x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Barcelona: A team, and city, mourning Tito Vilanova

Andy Mitten reports from Catalonia where the Catalan people feel deeply the loss of one of their own.

Barcelona supporters leave mementos at a memorial to Tito Vilanova at the Camp Nou on Saturday. Former Barcelona coach Vilanova died following a battle with cancer that forced him to stand down at the end of last season, the club announced on Friday. The banner reads
Barcelona supporters leave mementos at a memorial to Tito Vilanova at the Camp Nou on Saturday. Former Barcelona coach Vilanova died following a battle with cancer that forced him to stand down at the end of last season, the club announced on Friday. The banner reads "Tito forever eternal" and the shirt "Thanks Tito, always eternal". Albert Gea / Reuters / April 26, 2014

BARCELONA // By Sunday evening, the numbers had reached 52,999. Not likes or retweets on social media, but almost 53,000 people who had made their way in person to Barcelona’s Camp Nou over two days – 20,000 more people than voted in the club’s recent referendum.

They came to pay their respects to former coach Francesc “Tito” Vilanova, who died on Friday after a 30-month battle with throat cancer at the age of 45.

Catalonia was distraught at the news of the loss of one of their own at such a young age, while FC Barcelona said they were in “immense mourning”.

Catalans wanted to pay respects and the club opened up a memorial space inside Camp Nou’s main stand, a place Vilanova knew well from his 20-year association with the club.

Spain manager Vicente del Bosque travelled from his home in Madrid, as did Atletico Madrid president Enric Cerezo. Former Barca presidents Joan Laporta, Enric Reyna and Sandro Rosell also attended. They stood in front of a four metre photo of Vilanova and an ever-growing display of flowers.

Sadly, Barca had time to plan for this. Despite travelling to New York for treatment several times, Vilanova’s condition worsened in recent months and he slipped from public view.

One of the last photos of him was in the stands with his wife Montse as they watched their son Adria play football in October 2013, a fragile figure wearing sun glasses, a cap and a high neck to hide the hair loss and disfigurement caused by treatment.

Adria’s teammates in the club’s Juvelin B team wore T-shirts with the message: “We are with you Adri” before their game on Sunday. Vilanova had another child, daughter Carlota.

Tributes poured in from around the world for their father, a man integral to one of the greatest club football sides in history. Vilanova was a young player at Barca who formed a close friendship with another peer, Pep Guardiola, at the Masia youth academy.

They would enjoy differing fortunes as footballers, but would reunite in management, a brilliant, all conquering combination.

After a modest professional playing career, Vilanova started coaching Barca’s under 14s while Guardiola was still playing.

He moved up to the club’s B team as Guardiola’s assistant in 2007/08. They won the title in their first season and would repeat that success with the first team. Barca won all six trophies they entered in 2009. A photo of Montse with the European Cup in her hotel room in Rome showed how the happiness was shared.

When Guardiola quit in 2012, Vilanova took charge and led the Catalans to the title in his first season, when the team accumulated 100 points. By that time, he had already needed treatment for cancer, which would return.

Barca issued an obituary for their former manager. It reads: “Brave, honest, hard-working, perfectionist, methodical, pragmatic and intuitive on both a personal and a professional level, and always remained loyal to the club and to himself, as defined by two of his companions from his youth right through to his managerial days, Jordi Roura and Aureli Altimira.

“As a coach, Vilanova was analytical, cerebral and observant and was famed for the amount of gestures he used to make as he directed his teams. Those that worked alongside him considered him a tactical genius in a job for which his nature could not have been better suited.”

In Bellcaire d’Emporda, Vilanova’s home village of 664 people in Catalonia’s beautiful north, the flag of Catalan independence flies at half mast outside the little village hall.

On Sunday night, Barca came from 2-0 down at Villarreal to win 3-2.

“That was one of the most difficult days to play,” said captain Xavi. “We used our pride and experience to win. We dedicate it to Tito.”

Barca stay in contention for a league title their players want to win for Tito, but they are four points behind Atletico Madrid with three games to play, the final game being between Barca and Atletico.

Not that too many people in Barcelona were thinking about football after the weekend. There was a funeral to attend in the city’s gothic cathedral on Monday night.

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