Tito Vilanova: Footballer and coach who with Pep Guardiola oversaw the most successful era in the history of FC Barcelona

 

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The Independent Online

Tito Vilanova was a relatively low-profile coach, assistant to Pep Guardiola at Barcelona but an urbane figure better known for tactics than tantrums and for helping to nurture the stellar potential of Lionel Messi, until an altercation with Jose Mourinho thrust him into the spotlight.

The setting was the Nou Camp stadium in August 2011, the occasion the second leg of the Spanish Super Cup. Real Madrid's Marcelo had just scythed down Cesc Fabregas. As players, coaches, physios and substitutes traded blows and insults, Mourinho, then Real's coach, strode to where the unsuspecting Vilanova stood, at the back of the melee, and poked a finger in his right eye.

The self-styled Special One, who received something between a slap and a shove in retaliation, compounded his folly at the post-match media conference. Pointedly mispronouncing the Barca No 2's name, he said: "Pito Vilanova? I don't know any Pito Vilanova."

Mourinho certainly knew it by the time Vilanova, having succeeded Guardiola the next year, led Barcelona to the La Liga title in 2012-13. In his only full season in charge, the Catalan club equalled Real's record of 100 points, lost just twice and left Mourinho's team 15 points adrift. Vilanova, who died of cancer of the salivary gland at the age of 45, was born in Girona, near the French border. In 1984 he joined Barcelona's youth academy at La Masia, where he fell in with other hopefuls such as Guardiola and Jordi Roura (who became interim coach in December 2012 after Vilanova underwent treatment). Voracious eaters all, they formed an unofficial dining club and were dubbed "The Gluttons".

The teenaged Vilanova, for whom "Tito" had already replaced his birth name Francesc, attracted another nickname, "The Marquis", because his midfield poise was complemented by a perfectionist streak concerning his kit and clothing. It must have seemed things were falling into place when Johan Cruyff gave him 45 minutes as substitute for Guardiola in a 1989 friendly, yet it proved his only first-team action.

He impatiently informed the Dutchman that if he had not progressed to the "dream team" in two seasons as a full-time player, he would be leaving. "In time I realised that it was probably an error," he said later. Guardiola bided his time, captained the Azulgrana to domestic and European honours and played 47 times for Spain. Vilanova, meanwhile, plied his trade with Figueres, Celta Vigo (making 26 appearances in La Liga), Badajoz, Lleida, Elche and Gramenet before returning to Barca as a youth coach in 2001.

Among his charges were future World Cup winners Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique, and a talented if somewhat timid Argentinian called Lionel Messi; after another coach discarded the lost boy as too great a risk, Vilanova claimed him for his Cadete B team. In 2003 he was made redundant by club president Sandro Rosell, going on to work for minor clubs Palafrugell and Terrassa.

His third spell at Barcelona began in 2007 when he was appointed to assist Guardiola with the B team, and within a year the friends were promoted to take over the senior side from Frank Rijkaard and Johan Neeskens. Their first season was the most successful in Barca's history; with a lustrous passing game, obsession with ball-retention and a life-affirming emphasis on attack, the team amassed six trophies, including La Liga, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League, in which Manchester United were vanquished in the final.

The duo – a partnership of equals, with Guardiola signing David Villa and Fabregas on Vilanova's advice - won three Spanish titles and recaptured the European Cup in 2011, again outclassing United, at Wembley. However, a weary Guardiola resigned in April 2012, pleading that he felt "empty" after a Champions League semi-final defeat by Chelsea. Rosell, having released him nine years earlier, instantly unveiled Vilanova as head coach. Barca's technical director, Andoni Zubizarreta, said he "personified the philosophy of the club".

Vilanova had been diagnosed with cancer in November 2011. After an operation to remove a tumour, followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy, he resumed work. Late the following year he suffered a relapse for which he underwent treatment in New York.

Returning to the dug-out in March 2013, he soon emulated Terry Venables, Louis Van Gaal and Guardiola by winning La Liga at the first attempt. Andres Iniesta, the metronomic Barcelona and Spain midfielder, bestowed yet another nickname, "The Encyclopedia", on him because of his knowledge of the game.

Mourinho, incidentally, waited for Vilanova by the players' tunnel before a 2012 Clasico in Madrid and warmly shook his hand. But in July last year Barcelona announced that their coach was leaving to fight his illness. The Vilanova name lives on at the club; Adria, 17, is a promising defender in the B team with whom his father cut his coaching teeth.

Francesc (Tito) Vilanova y Bayo, footballer and coach: born Bellcaire d'Emporda, Spain 17 September 1968; married 1992 Montserrat Chaure (one daughter, one son); died Barcelona 25 April 2014.

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