I am still stunned by the tragic news that Tito Vilanova lost his battle with cancer yesterday. We all feared the worst but the loss of a man who gave us so much at the age of just 45 is still a terrible blow. He will live on in our memories as the man who in tandem with Pep Guardiola built the most successful team in Barça’s history.
Francesc Vilanova i Bayó was born in Bellcaire de l’Empordà in the north of Catalunya on 17 September 1968 and he joined Barça as a fifteen-year-old in 1984. It was at La Masia that he met and befriended Guardiola who was two years younger, and he also coincided with other players who would go on to form part of Johan Cruyff’s dream team such as Chapi Ferrer and Guillermo Amor. At La Masia he was known for his seriousness and maturity and also for recording World Cup matches on video which he would study and analyse.
After moving up through the junior and youth teams he played two seasons with Barça B. He was called up by Cruyff for one first team friendly in 1989, but lacking further first-team opportunities he decided to try his luck at Figueras where he played two seasons in the second division before getting a chance to move to Celta in 1992 where he would finally get a chance to play in the Primera División.
His coach at Figueras, Jorge D’Alessandro described him as “a midfielder who played through the middle with good technique and a good strike with both feet… He was committed, very professional, well brought-up with the values, teachings and foundations of La Masia. He was a good director of the team’s game, and it was noticeable that he was an extension of the coach on the pitch”. Txetxu Rojo who coached him at Celta described him as a player who had “a lot of quality who struck the ball well and knew what he had to do at every moment on the pitch…He was well educated player who trained well and was keen to learn… He was one of those players that when he was not actually on the pitch, would follow the details of the game very closely. He liked to pay attention to everything”. However, after three years at Celta he moved on and played the following five seasons in the second division at four different clubs Badajoz (1995-96), Mallorca (1996-97), Lleida (1997-99) and Elche (1999-2000). He then joined Gramanet where he retired due to a recurring knee injury in December 2001.
After hanging up his boots he began attending the training sessions of Albert Beniages who was then in charge of Barça’s Cadete B team. Carles Rexach who was then Barça’s first team coach had already tried to sign him as a fútbol base coach in the summer of 2001 but the following winter when he decided to retire he got the chance to assist Beniages. A few weeks later when Angel Pedraza moved to Espanyol, Beniages was promoted to the Juvenil B team and Vilanova took over the Cadete B team. For half a season he had an extraordinary generation of players under his control with Messi, Piqué and Fabregas in that team. He had one more season with a new Cadete B team which included Marc Crosas but in the summer of 2003 with the arrival of Joan Laporta as Barça’s new president he was victim to a restructuring of Barça’s fútbol base, and having been recommended by Rexach he now found himself forced out.
He coached at Palafrugell, Figueras and Terrassa before the appointment of Pep Guardiola as coach of Barça B in 2007 offered him the chance to return to Barça. Guardiola hadn’t forgotten his friend’s immense knowledge of the game and he called him in as his assistant. The story that followed is well known but remarkable nonetheless. Vilanova’s cool head provided the perfect balance to Guardiola’s passion and the pair led Barça B to promotion with Barça B in the first year followed by four years of unparalleled success with the first team until Guardiola decided to leave in 2012.
Vilanova was the natural choice to replace Guardiola though the decision still came as a surprise as he had first fallen ill in November 2011. However, he had been cleared of the illness and began brilliantly in the job taking Barça to a record 55 points in the first half of the 2012/13 season. The team would go on to take the title with a record 100 points with a record 32 victories but the season was marred by the recurrence of the illness which forced Vilanova to search for treatment in New York.
After returning for the end of the 2012/13 season he was preparing the next campaign when he again fell ill last July which forced him to retire from the job. We will never know where Tito might have taken the team if he had been able to continue. He will always be remembered for the 100 points and for being the first coach to field an XI made up totally of La Masia products during the 0-4 win at Levante in November 2012. But it was not just the season as coach, he should also take enormous credit for his part for the triumphs of the previous four seasons.
He always stayed out of the limelight when Guardiola was coach, allowing his friend to take the accolades. He showed humility in victory and dignity in defeat, characteristics that were also shown as he battled against illness. His human qualities remained to the end as demonstrated by the moving story revealed today that before entering hospital this week he got a friend to buy a watch as a goodbye gift for his wife.
The remainder of the season will be clouded by this tragic event. Condolences have poured in from around the world and thousands have already passed Camp Nou to pay tribute. There may be a divide over the future of the club but today Futbol Club Barcelona is united in its grief. Tito Vilanova is no longer with us but we can imagine him in better place, teaching tiki-taka as he knows best, with Seny Pit i Collons.