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Kevin Williams


Farewell, Tito Vilanova, aka "The 'boat' loses an important plank"


What makes you weep for a complete and total stranger?

Some people wonder that as we reel from the punch in the gut that was the news that our Mister, Tito Vilanova, succumbed to cancer at the age of 45.

It’s one cell. One cell that you can’t see with the sharpest eyes decided his fate. One cell that is causing culers, socis and anyone who loves FC Barcelona to weep, pay tribute and spend the day like me, doing ordinary things while feeling that lump in the throat, that notification that tears are right there.

So you try to do stuff … work, play, hanging with friends … you don’t want to give in somehow, as if to acknowledge the grief is to also acknowledge yet another bit of cruelty from fate.

Cancer, miscarriages, more cancer, hope, exultation, battles on and off the pitch in newspaper pages and courtrooms, blow after blow that makes you wonder what Barça has done to anyone, wonder if the indescribable joy of that Treble season came with a karmic price that is being extracted in heartache. You wonder how much culers are supposed to take, and then the next thing comes.

None of us are naive enough to believe that bad things shouldn’t happen to good people. But you like to think that somewhere Fate is keeping a ledger, that written down next to a name is: No more for this one.

Tito Vilanova started with Barça in the club’s youth division. That he wasn’t good enough didn’t dissuade him as he left the club and went on to a solid professional career, even scoring a goal in 1998 against a Jose Mourinho-coached Barça (he and van Gaal swapped responsibilities in the Copa) as a player for Llieda. He started coaching not long after his retirement as a player, and joined Pep Guardiola as part of the team that took over Barça B, leading the team to Segunda promotion. When Guardiola was named to run the first team, there wasn’t a question that Vilanova wouldn’t be at his side as they engineered greatness.

When Guardiola left and Vilanova took over, nobody really knew what to expect even as we all had expectations of the brains behind the genius. When the news came down that Vilanova would be heading off to New York, in the U.S., to undergo treatment for salivary gland cancer, we were worried but not overly so. Everything was going to be fine, we were told. But even if we hadn’t been told that, Eric Abidal had just kicked cancer’s ass so we had a success template already in place.

You can’t have *this* one, either.

He grabbed many of us in just one season at the helm, beginning the season trying to engineer a revolution before beginning a much more difficult and important fight. He returned to cheers, neck wrapped in a stylish scarf. We tracked his ups and downs. “He looks good.” And we resumed the task of evaluating a man who really should have been sitting at home with his family, rather than showing his devotion and how much he loved his club by attempting to run it from near and far, Skype and sitting in the shadows of the Camp Nou dugout.

Maybe it was that fight that grabbed us. Maybe Vilanova made the choices that he made because he wanted to leave a mark, because deep down somewhere in those recesses where we hide things that we don’t want to deal with, he somehow knew that a single, glorious season would be it and he wanted to make a mark.

100 points. Now top that.

In a massive feat, Vilanova led the first team to a 100-point, record setting Liga championship that many of us celebrated even as others snarled about a season that somehow became defined by Champions League failure. Even the Liga success was tainted as so many claimed that the drive for 100 points cost us a talented youth player in Thiago as Vilanova/Roura opted for a conservative lineup rather than working in players who were tapped to be part of the team’s future. It was a championship year that was never allowed to feel like one.

Yet those who weren’t ripping at an ill man’s player management and accomplishments were looking forward to seeing what Vilanova was going to do his second year at the helm, now that he was in remission and ready to take charge. Then came the body blow, that Vilanova would be stepping down and Gerardo “Tata” Martino stepping in to manage FC Barcelona, and we began to wonder. It wasn’t worry, but it was wonder.

The season progressed and everybody squabbled about everything. A grainy photo of Vilanova in attendance at a match kicked off speculation about how he was doing, and then silence. His name came up again very recently, as people wondered how he was, as he hadn’t been heard of/from in some time. Then suddenly, we got the news that none of us wanted to receive: he had been admitted to hospital for an emergency procedure, prognosis uncertain.

On April 25, word came down and my first thought was that Barça had lost a family member. Mes que un club. Even if you don’t live in Catalunya, Barça is everything: politics, sport, Catalan culture and pride, a symbol of the region’s struggle for independence. It’s a great many things even before it becomes the thing that unites us all in discussion: talented men kicking a sphere around a giant lawn.

Barça is, for many, family united in love of a common entity. Because of that link you don’t run and hide to support another club when things aren’t going well. Supporters wax and wane, come and go. Family members, culers, stay. It isn’t even a question. Never will the love for a football club be purer than when the team isn’t winning because in many ways failure unites us more effectively than success. Success is fleeting, a sliver of time in the overall arc of a team’s efforts that are far more often than not, defined by failure. In 115 years of existence, the club has won 22 Liga championships. Success is special.

It isn’t just because Vilanova was part of the club during so much success, helping to bring along many of the youth players who are now the team’s stars, that this loss feels so comprehensive and soul-crushing. It’s because Vilanova was part of the club, a club and a family that is diminished by his passing. For me he was an iconic figure in the club not only because his success as part of the club’s coaching staff became the stuff of legend. Vilanova is Catalan with Masia roots. He IS Barça, and Barça has lost something irreplacable today.

After death, life goes on. It has to. For Barça, that is even more important as the team prepares for a renovation of sorts. But it is at a time like this that all of that stops as we wonder what to do with our grief, that weird emptiness that is as impossible to deny as to define. I say embrace it. Weep if you want, and understand that your tears are of loss and love, tribute to a man that most culers have never met even as he is part of a family to which we all belong. Half-staff flags, black armbands and weekend matches that will have a minute of silence in a wonderful man’s honor.

There are no clubs, no enemies, no rivals at a time like this. We’re all human, part of the same frail group that mourns, that feels, that can be felled by one stupid, microscopic anomaly as our body betrays us. It’s terrifying and humbling.

Many of us understand the feeling of losing a loved one to cancer. We understand being part of the immediate blood family and struggling with any and everything. You’re hungry, but you can’t eat. You’re thirsty, but all you want to do is hold someone and cry. I can’t imagine, even as many of us know all too well, what Tito Vilanova’s family is going through right now. All you can do is wish them strength, and spare a thought for them. And right now, when words fail and you sit around with that blank face you have when there really isn’t anything to say, you hope that they are somehow buoyed by the massive outpouring of love from a family local and global, who held their loved one in such high esteem.

Adeu, Mister.


Kevin Williams is a journalist with the 'Chicago Tribune', based in Chicago, Illinois. This article first appeared in the Barcelona Football Blog and is republished here with permission.