On 24th October 2010 an entirely ordinary Spanish Segunda game between Salamanca and Real Betis took place. In the 61st minute of the game, Salamanca player Miguel Garcia stumbled forward before falling down but the player would be successfully resuscitated using a heart defibrillator. His heart stopped beating for around 25 seconds. Garcia was taken to hospital and following tests was later discharged. The player was forced to immediately announce his retirement from the game. Afterwards, the Real Betis club doctor simply stated that ‘(Antonio) Puerta saved Garcia’s life’.
Except Puerta wasn’t on the pitch that day nor was he a member of the medical staff at the hospital. Puerta had passed away 3 years earlier.
Antoio Puerta grew up in Nervión, Sevilla, the neighbourhood where the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan is located. Puerta was a Sevillista since birth thanks mainly to his father who played for Triana Balompie. Puerta rose through the youth ranks of Sevilla playing alongside Sergio Ramos and Jesus Navas. The three were believed to be best friends and both players have publicly spoken of Puerta on numerous occasions since 2007. In interviews, Ramos has spoken of Puerta and how he remembers him:-
Of course, all the titles I manage to achieve in my career will have a special dedication to him. I will never forget him.
Whilst Jesus Navas, another Sevillista, spoke fondly and solemnly of Puerta being the soul of the Sevilla team.
Puerta had already gained recognition within the B team prior to his promotion to the Sevilla first team squad. Manolo Jimenez, all-time appearance record-holder for Sevilla, former first-team coach but B team coach at that time, called Puerta ‘a captain without an armband.’
Jimenez relationship with Puerta began in the cantera when the player was just 18 years old. Promoted to Sevilla from the B team, Sevilla Atletico in 2005/06, Puerta etched his name in Sevilla’s history on 27 April 2006 when he scored the extra time winner against Schalke. A goal that carried the Andalusian’s into the UEFA Cup Final and a game in which they would dominate and eventually overwhelm Middlesbrough with an emphatic 4-0 victory.
The goal also carried additional significance. The extra time winner was scored in the 100th minute of the 100th year of the club. The goal kick-started the “Golden Age” for Sevilla as the Andalusians seriously threatened to mount a consistent challenge against the Barcelona/Madrid hegemony in Spain.
In May 2007 I watched from the Main Stand at Hampden as Antonio Puerta scored the winning penalty against Espanyol in the UEFA Cup Final, defending the trophy they had won the previous season. This was the third of his five winners medals for his hometown team by the age of 22. International recognition had arrived too with his first senior cap against Sweden. The boy from Nervión was an established member of the Sevilla first team squad operating on the left of midfield or as an attacking full back.
This extremely promising career would be abruptly halted by the end of August 2007 when Antonio Puerta collapsed whilst playing for Sevilla against Getafe in a home league game at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan.
Puerta suffered a heart attack during the league win over Getafe on Saturday 25 August 2007. The player was seen crouching in his own penalty area before collapsing in the 35th minute. Despite initially appearing fine after receiving treatment on the pitch and being able to leave the pitch on foot, Puerta collapsed in the dressing room. He was rushed to hospital where his condition deteriorated.
Puerta would not regain consciousness and passed away on the following Tuesday afternoon. It would later be confirmed that Puerta had a hereditary heart disease known as arrhythmogenic right ventricular dysplasia. A treatable condition, if it was diagnosed correctly, via an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator.
In keeping with local traditions, Puerta’s funeral took place within 48 hours, passing through the streets of Seville. Whilst there were tears, many had come to rejoice in the life of a Sevillista as he was carried to his final resting place.
Just four days after his death, Sevilla would play AC Milan in the UEFA Super Cup Final. All 22 players took to the pitch with Puerta on the back of their shirts.
One year after his death, Sevilla played Malaga in the first Antonio Puerta Memorial Trophy. Andalusian neighbours Malaga were the side that Puerta had made his debut against in 2004. The trophy has been an annual occurrence against a neighbouring side with one exception. In 2011 Sevilla faced Espanyol, a side who understood the loss that Sevilla had endured.
Espanyol had lost their club captain, Daniel Jarque, in similar circumstances. In the 16th minute of that game, the Sevilla fans held a minutes applause in honour of Puerta. A tradition that is still maintained. A recognition of the standing of Puerta within the club.
Yet it’s off the pitch where his greatest legacy remains and, paradoxically, where the greatest tragedy exists. Puerta’s girlfriend was 7 months pregnant at the time of his death. Some six weeks later his son, Aitor, was born. Almost immediately after his birth, Aitor was made an official Sevilla club member, the dream being that he would one day follow in his father’s footsteps.
Sevilla attempted to retire Puerta’s No. 16 jersey with only one condition attached. Should his son Aitor ever play for the club, he would have the option of wearing his father’s number. Unfortunately the Spanish Federation does not permit this with all numbers between 1 and 23 requiring to be used each season. And so, the following season the No. 16 was worn by Puerta’s close friend David Prieto who described wearing the shirt as ‘a responsibility, a proud moment, and an honour.’
If his legacy as a player was not yet fully written, his legacy as a man was already significant.
Each year in Seville, the famous carnival is held in April, Feria de Abril. Puerta’s goal against Schalke arrived on a Thursday which became known locaaly as Jueves de Feria. Manolo Jimenez wrote a letter to the Spanish newspaper, MARCA on the anniversary of that goal.
It’s not easy to find the right words when trying to remember the great Antonio Puerta. He’s a footballer, a person, for whom I felt a special predilection. It’s the first ‘Jueves de Feria’ without him, and it’s the second anniversary of the ‘Jueves de Feria’ that changed Sevilla’s history, and Puerta’s destiny.
It’s a recurring theme with Puerta. He was a famous footballer but before that a friend, a man, a father in waiting. The closeness and longevity of the friendships that were forged in the early days of the Sevilla cantera are still evident. Everyone knows of the t-shirt that Andres Iniesta revealed to commemorate Daniel Jarque after he scored the winning goal in the 2010 World Cup Final. What is perhaps not as well known is that both Sergio Ramos and Jesus Navas were wearing similar t-shirts in honour of their one time team mate, but more importantly, their friend, Antonio Puerta.
The club continued to remember and commemorate Puerta. In April 2010, Sevilla built a sculpture in the José Ramón Cisneros Palacios sports centre as a tribute to him. The statue was unveiled exactly four years after he scored against Schalke 04 to take the club into the UEFA Cup final in 2006 and begin their golden age.
In October 2010, a Salamanca player was resuscitated using a heart defibrillator that was now required to be part of a club’s standard medical equipment. A change introduced in late 2007. Puerta’s legacy was complete when the life of Miguel Ángel García Tébar was saved.