Abidal reveals joy at beating cancer as Barca prepare for United showdown

May 27th, 2011

When Eric Abidal played for France at Wembley last November his thoughts turned to the home of English football being this season’s Champions League final venue and he left a note in his locker reading ‘I’ll be back next May’.

He could never have imagined how hard it would be to keep that promise.

In March of this year all thoughts of a Wembley return went out of his head when he was told that he had a tumour on his liver that required immediate surgery.

‘When the doctors give you the news you immediately think the absolute worst. Then you wonder if you will be able to ever play football again,’ says the 31-year-old Barcelona defender who won a recall for France and could start the European Cup final just ten weeks after a three hour operation to save his life.

‘I thought about how when we visit sick children in hospital we always tell them that they have to fight and I knew that message now had to apply to me,’ he says.

He spoke to his team-mates together in the dressing room before surgery joking that he would be available for the following weekend’s game. They were overwhelmed by his calm determination.

Xavi Hernandez says: ‘Hearing the news about Abidal is the worst thing that I have ever experienced in football but he transmits this calm – sometimes it feels as though we are more nervous than he is. He said he would return right from the moment that they diagnosed him.

The physical effects have understandably been considerable. Barcelona coach Pep Guardiola has admitted the player has lost a lot of weight but that as a naturally strong athlete he has a chance of being selected to start.

His return to action came on May 3rd when in the semi-final second leg against Real Madrid he came on in the 88th minute. ‘It was my aim to make sure I was fit to play some part in that game,’ he says. ‘Although I only played two minutes, it felt like I was winning the Champions League.’

He then started the game against Levante on May 11 but was replaced on the hour as the club took his return to full fitness cautiously. The phrase ‘estoy muerto’ in Spanish means literally ‘I am dead’ but is the common way of expressing being exhausted.

The dressing room fell silent when Abidal blurted out those two words after that match. The silence was broken by relieved laughter as team-mates looked up to see the huge smile on his face. ‘If I don’t play the final then it’s no big deal,’ he says, having had everything put into perspective by his illness.

He sold his fleet of flash cars after the operation, keeping just a van which he uses to taxi around his three young daughters. The funds raised from the sales will be donated to charities raising money to fight cancer in children.

‘I see everything differently now,’ he says. ‘Being a professional footballer gives you an incredible quality of life. You can buy whatever you want, whenever you want, but when something like this happens to you, you realize that an expensive car, for example, cannot help you.’

He was called up to Laurent Blanc’s France squad this week. ‘I put the note up at Wembley as a joke,’ he says. ‘I wonder if it is still there.’ He is an important player both for his country and for his club having converted successfully to a cultured left-sided central defender.

If he plays it will be in his old left-back position as Guardiola repeats the first ever defence he picked as Barcelona manager at the start of the 2008-09 season with Dani Alves at right-back and Carles Puyol and Gerard Pique in central-defence.

If he takes his place on the bench, Javier Mascherano will partner Pique, and Carles Puyol will play at left-back – his third different starting position in three European Cup finals.

Regardless of whether he is on the pitch or the bench on 22 minutes of the final the 24,000 Barcelona supporters inside Wembley will sing his name and applaud their hero as they have done in every game since the news of his illness.

‘Every time I heard those applause,’ says Barcelona’s No 22, ‘I realised that I had so many people behind me and that gave me so much strength to return.’

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