At times like these, football fades into insignificance. Tito Vilanova’s tragic passing away at the age of just 45 puts everything else to a standstill at Barcelona and beyond. The Catalan club have had their problems in recent weeks and months, but all those troubles will eventually be forgotten. Tito, however, will not be.
A man who played a pivotal role in the Blaugrana’s greatest team, Tito’s death brings shock to colleagues, players and fans like. Tito never got to play at Camp Nou but Barcelona and their illustrious stadium were two things that were always in his heart. He first played for the Barcelona B team but it was the success he later achieved with the first team as it’s assistant manager that brought him the fame. Described by Andres Iniesta as ‘the encyclopaedia of football‘, Tito was an astute strategist who could pinpoint the opposition’s weakness and ensure that his team would get the better of them.
Born on 17 September 1968 in the Autonomous community of Catalonia, Francesc “Tito” Vilanova i Bayó or just Tito as he is fondly known created a legacy at Barcelona which Idaresay won’t be ever forgotten. A central midfielder who was brought out by the much famed La Masia, Vilanova plied his trade in the lower leagues at Spain. Starting at the Blaugrana’s B team, Vilanova further went on to play for Celta, Mallorca and Elche among other clubs. In fact, Vilanova once scored against his beloved Barcelona when they were coached under Jose Mourinho, who was then Louis Van Gaal’s assistant.
By the time Vilanova was making waves at the lower leagues, there was a young man who was making his presence felt in Barcelona’s midfield. Josep Guardiola was making his voice being heard with stellar performances and he soon became friends with Tito. Who would’ve then known that these two would go on to forge together probably the greatest managerial partnership in Barcelona’s long history.
He soon hung up his boots and decided to take on the role as a manager, his first managerial assignment- managerial stint at Palafrugell didn’t go too well as his side got relegated.
Vilanova came back to Camp Nou in 2007 as the assistant to his friend Josep Guardiola. That year Frank Rijkaard had departed and then President Joan Laporta felt that it would be best if Guardiola is promoted to the hotseat. Laporta did promote Pep – along with Tito – to the first team. What followed was the most successful season in the Catalan club’s history: a tremendous treble of Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League trophies.
In his early years as the assistant manager, Vilanova shunned the limelight unlike Guardiola. But all that changed in a Spanish SuperCopa clash at Camp Nou as the then Los Blancos manager, Jose Mourinho poked him in the eye in one of the many fiercely contested El Classicos of that season.
The years when Pep along with Tito helmed Barcelona were by far the most successful for the club and the team formed by the two were one of the best in the club’s history. The core of the team which included Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Gerrard Pique and Lionel Messi were all products of the famed La Masia and were under the tutelage of Tito for a long time.
Tito was Guardiola’s confidante. A confidante whom Guardiola trusted. One who chalked out the plans which were then executed by the team so easily. At that point of time, Tito was more than just an assistant to Pep at Barcelona. He was a mentor.
And as soon as Guardiola left Barcelona and went on a hiatus from coaching, Tito was offered the coveted job. He led the Blaugrana to a La Liga title with a record 100 points that was set the previous season by fierce rivals Real Madrid. Though Barcelona won quite comfortably, the season was marred with a relapse of throat cancer to Tito and he missed a few months after December that year.
The cancer was so severe that Tito had to step down from being the Manager at the club he loved. It wasn’t in the making but Tito had to concentrate on giving treatment and that would mean a lot of rest.
He decided to go away from the limelight and fight the treacherous disease although he was never away from the hearts of Barcelona’s fans and players. In October, Barca dedicated a message of support to their former boss in a spectacular mosaic before kick-off in the El Clasico against Real Madrid which read “Força Tito”.
He was soon back at Camp Nou to watch his beloved team in action under his successor Gerrard ‘Tata’ Martino. Barcelona were then a shade of what they were under him. But he still rode on watching his team play in January the following year.
His condition worsened weeks later and he was unable to attend a Mundo Deportivo gala in February, where he was to receive the award for best coach. Jupp Heynckes said that Tito was an example to the world of sport and beyond; he also proclaimed that Tito was a champion of line.
The lines said by Heynckes describes Tito in the truest sense. Tito was a fighter. He never gave it up easily. Be it as a manager for Barcelona or Cancer, he never gave up. He has won many a match with his beloved club but the match he didn’t was with cancer. Cancer got the better of this sporting great as he breathed his last on Saturday.
He is and will forever be remembered and Tito, we shall miss you.