Messi leads tributes as Barcelona mourn Tito
Lionel Messi led the tributes to his former Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova, who died of throat cancer yesterday at the age of 45.
Vilanova led Barca during the 2012/13 season after taking over from Pep Guardiola, but was forced to resign last summer because of ill health.
Messages of condolence poured in from around the world for a man who also spent four years as Guardiola's assistant at the Nou Camp, playing a key role in coaching one of the greatest teams of all time.
Barca won three La Liga titles, two Champions League crowns and the FIFA Club World Cup twice under the duo.
Vilanova was first diagnosed with parotid gland cancer in November 2011 and the disease returned in December 2012. After undergoing surgery and treatment in New York, he returned in late March and led the club to the La Liga title again with a record points haul before stepping down in July last year.
Messi said on his Facebook page: "A person difficult to forget. I will always remember you. All my love to the family of Tito.
"Tito was the first person who had faith in me," the four-times World Player of the Year Messi added. "I was a substitute – then he started me for the U-16s."
Vilanova, a midfielder, came through Barca's youth system but was let go in 1990 and played for several lower league teams before finally getting his chance in the Spanish top flight with Celta Vigo, where he played for three season in the mid-1990s.
It was as a coach, though, that he made his mark and, after returning to Barca in 2007 as an assistant to Guardiola with the club's B team, he began working with players like Messi, Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas.
The following season the pair took charge of the first team and Vilanova went on to play a key role in the club's success. Their team became renowned for their passing and pressing game, with midfielders like Xavi and Andres Iniesta at its heart.
In sole charge, Vilanova led Barca to their highest ever points total for a La Liga season during his single season in charge, their 100 points a joint record for the division with Real Madrid.
Iniesta posted a picture of himself with Vilanova on Twitter, writing: "I have no words. You have been and will be an example, proud to be part of your life. I'll never forget. Kiss."
Fabregas also paid an emotional tribute on his Facebook page. He wrote: "Tito, thank you for all you have given to football and Barca. Personally, I met you 14 years ago and I can say that there are very few people like you. Thank you for always trusting me to help me improve and overcome personal and professional obstacles."
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, who had several run-ins with Vilanova during his time in charge of Real Madrid, infamously poking him in the eye in one clash, led the Premier League tributes.
Mourinho said on Chelsea's Twitter account: "Tito Vilanova's passing is a sad day for football, for Barcelona and most importantly for his family and friends. On behalf of everybody at Chelsea Football Club I send my deepest condolences at this most difficult time."
Tito Vilanova factfile
1968: Born September 17 in Bellcaire d'Emporda, a Catalonian village.
1988: Comes through the Barcelona youth set-up along with fellow midfielder Pep Guardiola, but fails to make first team.
1990: Joins lower-league Figueres.
1992: Moves to Primera Division Celta Vigo, but fails to hold down a first-team place.
2002: Retires from playing after short spells in the lower leagues.
2007: After working as technical director at Tarrassa, becomes Guardiola's assistant at Barcelona 'B'.
2008: June – Guardiola takes over as coach of Barca and appoints Vilanova as his No 2. The pair win the league, cup and Champions League in first season. Two more league titles and another Champions League crown follow.
2011: November 22 – Undergoes surgery on his parotid salivary gland.
2012: April 27 – Appointed new Barca head coach. December 19 – Barca announce Vilanova will have surgery for a second time and faces six weeks of chemotherapy after the return of his cancer.
2013: April 6 – Returns to the Nou Camp touchline for the first time in a 5-0 home victory over Mallorca. May 11 – Barca clinch their 22nd Primera Division title. July 19 – Barcelona announce Vilanova is stepping down to continue his treatment.