Indeed the tale of Éric Sylvain Abidal is not just a story of one of France’s most decorated athlete who beat cancer twice, but that of a fighter who destiny decided to strike down at the peak of his powers. After being a part of the Lyon side that dominated French football at the turn of the millennium, Abidal earned himself a move to European heavyweights Barcelona and accomplished his childhood dream of playing for the Catalan outfit.
And the former French left-back didn’t disappoint the Nou Camp faithful as he became a permanent fixture in a Barcelona team that went on to dominate club football in the years to come. He completed the incredible sextuple along with his teammates in 2009 when the Barcelona juggernaut ensured a clean sweep of all competitions they had participated by winning the La Liga, Copa del Rey, UEFA Champions League, Spanish Super Cup, UEFA Super Cup and FIFA Club World Cup. It seemed as though nothing could possibly go wrong for the robust French defender at this point but fate had other ideas.
The entire footballing world was left stunned on 15 March 2011 when Barcelona announced that Abidal had been diagnosed with a tumour in his liver following a routine examination. He underwent surgery two days later and received well wishes from players as well as fans from all over the globe through social media and sports websites. Barcelona’s arch-rivals Real Madrid and Abidal’s former club Lyon even took to the pitch before their round-of-16 match in the Champions League wearing Ánimo Abidal (Get Well Abidal) T-shirts with the message also being displayed on the Santiago Bernabéu's scoreboards. Barcelona themselves showed support and solidarity for one of their favourite sons with the supporters in the Nou Camp clapping for the entirety of the 22nd minute during their La Liga match against Getafe as a tribute to the player’s jersey number.
After a successful surgery most survivors would be happy with a position of good health. However, this was not the case for Abidal, whose warrior like spirit wouldn’t let him douse his footballing career as he made an incredible comeback to training within three weeks of his diagnosis, much to the surprise of his teammates and the entire footballing fraternity alike! It was a true testament to his lionhearted spirit and willpower when he did indeed return to step onto the hallowed turf in Catalonia against Real Madrid as a substitute.
But Abidal’s sensational return to action didn’t just end there. In a perfect exhibition of the unconquerable human spirit and his steadfast mental strength, 71 days after his operation Abidal started for Barcelona and completed the full 90 minutes in their UEFA Champions League final match against Manchester United at the famous Wembley stadium in London. Having previously missed out on the final in 2009 due to suspension, his bid to compete in the biggest game in club football came full circle as Barcelona brushed aside Manchester United 3-1. Barcelona’s captain at the time, Carles Puyal handed Abidal the captain’s armband, thereby allowing him to be the first to lift the prestigious Champions League trophy in front of a capacity crowd in a gesture that accentuated the magnitude of Abidal’s achievement as he stood at the pinnacle of club football with one of football’s most coveted trophy.
His rollercoaster ride over the past year was about to throw yet another challenge his way though as it was revealed that he would require a liver transplant less than a year after his operation due to issues the previous surgery didn’t resolve. A lesser individual may have thrown in the towel by this stage but this is Éric Sylvain Abidal – an individual who had done it all before and stared into the darkest abyss only to smile and fight back with steely will power and ever incandescent spirit. He underwent the liver transplant before making another heroic comeback to the first team reckoning as he helped Barcelona regain the La Liga from Real Madrid in 2013. This was followed by short stints at Monaco and Olympiacos before retiring in December 2014. He now lives with his wife and two little girls fully aware that when he did finally hang up his boots it was on his terms and not the other way round. Many may have been forced into submission or an early retirement in a similar situation, but Abidal’s example shows us that the unprecedented power of the human will is capable of illuminating even the darkest of hours.