By Joseph Wilson ,AP
BARCELONA, Spain–Tito Vilanova, the coach who succeeded Pep Guardiola at Barcelona and won the Spanish league title in his only season in charge, died Friday following a long battle with throat cancer. He was 45.
Vilanova, who has battled a recurring tumor in a saliva gland, was admitted to a local hospital in Barcelona last week. He reportedly had emergency surgery on Thursday.
“It is with sadness that Barcelona must announce that Francesc ‘Tito’ Vilanova has died today at the age of 45,” Barcelona said in a statement on its website. “The death of our former coach occurred this afternoon when he could not overcome this disease which he had battled since 2011.”
Vilanova’s death prompted an outpouring of condolences from players and coaches across Europe.
Barcelona star Lionel Messi said that is was a “moment of profound pain for Vilanova’s family and also for Barcelona and its fans.”
“All of us who shared Barcelona’s locker room with Tito are deeply affected, considering what he gave us as a person and as a professional,” Messi said in a statement. “I, personally, will always hold dear the things he shared and went through with me, which I will never forget.”
Former Barcelona defender Eric Abidal, who recovered from liver cancer and a liver transplant to help hoist the 2012-13 league trophy with Vilanova, wrote on Twitter: “For everything we went through together, I will always remember you, my friend. Thanks for fighting.”
Spain’s royal family and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy also sent telegrams to Vilanova’s family and Barcelona, according to the Europa Press news agency.
Vilanova first became ill in November 2011, while still an assistant to Guardiola and took a leave of absence after undergoing surgery. The soft-spoken Vilanova returned and took over from Guardiola the next season, when he led Barcelona to the Spanish league title with a record-tying 100 points.
Vilanova had a second tumor removed in December 2012 and traveled to New York several times during the season to receive further treatment before returning to the sidelines.
In April 2013, Vilanova said he felt fine and “had never thought about quitting.” He finished the season before suddenly being forced to resign following a relapse in July.
As an assistant, Vilanova helped Guardiola propel Barcelona into its most successful period and transform a team led by Messi into the world’s best.
With a team that also included several of the players that led Spain to the World Cup title in 2010, Barcelona won 14 of a possible 19 major trophies from 2008-12 under Guardiola before adding the league title with Vilanova in 2013.
Despite the impressive league display, Vilanova was unable to win another Champions League title last season. Barcelona lost to eventual champion Bayern Munich 7-0 on aggregate in the semifinals, one of its most humbling results of the last decade.
As Guardiola’s assistant, Vilanova provided the tactical know-how that helped the coach build one of the best teams in the history of the sport — winning two Champions League titles in its impressive haul.
Vilanova will also be remembered for his role in a brawl in the 2010 Spanish Super Cup won by Barcelona, when Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho poked him in the eye.
Mourinho, who is now at Chelsea, also sent his condolences “at this most difficult time.”