Cancer forces Vilanova to step down at Barcelona

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Tito Vilanova is stepping down as Barcelona’s coach following a recurrence of throat cancer, just a month before Lionel Messi and his team-mates begin the defence of their Spanish league title.

Club president Sandro Rosell told a hurriedly-called news conference at Barcelona’s training facility last night that Vilanova will “follow a treatment” that will be “incompatible” with staying on as coach. Rosell said that a new head coach would be named next week and that Barcelona were cancelling their first friendly of the pre-season, scheduled to be played in Poland today against Lechia Gdansk.

Spanish media was rife with speculation that little-known Joan “Rubi” Ferrer would replace Vilanova. Ferrer was hired on 28 June as Barcelona’s new assistant coach after his strong season with Catalan club Girona in the second division.

The 44-year-old Vilanova had twice previously had to take a medical break from his duties at Barcelona, once as Pep Guardiola’s assistant in the 2011-12 season and again as manager last season. In his single season in charge he led Barcelona to the Spanish league title with a record-equalling 100 points. “This is a piece of news I would have never in my life wanted to give,” Rosell told a packed media room including Barcelona’s first team with Messi and captain Carles Puyol. “After evaluating the results of the routine tests and checkups for Tito Vilanova, the option arose of following a treatment that will be incompatible with the development of the responsibilities as the coach of the first team,” Rosell said. Vilanova was not in attendance.

Vilanova had battled the recurrent tumour in a saliva gland for the past two years, coming back to coach each time. He first fell ill in November 2011 and had to have surgery. He then had a second tumour removed last December and travelled to New York several times to receive further treatment. In his absence last season, assistant Jordi Roura took over.