ÉRIC SYLVAIN ABIDAL is one of the most decorated French footballers in recent history. A powerful left-back, he amassed over 400 club appearances, as well as 67 international caps, across a career spanning 15 years. At club level, Abidal won it all: eight league titles, a pair of Champions League trophies, a Club World Cup and numerous other cup competitions. He challenged himself across three different countries and succeeded in each.
But, of course, these weren’t the only challenges Abidal faced throughout his career. In March 2011 during his time at Barcelona, the club announced that he had been diagnosed with a cancerous tumour in his liver, which was subsequently operated on two days later. Seventy-two days after that operation, Abidal played 90 minutes and lifted the Champions League trophy at Wembley.
A year after the initial diagnosis, Abidal underwent a liver transplant to sort unresolved problems that remained following the first operation. The procedure was a success and since then, Abidal has not faced any further problems – fingers-crossed it stays that way.
As a result of the health battles he faced, it’s often forgotten just what a tremendous footballer Abidal was. As strong as an ox and with the pace to match, especially in his younger days, he would patrol the left-hand side of the pitch, contributing at either end. As his career developed he spent more time at centre-back; the speed was starting to go, but his positioning and reading of the game was still an asset to any side.
For all its flaws, football does have the ability to come together as a community like none other when tragedy strikes. The outpouring of grief shared, allegiances divided as a sign of respect for something more important than the game we all love. Real Madrid and Lyon players famously wore t-shirts with the words ‘Ánimo Abidal’ (Get Well Abidal) printed proudly on the front. It represented one his former teams, and his current club’s arch-rivals, coming together in unison to support a fellow professional.
Abidal began his professional career at Monaco in his native France. He made his debut in a 3-0 win against Toulouse in September 2000 but struggled to subsequently nail down a first team place, making 22 appearances over the next two seasons. It was time for a change, which arrived in the form of a year-long loan move to Lille, reuniting with manager Claude Puel who had given him his debut at Monaco.
Read | How a selfless Ludovic Giuly helped revive a broken Barcelona
Abidal quickly established himself as first-choice at his new side, playing 27 Ligue 1 matches in his first season and subsequently making the move permanent for around €300,000. He went from strength-to-strength, featuring in 35 matches the following campaign and his performances in that season earned him his first international call-up in the summer of 2004. The trust Puel had shown in the young full-back allowed him to blossom – and bigger sides had taken notice.
French giants Lyon came knocking and secured his signature in a £7.65m transfer in July 2004. The move was a no-brainer for Abidal; Lyon were his hometown and he’d spent his youth career at lower league side AS Lyon-Duchère.
With PSG and Monaco’s recent financial influx and success, it’s easy to forget just how dominant Lyon were in the early 2000s. They won their first ever league title in 2002, going onto win seven consecutive Ligue 1 honours during a period of unprecedented dominance. It was a golden era for Lyon, their squad containing the likes of Grégory Coupet, Hatem Ben Arfa, Juninho, Florent Malouda, Tiago, Karim Benzema, Sylvain Wiltord and many more.
Abidal joined in the middle of this success, enjoying three trophy-laden seasons at the club. He was an ever-present in Lyon’s side throughout his time there, although an ankle injury in his second season kept him out for around half of their matches. He scored his first professional goal in a 3-2 defeat against former club Lille. Abidal revealed after the match the importance of that goal: “My parents have been together for 35 years but they promised they would only marry once I scored my first professional goal.”
At the end of the 2006/07 season, at the age of 27 and with his third Ligue 1 title win under his belt, Abidal was ready for a new challenge. That challenge presented itself when Barcelona expressed an interest in bringing him to Spain. At first, Lyon rebuffed the approach, but when the player refused to train again if the deal was not accepted, it was done. A €9m transfer was agreed, a small profit for the French club given his growing reputation as one of Europe’s best full-backs.
