“Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that."

Every now and again, life snaps back to remind us all about perspective. The famous words of Bill Shankly, the near-messianic coach of the Liverpool Football Club who set them on their way to glory back in the 1960s, flooded back when news came in that Tito Vilanova was leaving Barcelona for the most tragic of reasons.

Vilanova, 44, suffered a recurrence of the throat cancer first diagnosed in 2011, and his latest bout was described by Barcelona as being incompatible with his role as coach.

Vilanova’s five-year association with Barcelona, first as assistant to Pep Guardiola and later as manager in his own right, resulted in the club playing football of a standard and consistency rarely seen before. The flame has flickered in recent times—especially during the Champions League rout by Bayern Munich—but Barcelona won the 2013 Primera Liga title by a comfortable length while setting or equalling several records. What’s more amazing is that for six weeks of that season the team were without their coach Vilanova, who was receiving chemotherapy.

Barcelona now face a test of their character—after two coaches in nine years, they’ve now had two in two seasons without the option, as with Guardiola and Vilanova, of promoting from within. What transpires over the next couple of seasons, with a new coach at the helm, will prove how organic the system Guardiola set in place is.

Trauma affects teams and sportsmen differently. There have been three famous plane crashes in football. The first was in 1949, when a plane carrying the Torino team crashed into the Superga hill near Turin, Italy, all on board died. Torino had won four league titles on the trot and were on the verge of their fifth; they contributed most, if not all, of the players to the Italian national team and had played 93 consecutive home games without being beaten. They were the West Indies of Italian football.

They have won one league title since the crash and are like the latter-day West Indies—occasionally winning a minor trophy but rarely threatening to hit the heights.

Zambia were heading for their first-ever World Cup tournament in 1993 when their plane crashed into the Atlantic off Libreville, Gabon. All on board died and with them Zambia’s hopes of World Cup qualification (they are yet to make the tournament proper). For the next two decades, their fortunes were more down than up yet, 19 years later, they qualified for the final of the African Cup of Nations—appropriately enough, in Libreville. There they met Ivory Coast and, in an epic final that lasted 3 hours and went to penalties, the Zambians had their own tryst with destiny.

A similar fate awaited Manchester United; their disaster at Munich in 1958 took away some of their (and England’s) best players and a club that was on the brink of meeting all possibilities found itself fighting for survival. Yet 10 years later, the successors to the “Busby Babes", who perished, repaid their debt by winning the European Cup, the trophy the players had been chasing on that tragic flight. If that was not destiny enough, the club marked the 50th anniversary of Munich by winning the Champions League (the rechristened European Cup) again.

At breakneck pace: Manchester City’s goalkeeper Bert Trautmann. Photo: Allsports Hulton/Archive
At breakneck pace: Manchester City’s goalkeeper Bert Trautmann. Photo: Allsports Hulton/Archive

When it comes to playing on in the face of death, there is no more appropriate example than that of the late Bert Trautmann, the Manchester City goalkeeper who played the final 17 minutes of the 1956 FA Cup with a broken neck. He sustained the injury when diving head first for a ball in the penalty area and being hit in the neck by an opponent’s knee. Trautmann received treatment and then played on—in those pre-substitute days, his team would have had to play without a goalkeeper had he gone off. Trautmann apparently did not know the extent of his injury until a post-match X-ray. But I like to think his bravery came from his experience in the war—he was a member of the Hitler Youth, then part of the Luftwaffe, had a couple of narrow escapes in Russia and France, and was eventually taken prisoner and interned in a prisoner-of-war camp in Lancashire. Playing with a broken neck would have seemed easy meat compared to what he’d seen.

The Australian cricketer Keith Miller was his contemporary, seeing action in World War II with the Royal Australian Air Force. When asked about pressure while playing cricket, Miller’s reply was typically Australian: “Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your a**e, playing cricket is not."

Jayaditya Gupta is the executive editor of Cricinfo.

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