BARCELONA, Spain, December 21 – Urgent cancer surgery on Barcelona coach Tito Vilanova went “as planned” Thursday, the club said, after a relapse of the disease shocked the Spanish league leaders and unleashed a tide of support from the sporting world.
Vilanova, 44, has led Barcelona to their best league start ever but the club said he will be in hospital for three or four days and then need about six weeks of chemotherapy and radiotherapy for cancer of a salivary gland known as the parotid.
“The surgical operation on Tito Vilanova was performed as planned. His clinical progress will decide the duration of his admission,” Barcelona said in a statement, two days after doctors detected the new outbreak.
“The first message I have received is that the operation has gone very well,” Barca captain Carles Puyol told a news conference after surgeons operated, just over a year after he underwent a similar operation on the gland.
“It is very tough news, a very hard blow,” Puyol said.
Sports media quoted Vilanova as assuring players “I will be back soon,” the evening before his surgery, reportedly conducted at Barcelona’s Vall d’Hebron hospital, where there is a specialist oncology unit.
“We will have to try to go on as normally as possible but there will not be total normality because Tito is the coach and now for a few weeks he will not be there,” the club’s president Sandro Rosell said late Wednesday.
“Tito is very strong and we are convinced he will come back to us soon,” he insisted at a news conference, as players including Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta sat by solemn-faced.
A six-week lay-off would mean Vilanova may return just in time for Barcelona’s last-16 tie in the Champions League, which will be against AC Milan in mid-February, the draw revealed on Thursday.
Before the draw in Nyon, Switzerland, UEFA secretary-general Gianni Infantino said in Catalan: “Tito, we are all with you.”
The surgery came at a dramatic moment for Barca, flying high, nine points clear at the top of Spain’s La Liga while their fierce rivals and title holders Real Madrid are in the middle of a slump.
Jose Mourinho’s Real are 13 points adrift in third place and rattled by reports of internal squabbles. Atletico Madrid are second, nine points behind Barcelona.
Barca’s sporting director Andoni Zubizarreta said assistant coach Jordi Roura would stand in for the time being, acting as coach when the side travels to Valladolid for Saturday’s league game.
Messages of support poured in from sporting stars and even occupied the front pages of the fiercely partisan Madrid sports press.
Zubizarreta rejected speculation that Barcelona’s previous coach Pep Guardiola, who left last season, would step back in.
“Tito is the coach and continues to be the coach. Jordi Roura will be in the dugout at Valladolid but the trainer is Tito,” he told a news conference.
Real Madrid joined various sporting figures in Spain and abroad in wishing Vilanova well.
“Tito, everyone is behind you to beat this — the strength of football and people. It’s impossible you will lose this match,” Real skipper and Spain international keeper Iker Casillas wrote on his Facebook page.
Vilanova has been Barca manager since the departure of his long-time comrade-in-arms Guardiola in April.
Vilanova underwent an operation to remove a tumour on his parotid salivary gland on November 22, 2011 and was back at work as Guardiola’s deputy just two weeks later.
The club said doctors had detected that the illness had returned to the same area.