The 34-year-old Barcelona captain, often called a warrior leader because of his hardened appearance and shaggy locks, will miss a major tournament for the first time since his debut with Spain 12 years ago.
While Spain’s squad is replete with defensive talent in Gerard Pique, Sergio Ramos, Javi Martinez and Raul Albiol, Puyol’s experience and character are significant losses. At the World Cup two years ago, a Puyol-less Spain opened the tournament with a surprise 1-0 loss to Switzerland.
On Sunday, the team opens Group C against Italy.
“His wealth of experience is recognized by all,” Spain fullback Alvaro Arbeloa said at Spain’s training base. “His personality on the field is the same off and we’re going to miss that.”
Especially before a daunting Group C opener against the Azzurri with memories of Switzerland still fresh, even though the Spanish rebounded from that loss with six straight wins to win the World Cup for the first time. “Nobody likes to lose the first game of a tournament like that, especially as a defeat leaves you with practically no margin for maneuver,” Arbeloa said. “Your confidence is always higher when you start with a victory.”
Spain coach Vicente del Bosque offered few clues to who would fill the vacant spots left by Puyol and striker David Villa in his starting lineup in Gdansk. Midfielder Cesc Fabregas (hamstring), forward Jesus Navas (right hand) and Arbeloa (neck) all trained normally with the rest of the squad in front of hundreds of boisterous spectators, who were at times asked to quiet down by assistant coach Toni Grande. Only Fernando Llorente seemed to be bothered by injury with his left foot bandaged, leaving the lanky striker looking awkward during an evening training session. Pique normally would have been an automatic choice to partner Ramos in the center of defense except the Barcelona center back enjoyed an irregular club campaign. Puyol, who postponed retirement from international duty to play in Poland and Ukraine, was enjoying a strong season before surgery on his right knee kept him from his third European Championship.
Spain’s defense has been prone to lapses on the counter with its talented midfield controlling so much possession.
“No doubt they are two very important players who have been a vital part of Spain’s recent titles,” Martinez said of Puyol and Villa. “But we’re lucky that we can count on players who can do as good a job or better so that we don’t note those absences.” The 23-year-old Martinez could get the call if Pique underperforms, with the young Athletic Bilbao player coming off a career season in which he helped the Basque club to two cup finals, including its first continental title in 35 years. Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich are among the clubs reportedly interested in signing Martinez.
“I’ve always played more of a midfield role and with [coach Marcelo] Bielsa’s arrival this year at Athletic he thought I could lend an important presence to the defense,” Martinez said. “At first it took time to adapt because everything had changed but, little-by-little, I felt more confident. I’m lucky to be able to play in both positions for either Bielsa or Del Bosque.”
Ireland vs. Croatia
Spain will also play Ireland and Croatia in Group C. Croatia coach Slaven Bilic said his star midfielder Luka Modric has brushed off the effects of a tough season and is now fully fit for the European Championship.
In the run-up to the tournament, Bilic conceded that Modric was jaded after playing almost nonstop for Tottenham in the English Premier League last season. Bilic said that Modric is “100 percent” after joining his teammates late but has put him on a lighter training program ahead of the team’s first Group C game, against Ireland on Sunday.
Modric, who is considered Croatia’s most important player, is widely expected to be leaving Tottenham after Euro 2012.
Sunday’s fixtures at a glance
Gdansk: Spain vs. Italy (19:00)
Poznan: Rep. of Ireland vs. Croatia (21:45)
*The matches will be aired live on TRT 1, TRT 3 Spor and TRT HD.