Brave Tito faces his 'most important match'

The 44-year-old has been forced to step down after a single season as Barcelona coach, the Catalan club announced on Friday, as he battles to overcome a relapse of his cancer
By Ben Hayward | Spanish Football Writer

Bill Shankly got it wrong. Football, the legendary Liverpool manager once claimed, was much more important than life or death. The reaction to Tito Vilanova's Barcelona departure on health grounds proves that could not be further from the truth. Indeed, after the announcement of the coach's exit on Friday, matters on the football field pale into insignificance.

The Catalan club cancelled their friendly in Poland on Saturday and all of the first team squad (apart from those still on holiday after their Confederations Cup exertions last month) were present as president Sandro Rosell told the media the grim news they had been waiting to hear: Tito is leaving to continue treatment for his cancer and cannot continue as first team coach at Camp Nou next season.

A successor will be announced next week, Rosell revealed. At the moment, however, thoughts are with Tito and not with the man who will replace him. In the grand scheme of things, that is not what matters right now. There is, in truth, only one important issue: Vilanova's health. And the outgoing Barca boss will now be free to recover from his cancer far from the stress and the strain of one of football's high-pressure posts.


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Well-wishers included fellow fighter Eric Abidal, who battled back from the disease to resume his professional career, only to be forced to leave Barca after a contract offer was promised but then never materialised.

"Strength, Tito. You're great. Always by your side. Big, big hug," the Frenchman wrote on Twitter. Similar messages of support flooded in from Lionel Messi, David Villa, Thiago Alcantara, Radamel Falcao, Juan Mata and a whole host of prominent personalities within the game - as well as other sportsman such as Catalan basketball star Pau Gasol.

Tito's time at Barcelona began in 2007 as he assisted Pep Guardiola at Barca B, before stepping up alongside his long-time friend for four highly successful seasons at Camp Nou between 2008 and 2012.

The Catalan coach took time out in the last of those campaigns, 2011-12, as he underwent surgery to remove a tumour in his throat and was subsequently treated for cancer. But he felt sufficiently strong to replace Guardiola when the former Barca boss said he would leave for a sabbatical in 2012.

Vilanova led Barca to La Liga in 2012-13 with a total of 100 points to equal the record set by Jose Mourinho's Real Madrid the previous season, but he missed two months of the campaign after suffering a relapse of his throat cancer in December last year and has now been forced to step down, despite repeatedly claiming he would be in charge beyond this summer.

Vilanova looked unwell as he addressed the media earlier this week and Rosell revealed that routine medical checks had uncovered the need for further treatment which will no longer be compatible with coaching the club on a full-time basis.

"After looking at routine tests, there is [now] an option to continue treating his disease which means it will be impossible for him to continue as first-team coach of FC Barcelona," the club president told reporters. "I want to ask for the maximum respect for him and his family."

So health comes first, but as Vilanova departs he does so with an impressive legacy. While Guardiola's spectacular side will probably be remembered as the greatest Barca outfit in history, Tito's team can boast the best return in La Liga of any version of the Blaugrana, while he also played a key role alongside Pep as the Catalans claimed 14 titles in four years. Now, though, as his son said on Friday, Vilanova's most important game is yet to come - and winning it will mean much, much more than those 100 points or any of the titles collected over the last five seasons.

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