalising goal against England in the Quarter-Final.

Beckham isn’t alone in terms of English players that have gone to a tournament without being 100% fit. Wayne Rooney suffered a foot injury in a match for Manchester United against Chelsea prior to the World Cup in 2006. There was a similar obsession in the media of whether he would be fit in time. In reality, it should have been obvious all along that he would go to the tournament whether he was fit or not. After being treated with new methods such as the now famous oxygen tent, he was declared in a suitable enough condition to travel and take part. Sure enough he came on as a substitute in England’s second match in the group stage and started the three games that followed. As with Beckham four years earlier, Rooney was not fit and it showed. He put in performances well below that of the level expected of him and failed to score in the tournament. He ended his tournament on an especially sour note as he was sent off during the Quarter-Final defeat to Portugal for a stamp on Ricardo Carvalho.

Both players took places in the squads in these tournaments when they would have been better filled with players in good form and fitness. They were both rushed back to full health and had no time to build up any match-fitness, which shouldn’t be confused with general fitness. Some blame should be apportioned to the manager for picking the players as well. In both cases the England Manager was Sven Goran Eriksson, who was maybe influenced by the media’s inference that the campaign would have been a failure without these individuals involved in the team. Putting so much focus on individuals rather than the team as a collective has been a big part of England’s lack of progress in the last 10 years – from selecting players on past reputation and standing in the media, to taking injured players to tournaments, and players attempting too many 60-yard ‘Hollywood’ passes in games to impress rather than retaining possession.

A quote from Carlos Puyol reads as follows:

“I think it’s impossible because when you come out of an operation there is a recovery period and I believe that those who are in better shape should go.”

He went on to clarify that he is not retiring from international football. He is just putting the team first and recognising that the Spanish team will perform better with eleven fit and able players on the pitch, rather than ten players carrying an injured player whose ego outweighs the wish for the team to succeed.

There is no suggestion that England would have gone on to win either of the tournaments in 2002 or 2006, but they would surely have performed better and stood a better chance of progressing further with a fully fit squad. Puyol should be praised for his unselfish attitude. Whilst in England, passion is praised when someone kisses the badge after scoring or throws their body into a full-blooded challenge, Puyol has shown in Spain that passion for his country to do well in ways that we may not see in England until many, many attitudes are changed.

Photograph: Halden Krog/EPA