Former Barcelona manager Tito Vilanova has died at the age of 45 after a long battle with throat cancer. Vilanova served as Pep Guardiola's assistant manager for four years, first helping him lead Barcelona B to promotion before taking charge of the first team and winning six major trophies in a three-year period of unprecedented domination. Upon Guardiola's departure in 2012, Vilanova was promoted as his natural successor despite being diagnosed with throat cancer in 2011.
The departure of a legendary manager can and often does lead to a messy transition for a club like Barcelona, but Vilanova held the team together and took them back to the top of the league. Under Vilanova, Barca set a new club record by winning 18 of the first 19 games of the 2012/13 season.
In December 2012, the cancer returned, forcing him to leave the team for 10 weeks while he underwent surgery, followed by chemotherapy and radiation treatments a continent away in New York. Though his assistant, Jordi Roura took charge of the day to day work at the club, Vilanova remained the boss. And in March 2013, he returned to the touchline to lead Barcelona back to the Liga title after they failed to win it in Guardiola's last season.
Even without his illness, this would have been a tremendous feat. Barcelona lost just two matches all season, displaying impressive focus with all that was going on and Vilanova's strength and determination were at the heart of that.
After that one season in charge, Vilanova was forced to step down as he suffered another relapse and needed to focus solely on his treatment. His inspiration continued to drive the club, though. In October 2013, before a match against Real Madrid, the 98,000 fans at the Camp Nou participated in a mosaic dedicated to Vilanova.
Upon learning of Vilanova's death, Barcelona midfielder Cesc Fabregas posted a message to him. It reads:
Tito, thanks for all you have given to football and Barca. All fans love you and are eternally grateful.
Personally, I met you 14 years ago and I can say that there are very few people like you. Thank you for always trusting me and helping me improve and overcome personal and professional obstacles.
All my condolences to [his wife] Montse, [daughter] Carlota and [son] Adrià and the rest of his family and friends.
Always keep a place for you in our hearts. Rest in peace Tito.
Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, who famously poked Vilanova in the eye during one of many fights between Real Madrid and Barcelona was also quick to offer his condolences. From Chelsea's official website:
"Tito Vilanova's passing is a sad day for football, for Barcelona and most importantly for his family and friends. On behalf of everybody at Chelsea Football Club I send my deepest condolences at this most difficult time."
The flags outside the Camp Nou have been lowered to half mast and tributes from clubs around the world have poured in. The message of "Ciao Tito" was even shown on the video screen at the Stadio Olimpico before Roma's match against Milan.
Though Vilanova's life was cut far too short, the accomplishments he carved out in the face of his own mortality will forever stand as a reminder of his powerful will and serve as an example to others.
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