Antonio Puerta: The Shirt Sevilla Tried to Retire
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Antonio Puerta: The Shirt Sevilla Tried to Retire

Antonio Puerta was always destined to play
a special role in Seville’s football scene. His father, Añoño, had played across the
city for Real Betis, even if his first-team action was limited to 18 minutes of a Copa
del Generalísimo tie against Villarreal in 1973. Antonio, however, was Sevillista to the core;
growing up in the Nervión district and a stone’s throw away from the Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán
stadium. He joined the club aged nine having started his career at AD Nervión and progressed
through each age range, rising in prominence with every step. Puerta was a star at youth level, Manolo Jiménez
– his coach of Sevilla B who would go on to be the boss of the first-team, called him:
“A captain without an armband.” Puerta’s inevitable first-team debut arrived as a 19-year-old
in March 2004, against Malaga. Also comfortable at left-back, Puerta was
most at home on the left flank of Sevilla’s midfield in their 4-4-2 formation and began
to compete with Brazilian Adriano for the position. A late winner in a league victory
at Atlético de Madrid Created a quick rapport with the club’s fanbase, but it was the
UEFA Cup semi-final against Schalke in which Puerta would deliver his defining moment. After two scoreless legs, the game went into
extra-time as Sevilla fought for their first ever European final place. Then, Jesús Navas
broke free down the right side and when his cross evaded everyone and ran through the
penalty box, Puerta met the loose ball first time, shaping a rasping drive across the goalkeeper
and in, via the far post. La zurda de diamante, the ‘diamond left
foot’ had truly arrived. Two weeks later, Sevilla lifted the UEFA Cup.
They overpowered Premier League side Middlesbrough 4-0 in the final, with Puerta appearing as
a substitute in the 85th minute, as the club ended a drought of six decades without a major
title. They would lift the trophy five times in the space of a decade, an unprecedented
achievement begun, in part, by Puerta’s goal. Puerta started 35 matches the following campaign,
arguably Sevilla’s greatest ever. They retained the UEFA Cup, won the Copa del Rey and came
within two games of lifting their first La Liga title in six decades. They also trounced
Barcelona 3-0 in the UEFA Super Cup, dominating a side containing Ronaldinho, Lionel Messi,
Xavi Hernández and Samuel Eto’o. In a nine-minute cameo, Puerta was outstanding.
With Sevilla leading 2-0, Barça were stretched and Puerta collected the ball on the halfway
line and ran. And ran. And ran. And kept on running. Evading three tackles with breath-taking
changes of speed and direction, he was only denied what would have been an iconic goal
by the outstretched hand of goalkeeper Victor Valdes.
Puerta would get his reward, though. With the ball on the left by-line, he outmuscled
and outpaced the great Carles Puyol, who hauled him down for a clear penalty which was duly
converted by Enzo Maresca. At the time, tensions between Sevilla and
their city rivals Real Betis were particularly high, with anumber of unsavoury incidents
in derby matches involving violence and disorder. This culminated in Sevilla boss Juande Ramos
being knocked out cold by a bottle thrown from the Betis stands during a Copa del Rey
tie. Diario AS editor Alfredo Relaño was moved
to focus blame to the very top of both of Seville’s clubs: “Betis and Sevilla is
a flammable mix. And the worst thing is, it is one that’s in the hands of pyromaniacs.”
This referenced an ongoing and troublesome personal feud between Betis president Manuel
Ruiz de Lopera and Jose Maria Del Nido, his counterpart at Sevilla. On the 25th August 2007, Sevilla hosted Getafe
in the opening game of the 2007-08 La Liga season. After chasing back towards his own
goal in the first-half, Puerta sank to his haunches, and then collapsed. Ivica Dragutinović,
the Serbian defender, rushed towards his teammate, as the medical staff sprinted onto the field. Puerta had twice previously been forced to
withdraw from matches when suffering dizzy spells, and the concern was obvious. But Puerta seemed to be okay. With the help
of medical staff, he was helped to his feet and able to walk gingerly from the field.
Sevilla won the game 4-1 but, unbeknownst to those on the pitch, Puerta collapsed again
in the dressing room. Dramatic televised footage showed him being rushed out of the stadium
and into an ambulance by medics, with the media reporting that evening that he had suffered
five cardio-respiratory stoppages. He would spend 36 hours in a medically induced
coma but, on 28 August 2007, at 1.30pm Spanish time, he passed away at the age of just 22. It emerged that he possessed a hereditary
and incurable heart disease which brought on prolonged heart attacks, resulting in multiple
organ failure and irreversible brain damage. Puerta’s girlfriend, Mar Roldan, was heavily
pregnant at the time and two months later, Aitor Antonio Puerta Roldan was born and instantly
made a life member of Sevilla. Sevilla’s forthcoming European clash at
AEK Athens was postponed and, a day later, on 29th August, ten thousand people lined
the streets as Puerta’s coffin made the journey to the Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán, through
a sea of candles, scarves and prayer cards, to a temporary funeral chapel inside the ground. In a touching gesture, the entire Betis first-team
squad would attend both the vigil and funeral. This symbolism itself was powerful, but nothing
compared with what was to follow – a red-eyed and visibly emotional Manuel Ruiz de Lopera
embracing his sworn enemy, José María del Nido. Mourning and sorrow had given way to unity,
humanity and hope. “Betis and Sevilla are brothers,” Lopera told Canal Sur that night.
“Antonio Puerta has sent us a message of unity from heaven.” “When Puerta passed away, Sevilla and Betis
were in an awful situation of war between the boards and the fans from both sides,”
Mateo González, Head of Sport at ABC de Sevilla explained. “That horrible death made everybody
change their minds and face the rivalry in a better way.” On the 31st August, with Puerta’s name printed
on the back of every Sevilla shirt, the player returned to action to face AC Milan in the
Super Cup. Sevilla initially intended to retire his number
16 shirt, with the provision that his son could wear it if he were ever to play for
the club. The Royal Spanish Football Federation’s strict squad numbering system prevented that,
however, and the club compromised, reserving the shirt for players raised within the club’s
academy. In 2017, after it had been briefly and controversially
worn by Federico Fazio, Jesús Navas would inherit Puerta’s number 16 after returning
from Manchester City. Friends off the pitch, but bound together by that fabulous moment
against Schalke on it, it had an obvious symmetry: “This is an important number”, Naves said
“I know what it represents. Antonio will always be in my memory. He had incredible
values and it is our duty to carry these on.” His memory has been well preserved. The Antonio
Puerta Trophy is contested annually in a friendly each season at the Ramon Sanchez Pjzjuan,
and a football school was set up in the player’s name to give local young players their chance
to develop and play alongside their heroes, just as Puerta had done. Chants are held in his honour in the 16th
minute of every home game and, in 2012, a street was named after him, with Calle Antonio
Puerta replacing Calle Palacio Valdés just a few minutes’ walk from the ground.


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