Eric Abidal: Cule of the year returns home to Lyon

By Barney Stephenson

Earlier this month Eric Abidal was awarded “Cule of the year”, an award that recognises individuals who possess “the Barca DNA: teamwork, solidarity, respect, fair play, humility, ambition and generosity”. Back at the club he spent six years at after five years away it is fair to say that the Frenchman is a decent candidate for the accolade.

Abidal was appointed to the post of technical director at the Catalan behemoths last summer and is about to be reacquainted with another side he served with distinction as Barca prepare to make the trip across the Pyrenees to Lyon in the last 16 of the Champions League.

The lanky defender was born in Saint-Genis-Laval, a village in south west of the metropolis of Lyon in 1979. However, surprisingly for a player of his talent born in the region, Abidal did not graduate from Olympique Lyonnais’ famed academy, instead he would find his feet with the city’s minnows AS Lyon-Duchère before being snapped up by a Monaco side managed by a certain Monsieur Claude Puel.

The young full back never fully established himself on the French Riviera but the Leicester boss must have seen something in Abidal as he ushered him north to Lille in 2002. It was here in the far north of France at the Stadium Nord de Villeneuve d’Ascq that Abidal announced himself to the football world. After two years, he earned a move the league champions Lyon and a first outing for Les Bleu in the summer of 2004.

Lyon’s Stade de Gerland was the place to be in mid-noughties France. Having never previously won Ligue 1, under the presidency of Jean- Michel Aulas and with a strategy of signing the best of the domestic league and a handful of talented Brazilians, Les Gones were crowned champions on seven occasions between 2002 and 2008. Abidal secured league winners medals during every season he spent at his hometown club forming a formidable defence with Coupet, Cris, Caçapa and Réveillère. He made 107 appearances for the club before Joan Laporte came calling with 15 million euros to prize away a player who by now was considered one the world’s most skilled defensive entities.

Predominantly left footed Abidal was the ultimate backline utility man- competent in any role across a back four. Possessing the tactical wherewithal demanded of anyone playing under Pep Guardiola, as well as athleticism and a 6ft 1 frame it is understandable that Abidal was a regular fixture in the great Barca side hailed by Sir Alex Ferguson as the best he had ever faced. During his time at the Camp Nou Abidal made close to 200 appearances and featured heavily the starting IX of the team that won every club competition available to them.

The illness that afflicted Abidal in his later years in Spain and his gallant recovery is well documented and fundamentally illustrative of his character and standing in Barcelona. In March 2011, the full back was diagnosed with a tumour in his liver. Just two months later, having recovered from surgery Abidal played the full 90 minutes in Barca’s 3-1 win over Manchester United at Wembley. It was one of the most authoritative team performances of all time and tied up second champions league for Abidal at the club. In a touch of class in keeping with the sublime performance, Carlos Puyol handed Abidal the Senyera armband and stepped aside to watch his defensive colleague lift the famous trophy.

A year later, it became apparent that Abidal’s health issues had not been resolved and a liver transplant would be required. But again, the Frenchman overcame the ordeal and returned to the pitch within the year.

It is easy to lose focus of Abidal’s on-field exploits in Spain amidst the dramatic narrative of his battle with illness. However, as he had at Lyon, the defender played a vital role on the pitch as the club enjoyed one of the most successful periods in its history. Similarly, at both Lyon and Barca Abidal’s consistent defensive class was overshadowed by attacking flair in the shape of Messi, Villa and Villa and Juninho, Malouda and Benzema.

When the Catalan club signed him from Lyon in 2007, Cules could have been forgiven for overlooking their new signing. After all Thierry Henry had just arrived from Arsenal what was widely billed the transfer of the summer. Over a decade on and freshly crowned Cule of the Year it’s not difficult to surmise that Abidal’s legacy supersedes that of his fellow Gallic acquisition.

His class on and off the field have secured him a place in the hearts of folk on both the La Rambla  and the banks of the Rhone. Eric Abidal will watch the last 16 tie officially supporting Barcelona but with an equal affection towards his hometown club.

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