In many ways Vilanova is closer to a lot of the Barca players than Guardiola, having known some of them virtually all their professional football lives and coached them as kids, but the decision to appoint him to the hot seat has still come as something of a bombshell. Surprising and unexpected yes, maybe even astonishing, yet in terms of continuity at a club that prides itself on style and the production of so many home-grown players, it was possibly President Sandro Rosell’s easiest decision yet.
Born in Bellcaire d’Emporda – a Catalan village in the province of Girona, 140 kilometres to the north of Barcelona and not far from the French border – the 42-year-old has always shunned the media spotlight. Yet ironically he shot to prominence in somewhat involuntary fashion in August, 2011, Real Madrid boss Jose Mourinho poking him in the eye during a Supercopa de Espana game following a touchline melee toward the end of the match. It is a measure of Vilanova’s anonymity to recall Mourinho’s sarcastic comments at the post-match Press conference.
“Pito? Pito Vilanova? I don’t know any Pito Vilanova”, said the Portuguese only minutes after the incident in feigned ignorance of Vilanova’s first name; if anything characterised the Barca assistant boss’ claim to fame then this was it.
Even so, despite being in the background for much of the time, Guardiola has always considered Vilanova’s input key in his most important decisions and ideas. Preparation for games has always been a vital component for both men, as Graham Hunter recalls in his book Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, when he spoke to Vilanova before the 2011 Champions League Final between Barcelona and Manchester United.
“We try to prepare the same way for every match,” he told Hunter. “There’s not much difference whether we are playing Hospitalet or a final at Wembley. We work on tactics and strategy in the same way and give the players the same amount of information.”
The relationship between Guardiola and Vilanova goes back to 1984 when they were at Barca’s famed La Masia academy as budding midfielders, part of an intake of youngsters taught a respect for the ball that shapes the philosophy of how Barcelona play today. That group also included two members of the current coaching staff in Jordi Roura and Aureli Altimira and the quartet have identical views on how football should be approached, as Vilanova explained to Hunter.
“I never like losing, but I learned very early on that you can’t win every time. If you know you’ve done everything you could and that you’ve had chances, then you accept losing is just part of the game. You take it on the chin and try to improve,” he said.
Although their paths had coincided, Guardiola and Vilanova’s subsequent careers took very different directions. While the former went on to become one of the leaders of Johan Cruyff’s ‘Dream Team’, the latter – nicknamed ‘El Marques’(‘The Marquis’) as a player – never made it past the club’s second string and eventually left for second division Figueres in 1990, spending two years with the Catalans before signing for Celta Vigo. After just 26 La Liga appearances in three seasons at Balaidos he then had spells with Badajoz, Real Mallorca, Lleida, Elche and Gramenet before calling time on his playing career in 2002 and deciding to pursue a coaching career.
Vilanova’s first job was with Barca’s unbeatable Cadete B team, which at the time included such promising youngsters as Lionel Messi, Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Pique, before moving on to coach Palafrugell, Figueres, Terrassa and finally the Barcelona B team in 2007 alongside Guardiola. The following year saw the relatively inexperienced pair promoted to take the first team reins after the departure of Dutchmen Frank Rijkaard and Johan Neeskens, yet the ensuing five years will go down in history: two UEFA Champions League crowns, three La Liga trophies, one Copa del Rey, three Supercopas, two UEFA Super Cups and two FIFA Club World Cups.
However, Tito’s biggest challenge was still to come as in November, 2011 he was forced to undergo a five-hour operation to remove a tumour on a parotid gland, one of the largest of the salivary glands that facilitate chewing and swallowing. It was a bitter blow to the Barcelona players, given Vilanova’s popularity in the dressing room and coming on the back of Eric Abidal’s diagnosis with liver cancer, but thankfully the operation was a success and he returned to work a few weeks later and has had no recurrence of the problem since.
Vilanova will be aware he faces a tough task to follow the legend Guardiola has created, although the challenge of extending the most successful era in La Blaugrana’s history is one he will certainly not shirk. With many of his former youth team disciples to aid him his appointment could yet prove to be a masterstroke – even Jose Mourinho may be obliged to recognise ‘Pito’ the next time he sees him.