Barcelona have been rocked by the news that head coach Tito Vilanova could be forced to step down from his role, after it emerged he has suffered a relapse of a tumour he had last year, Spanish sports media said yesterday.
He underwent an operation to remove a tumour on his parotid gland — the largest of the salivary glands — on November 22, 2011 and was back at work as Guardiola’s deputy just 15 days later.
“Relapse in Tito illness. Barca coach hit with return of the cancer he had in 2011,” said the Catalan daily Mundo Deportivo, with the same claim carried on the Internet site of the Sport publication.
The Liga leaders said only in a statement that a scheduled news conference for lunchtime yesterday with Barca president Sandro Rossell had been cancelled, as had a planned Christmas meal with the media.
Barcelona said they would make a further announcement later in the day.
Vilanova, 44, has been Barca manager since the departure of Pep Guardiola in April this year.
Reports of Vilanova’s relapse emerged on the same day that a Catalan radio station and Mundo Deportivo said doctors had given the all-clear for Barcelona defender Eric Abidal to play again after undergoing a liver transplant on April 10. The operation was conducted more than a year after a tumour was removed from his liver.
Vilanova has led Barcelona to the most successful start to a season in La Liga’s history, with 15 wins and one draw in 16 matches so far.
They rule supreme over Spain’s clubs, nine points ahead of runners-up Atletico Madrid and 13 ahead of arch-rivals Real Madrid.
Vilanova played only briefly as a professional in Spain’s top flight, notably with Celta Vigo, before turning to coaching at the end of his career and finding his way back to the club of his youth.
He came through Barcelona’s youth ranks but after failing to break into the first team he continued his playing career with a number of lower league clubs before retiring in 2002.
He rejoined the Catalans as a youth coach in 2007, helping Barcelona’s B side to promotion.
Vilanova was promoted to first team duties, working alongside Guardiola, for the 2008-2009 season, by the end of which the team had won six major trophies including the Champions League.
Support pours in
Despite there being no official confirmation about the condition of Vilanova, there have been messages of support from leading figures in Spanish sport.
Tennis star Rafael Nadal tweeted: “All my strength and support to Tito Vilanova! We are with you to overcome this new step.”
Real Betis said on their official twitter feed: “@RBetisOficial and their professionals offer their total support for the coach of @FCBarcelona_es, Tito Vilanova.”
Athletic Bilbao midfielder Ander Herrera was quoted as saying in AS: “I’m stunned. Is it true? Tito has shown himself to be a fighter, overcoming a very serious illness and I hope that it’s going to be the same this time. He has all of my support and that of the club.”
MotoGP world champion Jorge Lorenzo, meanwhile, tweeted: “#AnimoTito (encouragement for Tito).”
Meanwhile, reports have suggested that the Catalan giants have denied contact with Pep Guardiola and Luis Enrique about the possibility of replacing Vilanova.