Abidal was a key cog in Frank Rijkaard’s defence in his first season at Barcelona, appearing 46 times across all competitions. The relatively disappointing third-place finish in LaLiga brought a change in management, with youth manager Pep Guardiola taking over.
Read | The Magnificent Seven: remembering Lyon’s star-studded dominance of French football
The 2008/09 campaign was a historic one for Barcelona, becoming the first Spanish team to win a treble consisting of LaLiga, the Copa del Rey and the Champions League. On an individual note, Abidal found his playing time reduced slightly, sharing more game time with Brazilian left-back Sylvinho, although he was still thought of as first choice in the bigger games.
Unfortunately for Abidal, he missed the Champions League final victory over Manchester United having been harshly sent off in semi-final against Chelsea. Barcelona broke even more records at the end of 2009 by becoming the first Spanish team to win six trophies in a single calendar year, adding the Spanish Super Cup, UEFA Super Cup and the Club World Cup to the already-secured treble.
In the 2009/10 season, the departure of Slyvinho brought the arrival of Maxwell as the latest competition for Abidal’s place. The minutes between the two were shared much more equally, with Abidal making 31 appearances and again winning the LaLiga title with Barcelona.
The 2010/11 campaign was a life-changing one for Abidal. It began like any other: the pre-season routine and an exciting anticipation of what was to come. It would end with Carlos Puyol handing him the captain’s armband and allowing him to lift the Champions League trophy in front of 85,000 people. The middle would contain an operation to remove a cancerous tumour from his liver in a potentially life-saving procedure. It was the ultimate success story on and off the pitch.
It’s hard to imagine just how much of an emotional and physical toll this must have had on Abidal. To go through the low of being told that you need an emergency operation, to reaching the pinnacle of your career, all in the space of under three months, is something that no one can prepare themselves for.
Unfortunately, just 12 months after the initial operation Abidal underwent a liver transplant to rectify problems that remained. This would rule him out of competitive action for over a year, making his return in a 3-0 victory in April 2013. He would only go on to make five appearances in what turned out to be his final season in Spain, but added a fourth LaLiga title in his six seasons at the club.
Read | Maxwell: the most decorated club footballer in history
In July 2013, Abidal returned to France and to Monaco, the club he started his career at over a decade earlier. The deal was a year-long, with the option of a second year, and he was immediately made captain. The club had just been promoted from Ligue 2 as champions, having recently been taken over by Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev.
That summer they heavily recruited, spending over £140m to effectively sign a whole new squad to challenge for the Ligue 1 title and to get into the Champions League. Abidal was added to a star-studded list of names that included James Rodríguez, Radamel Falcao, João Moutinho, Geoffrey Kondogbia, Anthony Martial, Jérémy Toulalan, Ricardo Carvalho, Fabinho and Dimitar Berbatov. Monaco and Abidal had an excellent season, finishing second to champions PSG and thus qualifying for the Champions League group stage for the first time since the 2004/05 season. Following this, Abidal agreed to a one-year contract extension.
Just two days after agreeing the extension, Abidal changed his mind and moved to Greece, signing a contract with Olympiacos. He would only manage nine games that season, retiring with immediate effect before the turn of the year. He said at the time: “A top-level athlete is the only one who can know to stop their career, and for me, it is time.” Given how unpredictable his last few seasons had been, it was nice to see him able to end his career when he wanted, on his terms. This brought to an end an extraordinary time in the game, filled with the ultimate highs and lows.
A couple of years after his retirement, it was announced that Abidal would be returning to Barcelona in an ambassadorial position. His role would be to promote the clubs’ values around the world. It did come as a slight surprise to some, given that Abidal had been critical of the way the club had treated him during his illness. Nevertheless, it’s harder to imagine someone more deserving of such a role. The fight and courage he displayed throughout his career can be an inspiration for all.
It was Liverpool legend Bill Shankly who once uttered the famous quote, “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” Éric Abidal’s life shows that sometimes, just sometimes, there is something more important than the beautiful game.