Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova has suffered a relapse of cancer a year after surgeons removed a tumour from his salivary gland, the club said Wednesday, in a potentially bitter blow for the Spanish league leaders.
Messages of support poured in for the 44-year-old, whose team is flying nine points high at the top of La Liga after the club confirmed media reports in Spanish sports dailies.
The Catalan giants said in an initial statement that a scheduled news conference for Wednesday lunchtime with Barca president Sandro Rossell had been cancelled, as had a planned Christmas meal with the media.
They then added that Vilanova would have surgery on Thursday and thereafter also undergo “around six weeks of radiotherapy and chemotherapy,” according to a statement on the club’s website, fcbarcelona.es.
Spanish newspaper El Economista citing sources close to the club said Vilanova’s assistant Jordi Roura would take over his duties in his absence. Various media said Vilanova was due to be operated on again imminently.
The development comes at a dramatic time for Barcelona, one of the world’s most successful football teams. They have made their best ever start to the league season, while their fierce rivals and title holders Real Madrid are suffering a malaise.
Jose Mourinho’s Real are 13 points adrift in third place and rattled by reports of internal squabbles.
Real Madrid preempted any official announcement on Vilanova’s condition Wednesday by wishing Vilanova well in a statement.
“Real Madrid wishes to express all its support, love and affection for Barcelona’s coach Tito Vilanova, to whom it wishes a quick recovery,” it said. “Real Madrid extends this support to his club and all his family.”
On Twitter messages of support came from sporting figures including tennis champion Rafael Nadal who said: “All my strength and support to Tito Vilanova. We are with you to overcome this.”
Vilanova has been Barca manager since the departure of his long-time comrade-in-arms Pep Guardiola in April this year.
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.
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, in large part due to Argentine talisman Lionel Messi, who has taken his tally for the calendar year to a record-breaking 90.
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.