Tito Vilanova and his Barcelona legacy
Published 25/04/2014 | 21:03
It is less than 10 months since Tito Vilanova stepped down from one of the most glamorous jobs in football to fight throat cancer for a second time, a battle he lost on Friday.
Yet his overwhelming success at Barcelona - first as assistant coach for four years under Pep Guardiola and then as his successor for the 2012/13 campaign - and his reaction in the face of adversity will keep him in the hearts of many for a long time.
Barcelona club president Josep Maria Bartomeu said it succinctly: "Tito Vilanova was a wonderful person, and will never be forgotten at FC Barcelona. Thank you for everything you taught us. May you rest in peace."
Born on September 17, 1968 in Bellcaire d'Emporda, a municipality in Catalonia, it is perhaps little wonder the Nou Camp faithful took one of their own to heart.
Francesc Vilanova i Bayo, affectionately nicknamed Tito, did not have a particularly distinguished playing career, even for a man who came through the Barcelona youth set-up in the late 1980s along with fellow midfielder Guardiola.
While his friend would go on to become on the most accomplished players of his generation, Vilanova did not make the grade and was consigned to the B team. He struggled to impose himself at Celta Vigo too and retired in 2002 after short spells in the lower leagues with Badajoz, Real Mallorca, Lleida, Elche and finally Gramenet.
However, it was in coaching where he truly thrived.
He returned to his first love, Barcelona, to take charge of the under-14 team, where he worked with and tutored several players who have gone on to stardom, including Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique.
Vilanova was reunited with Guardiola in 2007 when he worked as assistant to the former Spain international at Barcelona B, with the pair embarking on a partnership that will go down in history as one of the club's most successful double acts.
After leading the second string to promotion to Segunda Division B, Guardiola was promoted to take charge of Barcelona in June 2008 with Vilanova once more his assistant, and the club won the Primera Division, Copa del Rey and Champions League in their first season in charge.
Two more league titles, another Champions League crown and two Club World Cups would follow, with the duo earning 14 major titles in just four years.
When Guardiola decided to step down from his role, it was announced immediately afterwards that Vilanova would be handed the reins for the 2012/13 season.
In his one campaign in charge of the club, Vilanova led Barcelona to their fourth Primera Division title in five years, becoming only the second team, after Real Madrid, to reach the 100-point mark, although his tenure would be remembered for different reasons.
On December 19, 2012 it was announced that Vilanova was suffering from parotid gland cancer for the second time, having first been diagnosed a year earlier. He underwent surgery and then chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment in New York, before returning to Barcelona in March, with Jordi Roura taking charge of first-team affairs in his absence.
He returned to the touchline in April and the confirmation of Barcelona winning the league title - by a clear 15 points - was an emotional affair, with defender Eric Abidal also returning to action after his own battle with cancer.
Despite stating his desire to continue as Barcelona coach into this season, Vilanova was advised by doctors to stand down from his role to keep fighting his disease.
His death at the age of 45 has shaken football, with Barcelona inviting supporters to attend the Nou Camp "to display their memories and affection for Tito", while their remaining home matches against Getafe on May 3 and title rivals Atletico Madrid on May 18 will assume added significance.
Vilanova's funeral will take place in Barcelona Cathedral on Monday evening, the club said.
He leaves behind wife Montse, and children Carlota and Adria, the latter a player in the Barcelona academy ranks.