x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

A Catalan stamp on Spain

The prominence of Barcelona players has softened even the most independent-minded Catalan towards the Spanish national team.

There were seven Barcelona players in Spain's national team on the pitch during their semi-final victory over Germany on Wednesday night. On the other hand, not a single Manchester United player went beyond the last 16 of the World Cup this year.
There were seven Barcelona players in Spain's national team on the pitch during their semi-final victory over Germany on Wednesday night. On the other hand, not a single Manchester United player went beyond the last 16 of the World Cup this year.

Prominence of Barcelona players softens most independent-minded people towards team, writes Photos of Carles Puyol adorn most bars in the small Catalan Pyrenean town of La Pobla de Segur. Puyol is the local boy made good, and pictures of his face and unmistakable, almost medieval-looking hair, confirm the adoration. Everyone claims to know "Carlito" - reverential shorthand for Barca's assiduous warrior-defender - the son of the humble bread man.

La Pobla is not a wealthy town. Its last period of relative prosperity came when Franco sent workers to build the reservoirs to retain the water which gushes from the mountains. La Pobla would like to be a tourist town. The red, grey and ochre cliffs which surround it would suffice as an attraction ? if they weren't so close to the far more spectacular 10,000-foot peaks and limestone valleys of the nearby high Pyrenees. La Pobla was struggling for a new identity until Puyol's success at Barcelona, a four-hour drive away, gave it one. Now it is proud to be called the home of Carles Puyol.

The whole of Spain was proud of Puyol on Wednesday night after he scored their only goal in the World Cup semi-final against Germany in Durban. Catalonia was even prouder, nowhere more than in La Pobla. Puyol is a mountain boy, quiet off the pitch. "I'm very different to [David] Beckham," he told this journalist. "He is married to, what's her name ? Victoria? I'm not sure if he's married to her but he's with her. They get a lot of coverage but press in Madrid is different to Barcelona. There's much more [gossip] press there. I lead a very quiet life and they leave me alone. I've not been to a nightclub in Barcelona for three years. When I go out, I stay in a restaurant with my friends."

When Puyol took a holiday to Ibiza last year, he was mocked by teammates. "When I go to Ibiza all my friends ask: 'Why are you going there? You never go out'." He goes because he thinks the island is paradise. Spain likewise feels like it is close to nirvana thanks to the exploits of their national team, feats which come some way to uniting an often regionally divided country. The prominence of Barcelona players has softened even the most independent-minded Catalan towards the Spanish national teams. Fireworks were set off, car horns beeped and fans sang Viva Espana long into the night in Barcelona neighbourhoods not famed for their pro-Spain stance.

There were seven Barca players on the pitch in Durban. No Manchester United player - a team who can lay claim to being Barca's biggest rivals in club football in the last three years - went beyond the last 16 of the tournament. True, David Villa has yet to play a game for the Catalans, but there were still five other players on the pitch who joined Barca as children and ended up winning every honour in club football and reaching the World Cup final.

Puyol's teammates Gerard Pique, Andres Iniesta, Xavi, Pedro and Sergio Busquets were all schooled in the Johan Cruyff-inspired Barca cantera. Victor Valdes, the goalkeeper, arguably the best in the Primera Liga last season, was too. He is one of Spain's back-up goalkeepers behind Iker Casillas, the captain, one of three Real Madrid players in the starting XI against Germany. Five of the Barca stars are Catalan, as is Spain's left-back Joan Capdevila. Madridistas will bask in the glory of Spain being coached by a man who led them to two European Cups, but now is not a time for regional or club one-upmanship. The entire country is just content to continue celebrating the finest generation of footballers they have ever seen.

sports@thenational.ae