Season of goodbyes

Season of goodbyes

Season of goodbyes

Fans across Europe will miss the presence of some mercurial individuals next season .

Parting is not always sweet sorrow for the coaches. In Germany, Bayern Munich bid farewell to Jupp Heynckes as the coach who unified the team they now call the immortals. In Spain, José Mourinho divided Real Madrid from the dressing room to the stands and said adios without a trophy of any kind.

Barcelona’s Tito Vilanova, however, vowed to stay after his first season as head coach – a season in which he defied throat cancer to deliver the Liga title in record points and goals style.

But, lest we forget, the sport should principally be about players.At Barcelona’s Camp Nou, after the team’s concluding 4-1 home win over Màlaga, every man, woman and child among the 65,727 crowd stayed in place. They all waited to bid adieu to a player – Éric Abidal – who, like the coach, had come back to them after a life-threatening illness.

Abidal played just four times for the first team this season. But those four games were the ultimate triumph after Abidal’s liver transplant just over a year ago. When he came on as a substitute on Saturday, the entire audience stood and cheered. The players stopped and clapped, too.

And when the big Frenchman brought his family to the center circle to say merci et adieu after the final whistle, there was not a dry eye in the stadium. His last walk onto the field as a Barça player was accompanied by a man taking his first steps there. “I promised,” Abidal said, “to introduce you to a man who deserves your applause more than I.” That man is his cousin Gerard, who donated part of his liver to save Éric’s life.

All things are put into perspective by that: The difference of opinion as to whether Barcelona is right not to offer Abidal a new deal to play on, as he intends to do elsewhere. The legitimate question about whether coach Vilanova is right to carry on – and carry out the necessary changes in playing personnel – after his own need for chemotherapy in New York disrupted the team in midseason. Vilanova and his doctors know better than any outsider what is best for him. “I can’t make it any clearer; I can’t say it any louder,” the coach said. “I’m staying at Barcelona.”

A man of quiet determination, Vilanova was responding to comments from Johan Cruyff, the former player and coach who inspired Barça’s playing philosophy, that it is time for Vilanova to step down and concentrate on his recovery. The team failed in Europe, where it was crushed 7-0 over two legs by Bayern Munich. But Barça won the Spanish title by 15 clear points, amassed 100 points, and scored 115 goals in a season disrupted by injuries – including the hamstring tear that still affects Lionel Messi.

“I feel bad that Éric Abidal won’t stay on,” Vilanova said Saturday. “We won’t find another player like him. But it’s a decision the club has taken.” Also, the discussions affecting the futures of men like Víctor Valdés, Cesc Fàbregas, David Villa and Thiago Alcântara, figure in Vilanova’s inbox as he starts his second season in charge of FC Barcelona.

Mourinho, the coach of his biggest rival, managed to the end to divide Real Madrid. A small section of the home crowd lauded him during a 4-2 victory over Osasuna, but bigger sections booed. Mourinho’s contract was annulled by mutual consent. The power struggle that he won, but also lost, was evident to the end. For whatever reasons, senior players Cristiano Ronaldo, Sergio Ramos, Xabi Alonso, Pepe – and most pointedly the club captain and goalie Iker Casillas – took no part in Mourinho’s last stand in Madrid.

Elsewhere in Germany, Mario Gómez probably signed off his 174-game stay at Bayern Munich with his 112th and 113th goals in the DfB Pokal, the German Cup final, in Berlin. Gómez has mostly been the second choice during this historic season in which Mario Mandzukic had led Bayern’s imperious run in every competition it could enter – the Champions League, the Bundesliga, and the German cup.

One goal was almost comical, as Gómez miss-hit the ball off his shin: It bounced against his other leg and trickled over the line. The second was sweet and precise from a few yards. The expectation is now that Gómez will be moved on because Bayern is satisfied that Mandzukic has superior movement. And because the ever acquisitive Munich club is pursuing Borussia Dortmund’s striker, the prolific Robert Lewandowski.

It was Karl-Heinz Rummenigge, Bayern’s chairman and a fantastic scorer in his own time, who used the word immortal to describe the current team. But immortal is the wrong word. Tomorrow, when heads clear, Heynckes, the coach who made it happen will be retired. He is 68, in excellent health, but Bayern long ago offered his job to Barcelona’s Pep Guardiola.

Heynckes has to decide: Does he stop at immortality, or does he take one of the huge offers likely to pester him?