By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer
In the end, the football barely mattered. Barcelona were already 5-0 up to Mallorca (through a first-ever Cesc Fabregas hat-trick and an Alexis Sanchez double) when Eric Abidal made his emotional entrance following 12 months on the sidelines after last year's liver transplant. The Camp Nou was on its feet, the night's satisfying sporting story soon replaced by an even happier human tale of remarkable recovery.
There cannot be a football fan from any team, anywhere in the world, who did not take some joy or pleasure in witnessing the defender's latest comeback. Initially sidelined with a tumour in his liver which was removed in 2011, Abidal famously returned to lift the Champions League trophy at Wembley just two months later. And after re-emerging this time from a liver transplant in early 2012 which had left him wondering if he would live much longer, let alone return to the football field, the defender's sentimental story has raised hopes of a new fairytale for the Catalan club at Wembley next month.
|ABIDAL'S ILLNESS: A TIMELINE
|FIRST OPERATION TAKES PLACE
|Barcelona announce that the left-back will require surgery to remove a tumour in his liver. The operation is performed two days later in the Catalan capital.|
|LIFTS CHAMPIONS LEAGUE TROPHY
||Abidal plays the 90 minutes as Barca beat Manchester United 3-1 in the Champions League final and he lifts the trophy at Wembley.|
|Abidal undergoes more surgery after the club announce he will need a transplant. The defender's cousin Gerard is the donor.|
|OUT OF HOSPITAL
||Abi is released from hospital and doctors confirm that he can resume his football career at a later date.|
|The player is given the green light to return to training with Barcelona.|
|RETURNS TO ACTION IN A FRIENDLY
|Abidal returns to action in a friendly with Barca B at the club's training ground against Istres. He plays 65 minutes and feels no ill effects.|
|BACK IN THE FIRST TEAM
||Makes his first-team return as a substitute at Camp Nou in the 5-0 win over Mallorca in La Liga.|
"In this life of playing football, a very, very good quality of life, you can buy cars and other things you want," he said in an emotional press conference. "But when something happens to you as has happened to me, then these cars are useless. It is better to invest in a hospital or do things for children. It’s better to give the money to associations and hospitals. They have helped me a lot. Thanks to them, I now think differently."
Thanks to them, Abidal was able to play in the 2011 Champions League final. As he prepared to have his tumour removed, his surgeon had told him: "See you on the 28th," in reference to the Wembley date. The defender hadn’t believed him.
After his operation, former Barca boss Pep Guardiola echoed those words and, sure enough, there was Abidal at Wembley, in the starting line-up and later lifting the trophy following a gentlemanly gesture by captain Carles Puyol after the 3-1 win.
"For everything he represents: his values, his competitiveness, his recovery, his involvement, and overcoming [the illness] and wanting to be back – Abidal is an example to all humanity," Xavi had said just days earlier.
And Abidal was as gracious as ever as he returned to the first team for a second time on Saturday. "I want to thank my cousin," he told Canal Plus after the game. "Without him, I wouldn't be here."
Abidal's cousin Gerard was the donor for the transplant, which took place last April. The defender also revealed a T-shirt underneath his Barca jersey which paid tribute to his family member and went on to thank doctors and his hospital. "There are a lot of important people there," he explained. "They helped me a lot."
But the 33-year-old's struggle has also helped Barcelona. "Abi: Your fight is our strength," coach Tito Vilanova (recently returned from cancer treatment of his own in New York) told the player in the Gamper Trophy ahead of the current campaign.
The initial news of Abidal's tumour hit Barca hard. "It was awful: you never expect something like that and it leaves a bad sensation in your body," said Andres Iniesta at the time. "But it will make us stronger."
And it did. Barcelona's players were left low by the news of Tito's illness and again by his relapse in December, while Abidal's need for a transplant was another blow to the Catalans' close-knit community, but both men are back and the players will now look to draw inspiration from the pair as they seek yet another Wembley win.
"The most important thing is that Tito is back in his place [on the bench] and that Abidal was able to play again," assistant Jordi Roura said after the match against Mallorca. And he added: "Abidal's return is a very special moment for everybody because he is very well loved by the squad."
Roura also revealed that Abidal could play a part for Barca against Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday, with Carles Puyol, Adriano and Javier Mascherano all out through injury ahead of the Champions League clash.
So their inspirational icon has returned and is back in contention, fittingly, as the Catalans close in on yet another trip to Wembley. Now all that's missing is the fairytale finish.
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