“Our coach is not on holiday, you know.”, Javier Mascherano pointed out to his teammates as the Barcelona manager Tito Vilanova, in light of the team’s dipping form and increasing pressure to win games, had started conducting training sessions from his hospital bed. His job was his life, he used to say. And indeed, it was.
Born in Bellcaire d’Empordà, Girona, Francesc ‘Tito’ Vilanova first came to Barcelona as a 15 years old boy. It was at La Masia, that he learned the footballing philosophy he was such a firm believer of. And it was there that he formed a friendship with Jordi Roura, Aureli Altimira and a certain Josep Guardiola.
‘El marquès’ was the nickname given to him. A tall and slender midfielder, who was known for his freekicks and reading of the game. Tito’s ambition, like every other La Masia kid, was to play for the first team. After waiting for two years, he didn’t see his chance coming in a team that had such great players. So, he left. After playing for teams like Celta Vigo and Mallorca, he eventually retired at Gramenet. Pep and Tito did not enjoy the same amount of success, but they essentially were the same. Voracious eaters, technical players and determined defenders of a particular footballing faith. His belief in the Barcelona philosophy is evident from his words he said in an interview with El País “We’re different. Winning alone is not enough: we have an ideal of youth team players and attacking football, as Barcelona’s culture demands. We have our faults but being cowards will never be one of them.”
Despite never being able to fulfil the dream of playing for the first team, his love for his boyhood club didn’t change. Soon after his retirement from playing, he was back at the club of his heart, to coach a team of 13-year-olds. That team had some special kids, namely, Gerard Pique, Cesc Fabregas and a certain Lionel Messi. Tito could see talent when all that others saw were weaknesses. The preceding coach had labelled Lionel as a hopeless kid, who couldn’t make it at the big stage. Tito however, saw someone who would rule the world. As much as he loved being with those kids, his time with them was short. A year later, he was let go.
Years went by, and it was finally time to come home again. Pep Guardiola had been offered the job to coach Barcelona B and he thought only one man worthy of being his lieutenant, his lifelong friend Tito. They achieved impressive results with the B team, earning them a promotion to the second division. And when the pair was asked to take over the first team, Pep asked Tito, “Are we ready for this?” “Well, you are,” Villanova replied. Together, the duo went on to define the club’s greatest era, a period of breathtaking football that garnered results never achieved before. Together, they assembled the greatest team to ever grace the game.
While Pep is often seen as the face of that era-defining Barca, Tito is often perceived as a humble assistant who just helped the boss. But he was so much more than just a helper. As Guardiola’s most trusted ally, he was a sounding board, confidant and advisor, playing an active role in developing the team’s playing strategy, planning approach to specific games, analysing players and giving suggestions in player development. Juego de Posicion, the Barcelona style of play renowned for its beauty and efficiency, was very much a joint creation. This was acknowledged by Guardiola himself, who once said: “I was just the voice of the ideas that Tito and I developed together.”
A quiet, methodical thinker, Tito was slightly different than Pep. He was not as charismatic or as loud a speaker. He was a man who never desired the limelight, always focused on the task at hand. When others would be enjoying a win, Tito would be thinking about the next game. He was always planning, searching for ideas, trying out tactics in his head. Walking around with an aura of wisdom around himself, an aura that made others wiser. The way he could recognize talent, not many others could. It was on his advice, that Barcelona signed players like David Villa and Cesc Fabregas. A tactical mastermind, he had the wisdom to change games in the dying minutes. As a person, Tito can be described as tough, honest, hard-working, perfectionist and intuitive, and anyone who had spent time in the same room as him would readily agree with those adjectives. He would say whatever he had in his mind without sounding harsh in any way.
It was natural that he was chosen to succeed Guardiola as the Barcelona manager after Pep decided to call it a day. Continuing what they had started together, Barcelona went on to win the league by a record 100 points. While the basics remained the same, there were minor tweaks made in Barcelona’s attacking play. The attack was a little more direct than it was under Pep. Now, the midfielders would look for a quick through pass as soon as they saw enough space. Fewer passes were now required to break through opponent backline. It looked likely that Barca would continue their dominance for a long time. The football was beautiful as ever. Life seemed to be perfect for him. But the most beautiful of things are most often the ones that don’t last very long.
The day of the Joan Gamper trophy, Tito’s first match in charge, was made more special by Eric Abidal’s recovery from cancer. Tito took the mic and said, “We are so happy that you’re here with us. Your fight gives us strength.” Tito told Abidal in front of the fans, “If you’re strong and you have the desire, we will wait for you, as long as it takes.” These words were not the mere show of support or a formal welcome back, Vilanova could relate to what the Frenchman had been through. Some months back, Tito was diagnosed with throat cancer while still an assistant to Pep. He returned to work after just 18 days, which is a remarkable example of his tremendous spirit. The next May, it was announced that Tito had fully recovered from his disease and was ready to lead the claret and blue to glory once again, this time, as The Boss.
The season started amazingly well, with Barcelona winning 14 out of the first 15 games. With 43 points secured by matchday 15, we saw the best ever start to La Liga by our club. Abidal was given the medical green light and he was cleared to play in December. The same day, the news that nobody was ready to hear, broke out. The Barcelona manager had suffered a relapse of his illness that everyone thought was cured. He had to take time off to focus on the treatment, managing duties were tasked to the assistant Jordi Roura for the time being. He came back in March to see his team lift the La Liga title. Then, in the summer he was forced to step down as manager on medical advice.
There were occasional updates and he would be seen sometimes watching his son Adria, who then played for Barcelona B as a defender. But he had distanced himself from everything, determined not to burden others. “It’ll be fine,” he would say. His last public appearance was on 8th January, 2014, when he came to Camp Nou to watch a Copa Del Rey game against Getafe. He passed away aged 45, in April 2014. Tributes poured in from all those who loved the beautiful game, friends and rivals alike. The whole football world was sad. His lifelong friend Pep Guardiola, with whom he had enjoyed enormous success, said, “The sadness I feel will accompany me for the rest of my life. We were young, we wanted to beat the world, and we did.”
He was adored by his family, his players, his friends, his club and even his rivals. An innovator, perfectionist and an example to the footballing world, Tito Vilanova’s legacy shall live on, forever.
Per Sempre Etern.