In the 73rd minute of Wednesday night's gripping World Cup semifinal between Spain and Germany here at the seaside Moses Mabhida Stadium, Puyol delivered Spain to soccer's promised land with the confidence and timing of a player who knows how to win.
The scoreless stalemate between the European powers was inching toward overtime when Xavi Hernández hit a corner kick from the left. Puyol barreled forward from well outside the penalty area, leaped and rose high above teammate Gerard Piqué and the entire German team to send a thunderous header past diving goalkeeper Manuel Neuer.
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It was only Puyol's third international goal, but it was a goal that rewrote history. Spain, soccer's greatest underachiever, defeated the once-high flying Germans 1-0 and advanced to the World Cup final for the first time. And the quadrennial tournament itself, for so long a closed shop that has allowed just seven champions in 80 years, will have a new one on Sunday. Spain will play another long-suffering nation, the Netherlands, in the showpiece match at Johannesburg's Soccer City Stadium.
"We had to get it done against a great rival. We have played a very mature game, especially considering it's the semifinal of a World Cup and being the first time we played one. We are one step from tasting glory," midfielder Xabi Alonso said. "There was ten minutes during which we were playing around the edge of the penalty area but could not score, and then Puyol came in like a wild boar and scored."
Whatever the result, Puyol and this Spain team already has done so much to change the world's perception of the country's soccer. For many years, critics pointed to the its wealthy clubs and the regional rivalries that captured the attention of the fans as the source of much of the national team's misery. Foreign signings pushed young Spanish players to the bench and stunted their development, while a coherent national style had difficulty gaining traction because of so many competing influences. Regional politics reared their head in national team selection, as well.
Spain also had its share of bad luck. It was eliminated on penalty kicks in 1986 and 2002 and in very controversial circumstances in 1994 (an Italian job in Foxborough). But mostly, it just underachieved.
Until recently, when a core of players developed at Barcelona rose together to form the spine of a side that would become the most cohesive and skillful on the planet -- Puyol and Piqué in back, Sergio Busquets in defensive midfield and Xavi and Andrés Iniesta directing the attack. They formed the heartbeat of La Furia Roja, and when joined by a goalkeeper who many consider the world's best, Iker Casillas from Real Madrid, and strikers like Fernando Torres and David Villa, all of whom were key players at successful clubs, the character of the Spanish team had been transformed.
"You see this country has changed enormously. We have changed. We are now a part of the world. We are in the European football community, and one of the big things is sports," coach Vicente Del Bosque said. "We have been waiting for success."
Since the beginning in 2007 -- basically the start of this World Cup cycle, Spain is on an unbelievable run. The national team has gone a ridiculous 48-2-3 in that span, the only two losses coming to Switzerland in the opening game of this World Cup and to the United States in the Confederations Cup semifinals last year. Among the wins was the 1-0 defeat of Germany in the 2008 European Championship final that brought Spain it's first major title in 44 years. It had conquered the continent for the second time. But the World Cup is what really matters.
On Wednesday, playing in the tournament's final four for only the second time, Spain delivered at last with a command performance against an in-form side that so many were picking to complete its run in Johannesburg. Germany had demolished world powers England and Argentina by a combined 8-1 in its previous two games, and some thought Spain, which had labored to 1-0 victories over Portugal and Paraguay, had passed its peak.
That clearly is not the case.
"I am sure Spain will win the title. They're the best team. They will beat the Netherlands," Germany coach Joachim Löw said afterward. "I am sure the Spanish can win any game because they are dominant and it's hard to contain their attack. They have shown they can beat anyone.
"In the last two or three years, they've shown themselves to be one of the best and most united teams. They circulate the ball well and we weren't able to play the way we like to play."
It's ironic that a game that was settled by a defender began with questions about Spain's forwards. Before the match, the principle question facing Del Bosque was whether he would give Torres yet another start. The margin of error against Germany would be slim and the coach decided he could no longer leave his attack shorthanded. Pedro Rodríguez, of Barcelona, was selected to start instead.
The decision quickly looked like a good one. Spain possessed the ball at will as the game found its footing, and the 22-year-old was an integral part. In the sixth minute, he slipped a pass down the right and into the path of Villa, who got a slight touch to the ball before Neuer smothered the play. Although nothing came of it, the sequence demonstrated that the Spanish would be able to hold the ball, find space and create against the relentless Germans.
Germany had been so good and so mobile in its previous two games that many had wondered beforehand if Spain would have any time on the ball at all. It thrives on possession, and Germany's skill at closing players down and counterattacking at speed seemed to be exactly the formula that might give the Spanish trouble and create doubt.
But while Spain didn't score in the first half, it was always in control. Germany clearly missed the suspended Thomas Müller, who provided a genuine attacking threat from midfield, and striker Miroslav Klose saw almost none of the ball. Meanwhile, Spain kept Germany constantly off balance with right back Sergio Ramos' threatening runs down the flank and Xavi's masterful distribution.
Germany was bending early. Puyol sent a hard header over in the 14th minute -- a sign of things to come -- and Ramos blazed over the bar three minutes later.
The Germans settled in after about half an hour and began to test Spanish goalie Iker Casillas, and from there on in this highly-anticipated game was a tense and tactical battle played out at the highest level. It was a display of both technique and strategy worthy of a final, and the tension began to approach that of a final as the minutes dragged by without a goal.
The second half was a further display of Spanish movement and cunning, as Xavi began to pry open the German defense and his counterweight in midfield, Alonso, put on a forceful display that kept the more ambitious German plays penned in. No counterattack was possible without the ball. Villa barely missed scoring his sixth goal of the tournament when he curled a shot wide in the 55th, and then Spain had two golden opportunities in the 58th that went for naught. Neuer made a diving save on a Pedro shot from straight out, and Villa barely missed a cross from Iniesta seconds later.
Germany managed a chance in the 69th when substitute Toni Kroos hit a volley that forced Casillas saved, but the play was the exception rather than the rule. Germany was falling back under Spain's pressure, which is relentless in its own right. It's not all energy and verve and power. La Roja simply commands the ball better than any team in the world.
"The triumph is even bigger because of the size of the opponent. You could say Germany was less strong than expected but was because our team did a great job. The bottom line is we played better than they expected," Del Bosque said.
And then the goal came, validating Spain's domination, and the underachievers, for once, held on. They should have doubled the lead in the 82nd, but Pedro wasted his clean breakaway when he couldn't decide whether to shoot or pass to Torres, who had come on as a reserve. In the past, such a misstep might have come back to haunt Spain. But now it's something they can laugh about.
It was easily Spain's best performance of the competition so far. They are peaking at the right time. But the Dutch are undefeated, at 6-0-0, and are convinced that this is their time as well. Finally, after decades of waiting, one of these teams will win their first World Cup. Spain and Puyol certainly served notice in Durban that they would be a worthy champion, and that history can be changed by players who have the will to unite and move past it.
"Of course we must celebrate this victory but we will do so with moderation," Del Bosque said. "We will not be blinded by success. We will enjoy this and tomorrow we start preparing for the final. There is nothing more difficult or precious than to win a World Cup. But we still have to play the final. We cannot start bragging or get too conceited yet."