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Abidal's surprising return from illness lifts Barcelona's spirits

The tradition of French players at Barcelona is not a strong one. Ludovic Giuly (2006) and Thierry Henry (2009) may have won the Champions League with the club, but more often the story is one of high hopes and failed expectations: Richard Dutruel, Philippe Christanval, Christophe Dugarry and Emmanuel Petit.

Eric Abidal, though, bucks this trend. Now in his fourth year in Spain, he has already won three La Liga titles, one Copa del Rey, one Champions League, one Spanish and one UEFA Super Cup and one Club World Cup. He is the most successful French player in Barcelona history.

He has also just overcome the biggest challenge of his career: in March, he underwent surgery to remove a tumor on his liver. There were doubts as to whether he would play again, and optimistic officials guessed at a return next season, at the earliest. Instead, just under seven weeks later, Abidal played the last two minutes of Barcelona's Champions League semifinal second leg win over Real Madrid. As soon as the final whistle blew, his teammates rushed to celebrate with Abidal, throwing him up in the air as though it was his birthday. His next target is to make the team for Saturday's Champions League final against Manchester United at Wembley, even if coach Pep Guardiola has warned "it will be difficult for Abidal to be 100 percent fit."

In his absence, Abidal had become a unifying figure amid the animosity between Barcelona and Real Madrid, whose players wore T-shirts in support of "Abi" during their Champions League tie against his former side Lyon in March. Madrid also showed a video of support and its PA announcer passed on a goodwill message before that game.

There's no doubt that Abidal's illness has changed his perspective on life too. "I see life in a different way [now]," said Abidal in a news conference recently. "Many things I thought were useful or important, now they are not. Therefore I have sold all my cars.

"When you experience a problem like mine, the cars serve no purpose. That's why I sold them and the money is destined to fight against the illnesses with some associations with whom I have contact."

Abidal, normally a left back, had excelled this season at center back following an injury to captain Carles Puyol. "[Barcelona sports director] Txiki [Beguiristain] made a great decision when he signed Abidal," coach Pep Guardiola told a news conference in January after Abidal, who cost €14 million ($19M), had scored his first Barcelona goal (after 128 matches) in the Cup win over Athletic Bilbao. "He plays on the left as well as in the middle. He has been playing great recently and is also a great person."

Those comments were revisited when Barcelona closed ranks to help Abidal through his diagnosis and operation. It was March 15 when the doctor who detected the tumor said it needed to be taken out the following week. "I'm not going to hang around for a week with this inside me, I want it out now," Abidal remembered saying. His surgery took place two days later.

"The important thing was to stay positive, but at the same time you can't stop thinking about the best possible scenarios and the worst case scenarios too," he told Canal Plus in a moving interview with his former Lyon boss Paul le Guen. Abidal took strength from the support within the footballing world, and was moved that players from Barcelona's rivals Espanyol and Real Madrid got in touch. On social networking sites, Carles Puyol, Adriano, Gerard Pique and Andres Iniesta (all Barcelona) joined players such as Cesc Fabregas, Steven Pienaar, Rio Ferdinand, Jack Wilshere, Ryan Babel, Diego Forlan, Cristiano Ronaldo, Giuseppe Rossi, and Luis Suarez in publicly sending good wishes to the Frenchman.

But more than that, it was the memory of his early years that helped him. Abidal grew up in Saint-Genis-Laval, a suburb near Lyon, where he played on concrete pitches and regularly got in scrapes with neighboring suburbs. He sometimes came home with a cut lip from falling on the pitch or, one occasion, no kit after someone stole and then set fire to his sports bag in a car park after the game. To stop it happening again, he took a pink bag to training and nobody stole that.

"I don't know what pressure in football means," he once told L'Equipe. "When someone is standing in front of you with a big knife, that's worse than a football match. Has that happened to me? Ooh la la! If you can get out of that you can get out of anything. In the fights between neighboring suburbs you've got this unbelievable determination. If a truck drives into you, you don't move. My youth certainly forged my personality."

Back in November 2005, there were riots in France after president Nicolas Sarkozy, then Interior Minister, said that "a high-pressure hose" was needed to wash "the scum" out of the suburbs. Abidal was one of the few French players to speak out. "This situation is not new, things can always turn sour in the suburbs," he told L'Equipe. "People have had enough of just staying at home, doing nothing about the situation."

Lilian Thuram became the main spokesman for the "racaill," scum, to which Sarkozy referred. Like Abidal, Thuram was a product of the suburbs; he also began as a left back and then moved to center back for the best years of his career. Thuram turned into a respected leader on the pitch, and a political campaigner off it.

Abidal is only 31, and talks over extending his Barcelona contract beyond 2012 have begun. "I would like to stay and finish my career here. We are seeing what the club has to offer," he told Diari el Punt in March. He is expected to sign a two-year deal before the European final.

Abidal's surgery also came at a time when he had rehabilitated himself in the France squad. His name had regularly cropped up in the press as one of the ringleaders behind France's embarrassing players' strike at the 2010 World Cup and he was one of five players -- along with Nicolas Anelka, Patrice Evra, Franck Ribery and Jeremy Toulalan -- brought before a disciplinary panel to explain himself.

Yet he was the only one to escape without punishment. "I don't know why we were chosen, is it because our names were in the papers?" he asked France Football. "They wrote I was one of the leaders but I don't understand that: how can I be a leader in the France team when I was never a leader at Monaco, Lille, Lyon or Barcelona? And why bring me in and not sanction me, where's the logic?" France coach Laurent Blanc benefited from the decision, as Abidal replaced Evra as first-choice left back, and was outstanding in Les Bleus' 2-1 win over England last November.

It seem that Abidal may have unwittingly discovered a new role for himself: an ambassador for Barcelona who is not from La Masia. A leader. Maybe the French federation knew something we didn't, and Abidal himself missed, all along.

Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.

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