LONDON — Sometimes, when a sport is feuding within itself, it takes an extraordinary event to remind us all that it is a merely a game we play in life.
Spanish soccer is locked in a rare three-way fight for the championship. Partisan feelings divideBarcelona, Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid. Yet over the weekend, Atlético’s president, Enrique Cerezo, flew to Barcelona to visit Camp Nou stadium and join the 53,000 people offering their condolences for Tito Vilanova, the former Barcelona coach who died Friday of throat cancer at 45.
While he was making that journey, Barcelona’s first team was on its own mission. Harrowed by events, the players fell into a shocking two-goal deficit at Villarreal on Sunday. Lifted by a desire that meant more than just the points, Barça came back to win, 3-2.
It needed no explanation when Lionel Messiscored the final goal and raised both index fingers to the sky before he was engulfed by his fellow players.
Messi had been put under Tito Vilanova’s tutelage after the Argentine enrolled at Barcelona’s La Masia youth academy. Messi was 14. He needed growth hormone drugs, for which Barcelona would pay. Francesc “Tito” Vilanova, himself a former academy boy, though not nearly so gifted as many others, was cutting his own coaching credentials by passing on the knowledge he learned at La Masia.
If you saw Messi’s face on Villarreal’s field on Sunday, or in Barcelona’s cathedral on Monday night when it was packed for a memorial service to Vilanova, you could not mistake the grief, the love or the torment he is now going through.
Messi, and all the rest.
One doubts that Vilanova had any inkling of the depth of feeling he generated. He knew that his club was special. It was to him. It will be to his son, Adrià.
Adrià turned 17 in February. He looks eerily like his father. Standing in the cathedral on Monday, tall, lean, quiet and committed like his father, the young man smiled enigmatically when he was consoled by the archbishop.
In January, when Tito Vilanova was again battling the throat cancer that struck him 21/2 years ago, he ventured out to watch his boy play for Barça’s Juvenil B team. From central defense, Adrià stole forward to strike the only goal of that game.
Those whom Vilanova helped toward stardom include the big names currently on the revered club. Sunday against Vilanova had been “the most difficult to play,” Xavi Hernández, who has played more games for Barcelona than anybody, said on the club’s website. “We felt it in our bodies. We’ve lost a leader. We relied on pride and grit to win this game.”
“We did it,” said Javier Mascherano, another Argentine recruited to the Catalan club, “the way that Tito did it, by fighting to the end. We have a lot of fight left in us.”
Vilanova no longer has. But he cannot have imagined what a demonstration the soccer community would make for the most undemonstrative of men.
Barcelona has won four of the past five La Liga titles, and Vilanova’s role during most of that time was assistant to Pep Guardiola. They started together as boys at La Masia, boys so young and so idealistic that Guardiola told reporters covering his new club, Bayern Munich, “We wanted to conquer the world, and that’s what we did.
“The profound sadness that I have,” Guardiola added, “will accompany me for the rest of my life.”
There had been a period of separation. In 2012, Guardiola left Barcelona, drained, he said, by the intensity of forever chasing, and winning, trophies. Vilanova stepped out of his shadow to surpass Guardiola, in terms of points won and in fluency on the field.
When Vilanova needed surgery and chemotherapy in New York, Guardiola was already there, living near Central Park and taking a sabbatical. The friends didn’t see one another, as Vilanova would have liked.
The word love was used unsparingly this week as Guardiola and so many others tried to convey their feelings across a variety of platforms.
Josep Bartomeu, the current president of the club, wrote in an open letter to fans of Vilanova’s “humility and discretion, uncommon values in the world of football today. His perfectionism and his penchant to demand the most of himself was a source of inspiration for all who have worked with him.”
Those who knew him most intimately saw Vilanova as the tactical mind, the thinker, alongside the driven Guardiola.
Bartomeu said that days before he died, Vilanova called. “We have to do this,” Vilanova said, suggesting a new initiative. “You want me to help you do that?”
Javier Faus, the board member leading plans to redevelop and enlarge Camp Nou, recalled journeys shared with Vilanova. “On the trips back from any game we would often be sitting across the aisle from each other and Tito would begin to analyze the match, whatever the result, as soon as he sat down on the plane. He got out team sheets, talk about the players’ positions.”
Faus wrote that in their last long conversation, “We talked about our families, life in general and Barça, always Barça!”
It was, ultimately, a visitor to the training camp on Monday who encapsulated the man. “I had to be here,” Éric Abidal said via the club’s website. “I watched on Sunday and you could tell that mentally the players weren’t really up for it, but they got a result and took the three points.”
Abidal, now with A.S. Monaco, was a Barça player who underwent a liver transplant at the time that Vilanova’s cancer was in remission. “We shared a lot,” Abidal said. “F.C. Barcelona is a big family, and if we lose one of our own, it was more important than ever to be close to the family.”