Thursday, March 6, 2014

An elegy for Carles Puyol, part 2: on Paul Chapman and personal reflections

Also for my sister.

I first heard of Carles Puyol in the winter of 2003, well before my world soccer fixation had taken root. I was visiting my sister, who had lived for a year in Barcelona, and she told me with absolute certainty that she was going to marry a footballer that she called “the Poo”, Carles Puyol.

“It’s OK” she told me, “none of the other girls will like him, he’s ugly”. The ugly part may have been true (I think of him more as “designer unkempt”) but Carles Puyol was steeped in Catalan colours and already a local icon; she was also pretty seriously involved with a local Francophone.

Suffice to say, my brother in law has never played for Barcelona, at least not to my ken.

While we got to see a game, her shaggy paramour did not feature and I left unimpressed with the quality of a storied side and fearful of the local Espanyol ultras, who spent a wildly unsuccessful first half setting up a barricade against the local constabulary and frisbee-ing seats at Marc Overmars and any officer brave enough even to think about getting close.

My sister knows how to watch football. She appreciates many of the finer touches, and it was Puyol's play rather than potential accessibility that led to her affections. She recognised the unique qualities that Barcelona's Heimdall offered a developing squad and chose a favourite player who didn't just represent Barcelona, he was Barcelona.

From that chilly evening at Parc Montjuic, I have vague recollections of Patrick Kluivert’s double, Marc Overmars' workrate and a crazy-haired Brazilian who seemed to have wonderful skills but questionable application in the face of flat plastic missiles hurled onto the pitch.

I wish I remember more. The appreciation was there for some of the grosser aspects of Spanish football but my eye simply wasn’t educated enough to fully appreciate what I was beholding (plus, in retrospect, it wasn’t a great game despite finishing with eight men apiece). My observation was more attuned to Australian sport, and particularly my first sporting love, AFL.

2003 was a turnaround year for the club I had supported since boyhood – the Geelong Cats. After nearing bankruptcy in the late 1990s, the Hoops turned a five-year slide into a successful core of young players and that year they managed seven wins and a draw. In so doing, they unearthed players who would eventually see the club to their greatest of great times – Grand Final victories in 2007, 2009 and 2011.

One of those players was Paul Chapman, and he is my Carles Puyol.

Paul Chapman was the player Geelong needed to bring out the best in more talented, ephemeral types like Joel Corey and Gary Ablett Junior. He wasn’t supposed to succeed (Chappy’s foremost duty as a rookie was to ferry Little Gary to and from training) but ended his Geelong career at the conclusion of 2013 a surety for the Cats’ greatest composite team. He was the most important player on the field in his last match for the Cats, before making high contact with an opponent and being suspended for a do-or-die match that his team lost.

Chapman grew up in West Coburg, one of Melbourne’s toughest boroughs, and by 2004 was one of the most influential members in the young Cats’ dressing sheds and the team’s on-field presence – incredible, considering he didn’t stand 6’0 in socks. This tenacity and uncompromising work ethic made him the most influential half-forward flanker the Cats faithful had seen since Gary Ablett Senior moved to full-forward fifteen years before.

After three Premierships, 251 games and 336 goals, Paul Chapman bade farewell to the Cats this year, taking up residence at Essendon under former coach Mark Thompson. He’ll finish his career in the West of Melbourne instead of the East of Geelong because his salary and gossamer hamstrings could no longer fit into the Cats’ future.

It was sad to see such a servant of the club go; it will be odd to see him don black and red. But Paul Chapman contributed so much to making so many fans of the Geelong football club happy that he in turn deserves happiness. If playing one or two more AFL seasons for another club makes Paul Chapman happy, then I wish him the best at Windy Hill. If the Cats can't win the flag this year, then I hope Paul Chapman does.

The culture of the AFL now demands undivided loyalty from fans. There is little room for sympathy - or empathy - under the salary cap, or in the hearts of the faithful. Players like Paul Chapman - and Carles Puyol - can change that. A best result for all might be Paul Chapman, instigator and finisher that he is, faces up against the Cats in Round 15 this year and confronts his former teammates again and again over 120 minutes, only to hug every player individually at the game's conclusion.

No player more than Chapman contribued to the Cats' success over the past decade, success that has set the AFL's recent standards of greatness. Paul Chapman was one of, if not the, defining figures of the past ten years. It is for that reason that even in an alien guernsey I will continue to thank him while he still offers me those opportunities. The same applies to Carles Puyol, who more than anyone else exemplified Barcelona, the club who's past decade has changed the shape of modern football.

We should do the same with Carles Puyol, too. I'm sure somewhere in rural Victoria, my sister is.

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