Somewhere, in an otherwise jubilant Allianz Arena, sat a sombre Gerard Abidal, guest of FC Barcelona for the first leg of the Spanish side’s Champions League semifinal against Bayern Munich.
And down in the dugout, listed among the Barcelona substitutes, was part of Gerard’s liver—transplanted into his cousin Eric in April 2012, just over a year after the defender had undergone surgery to remove a tumour on his own liver.
Six weeks after the transplant, Eric was released from hospital. A full recovery and return to normal life was targeted by his doctors as a realistic objective, although no one was talking about a comeback in the Barcelona first team just yet. The ups and downs of the previous 14 months had taken their toll—physically and emotionally—and through the summer Eric went about his recovery quietly and on his own.
Even as late as November, the 33-year-old was publicly downplaying the likelihood of resuming his football career.
“The objective is not to get back to playing,” he told France 2. “We have to see how it goes. There are things I will endure and others I won’t. Family and health are my priorities.” (Goal.com)
He added: “I had an operation two years ago so I already started to see life differently then. And today, I see it a little more differently every day. There are things that are priorities now that weren’t before.”
When Eric made these remarks he had already been training in the Pyrenees with a Barcelona physio for nearly a month. The comeback had already begun, although he wasn’t taking anything for granted.
On March 13, 2011, Eric Abidal played the full 90 minutes of Barcelona’s 1-1 draw away to Sevilla. It was his fourth match in 11 days, and the Catalan giants were well on their way to a league and Champions League double.
The then-31-year-old had been a major part of that success, which is why it came as such a shock when, two days later, his club announced he’d be undergoing surgery to remove a liver tumour.
Requesting privacy, Abidal chose not to speak publicly about the procedure, but Andres Iniesta revealed the extent to which his teammates suffered alongside him after hearing the news.
“It was awful,” the Spain international remarked in the weeks following the operation. “You never expect something like that, and it leaves a bad sensation in your body.” But, he added, “it will make us stronger.” (Goal.com)
Less than two months after the tumour was removed, Abidal replaced Carles Puyol in the 90th minute of Barcelona’s semifinal second-leg against Real Madrid in the Champions League. Their place in the Wembley final confirmed, he spent the next few weeks regaining match fitness ahead of the showdown with Manchester United where, incredibly, he would play the full 90 minutes in a 3-1 win.
And in a moving gesture as the Blaugrana prepared to receive the trophy on the presentation gantry, Carles Puyol handed the captain’s armband to Abidal, who hoisted the European Cup.
“For everything he represents—his values, his competitiveness, his recovery, his involvement and overcoming [the operation] and wanting to be back, Abidal,” said Xavi in the days leading up to the Champions League final, “is an example to all humanity” (Goal.com).
“I live thanks to him, and he lives inside of me.”
On April 10, 2012, part of Gerard Abidal’s liver was transplanted into Eric Abidal. A transplant had always been an option since the first tumour was discovered, and after problems flared up almost exactly a year after the initial operation, it was decided the more drastic alternative was, indeed, necessary.
Thankfully, the procedure was a success, and after six weeks in hospital Eric Abidal was discharged to pursue his recovery on his own. Less than five months later he was training in the Val d’Aran, and after joining up with his Barcelona teammates just before Christmas was suddenly on course to make his return to competitive football before the end of the season.
On February 21 he was given the all-clear by the club’s medical staff and on March 30 was included in the Barcelona squad to face Celta Vigo. A week later, with Barcelona 5-0 up against Mallorca, he made his second comeback, replacing Gerard Pique in the 70th minute as the Camp Nou faithful gave him a heartfelt standing ovation.
On March 14 he came off the bench again, but against Levante last Saturday he started his first match in more than a year and was named to the squad that travelled to Germany for Tuesday’s Champions League semifinal against Bayern Munich.
With Barcelona’s lack of defensive depth laid bare at Allianz Arena, it’s likely Abidal will be handed a few more starts before the end of the season, and while he has stated his desire to remain in the Catalan capital there have been rumblings that Paris-Saint Germain could come in for him during the summer(Sport 10 h/t Tutto Mercato Web).
The thinking is that the Frenchman’s experience and strength of character would be invaluable to a PSG side looking to become a contender on the continent.
But that’s still a way down the road. For now, Abidal is back playing football, living one day at a time and taking nothing for granted. And he has his cousin, Gerard, to thank.
“I live thanks to him,” he told TF1. “And he lives inside of me.”