Eric Abidal looks for a repeat of heart-warming recovery as football family comes together again

Nicholas Rigg
Eric Abidal 300x225 Eric Abidal looks for a repeat of heart warming recovery as football family comes together again

Eric Abidal is the centre of attention for his team-mates after last season's Champions League victory over Real Madrid

Former Liverpool manager Bill Shankly famously once said “football isn’t a matter of life and death, it’s much more important than that.” A quote highlighting Shankly’s passion for the ‘beautiful game’, rather than the Anfield legend meaning it in its literal term.

It’s a quote that has extra significance given the headlines in the sports pages for all the wrong reasons in recent weeks. Fabrice Muamba’s cardiac arrest while playing for Bolton Wanderers in an FA Cup tie at Tottenham Hotspur, Aston Villa midfielder Stiliyan Petrov being diagnosed with acute leukaemia and Eric Abidal, the Barcelona and France defender, preparing to undergo a liver transplant.

Stories that, although we’d rather not be talking about them at all, bring out the good, caring, human side of football. Rivalries are put aside, results just don’t matter anymore and thoughts are put firmly with the individuals, their families and their friends. Football clearly isn’t much more important than life and death, not at all.

Abidal’s story had been a heart-warming one from his initial diagnosis of a liver tumour just over a year ago, in March 2011. The news shook Barcelona, La Liga, and world football, to the core. His place in one of, if not the, best teams of all time in Pep Guardiola’s Barca, perhaps heightened the media coverage given, but Abidal’s story, and his recovery, was an inspirational one nonetheless. The huge blow of being diagnosed with the liver tumour would have been enough to put football very much on the back-burner. Diagnosed in March, perhaps the chance of returning to play football in that same season? No chance.

That’s what everyone thought at the time anyway. Just get better, Eric, forget about football. Forget about it until the end of the season, at least.

Days after having surgery on his liver, Real Madrid, Barca’s bitter rivals, and Lyon, Abidal’s former club, met in the Champions League knockout stages. Both teams entered the Bernabeu pitch wearing ‘Animo Abidal’ (Strength Abidal) t-shirts, something that was also displayed on the two stadium scoreboards behind either goal. One of the biggest rivalries in world football in Barca and Madrid, something which often spills over to hatred with a section of the supporters, coming together to pray for the health of a footballer, a human being. In Barca’s next game, a home match against Getafe, supporters stopped to clap for the entire 22nd minute – Abidal’s shirt number.

Not for one minute did anyone, perhaps except for Abidal, think the man would return to action at the highest level of football before the end of that season. Fast-forward to Tuesday, May 3 and a Champions League semi-final second leg clash against Real Madrid. Games don’t come much bigger than that. With the tie all-but won (the match finished 1-1 but Barca progressed to the final 3-1 on aggregate), Guardiola introduces Abidal with a minute to go in place of Carles Puyol. As loud as the Barca goal, the Camp Nou crowd goes wild on his introduction. A remarkable recovery, a sign of strength. Fast-forward again to Wembley, and the Champions League final victory over Manchester United. Puyol, Barca’s captain, hands over the armband to Abidal on the final whistle and allows him the honour of lifting the trophy. What a touch, what a story.

A return for Abidal that season was unfeasible at the time of his diagnosis. The Frenchman had made a remarkable recovery.

Now it’s hoped he can do the same again. The 32-year-old will have a liver transplant in the coming weeks. The Barcelona press have said Tuesday, April 10 is the date, although no date has been confirmed by Abidal or the club. According to the reports, a childhood friend of the Frenchman has come forward to act as the essential donor. The latest news, a year on from the initial diagnosis of a liver tumour, came as an unpleasant set-back for most, but the transplant had been something considered by Abidal and Barca since the initial removal of the tumour. The club haven’t set a time on his recovery, but it could be that he’s played his final matches for the Catalan club this season.

It could have been his final matches for Barca full stop, too. Abidal is certainly at the right club for his recovery. Barca have every confidence the former Lyon and Monaco man will come back strong from the transplant. So much so that they offered him a new contract in January. Abidal’s deal was coming to an end this summer and, with his health troubles, it could have perhaps been easy to let him go and concentrate on getting his health back to 100 per cent outside of football. Instead, they’ve extended his deal by a further year and he also has the option to extend it through to 2015.

While the obstacles and troubles faced by Abidal, Muamba and Petrov are all different, the former’s heart-warming return to action for Barca last season should at least give hope to the Bolton midfielder, who looks to be on the mend, and Petrov, whose diagnosis was revealed last Friday. The three stories are stories we’d rather not be discussing, but they’re stories that are at least bringing the ‘football family’ together, and they’re stories that will hopefully have a happy ending.

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  • JimLiverpool

    Shankly was saying what we all knew to be true in those days – there will indeed always be suffering in this world and occasionally, joy, but what will unite us all on a saturday to forget our woes, is ‘fitba’.

    He spoke in an age when wages were only marginally above the average man’s; when a manager could find time to talk with the public, reply to their letters, get them tickets for big games and still live in a modest semi in an ordinary road. 

    Things have changed so much now, he could not say that if her were managing today.

  • AshJB

    Nicholas, do you think Abidal could play in a Champions League final this year should Barcelona get there? I can’t say I know much about recovery times from such operations. Puyal giving him the captain’s armband was a touching moment though.

  • AshJB

    Oh for those days again. Agree with you thee, Jim

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