The footballing world is mourning the death of Tito Vilanova at the obscenely indecent age of just 45, following a brave battle with cancer.
We’d known for some time that the dreadful disease that he had battled so hard against had returned, and since last Friday we had known he had been taken back into hospital but, out of respect to the family, the news had been kept out of the media.
Friday morning we were told it was only a matter of time, but the fact we all knew that does not in any way soften the sadness of losing not just a football maestro, but more importantly, a good man.
Tito Vilanova represented football at its best, everything that can be good about it. He was a man who loved the game and whom the game loved—truly a man without enemies.
A knee injury prevented him from playing to the level he would have aspired to, but buoyed by the encouragement of the Barcelona team he had joined as a youth and who had always said there would be a job on the coaching side for him if he wanted it, he returned to the club when he retired.
What a side they gave him, and what a polished selection of players he in turn made for them.
In the youth team under his tutelage were the likes of Gerard Pique, Cesc Fabregas and an impish little fella from Rosario called Lionel Messi.
Messi has always said that Tito was the first man to put him in the formation and place on the pitch that he liked to play, and his gratitude knew no bounds. Less than two years after working under his watchful eye, Messi’s inexorable rise to greatness was in full swing. Their paths would cross once more when Pep Guardiola was given the first-team reins, and the new manager had no hesitation in naming his assistant: Tito Vilanova.
A perfect foil to his friend Pep, when the manager increasingly distanced himself from players as a calculated attempt to re-assert his authority, Tito found the middle ground and was always there to listen, to counsel, to encourage.
Eventually, when Guardiola decided the time had come to move on, Vilanova was the obvious candidate to step into his shoes.
Obsessively tactical, yet fundamentally human, I have engraved in my soul a meeting I had with him when he had just been told that he was suffering from cancer and had just started chemotherapy. I was at the time writing my biography of Pep Guardiola and met him when I went to see Pep.
“Don’t worry about him,” said Pep, “He’ll be okay, this man is a strong as a bull.” I remember Pep saying that to both of us—half in jest, half in encouragement—and I still remember to this day thinking that what Pep was really saying was, ”I hope he’ll be okay.”
Then, as quickly as the cancer had come, everyone thought that it had been beaten. On his return from New York after treatment he explained his illness in detail to his players and in a way it motivated them to work harder, to prove to the boss that they had missed so much—if he could beat the odds, how difficult could a mere football match be?
But at the end of the season, after winning the league with a record of 100 points, he finally realised that he no longer had the strength, and despite being assured that he could continue with the club, it is a measure of the man that it was he who contacted the club’s footballing director, Andoni Zubizarreta, to announce that he would be leaving because he no longer felt up to the task.
In fact he knew the illness had returned.
Tito’s legacy will be as the man who played an enormous part in creating what many people still believe is the greatest football team ever to grace the game and, when he took charge, also earned for himself a league title.
His relationship with Pep Guardiola and the players under his charge at Barcelona unquestionably made them a better side.
He will be truly missed, and at this time our thoughts and prayers go out to all of his family, and in particular to his wife, Montse; daughter, Carlota; and son, Adria.