Interview

In the eye of the storm

Ronald Koeman has waited patiently for the chance to return as coach to Barcelona, where he enjoyed so much success as a player. Graham Hunter caught up with the Dutch legend and says it will take more than the current turbulence to steer him off course

WORDS Graham Hunter | PORTRAIT Simon Hofmann

When Joan Laporta became Barcelona president in 2003 – and before the club unleashed an almost unprecedented 15-year tidal wave of exciting football, trophy-hoovering and evangelical impact – he, along with Johan Cruyff and Txiki Begiristain, immediately envisioned the man to lead the transformation.

Their first phone call was to one Ronald Koeman.

Recall for a moment the scale of the challenge Barça then faced. The club were in the middle of a dreadful drought – what would eventually be six trophyless years – and regeneration wasn’t simply a case of a new board, drastic modernisation, a charismatic president or even having a genius like Cruyff as voluntary consultant. The coach needed to be brilliant.

Koeman was already a serious candidate. Not only had he bulged Sampdoria’s net for the most iconic goal in Barça’s entire history, sealing victory in the 1992 European Cup final, he had also been assistant to Louis van Gaal the last time the Catalan club won the Spanish title in 1998/99. And since leaving that post in 2000 to coach Vitesse and then Ajax, he’d led the Amsterdam side to a league and cup double.

Koeman was an über-confident, bullish 40 years old, pawing the ground to get back to where he believed he could paint his ideas on a bigger canvas. The biggest canvas, some would argue.

“EVERY TIME MY WIFE AND I WENT BACK TO BARCELONA, WE FELT, ‘OK, WE’RE HOME’”


Barcelona were already starting to see the flowering of green shoots in the form of Xavi Hernández, Carles Puyol, Andrés Iniesta and Víctor Valdés. There was also this diminutive but mesmeric Argentinian player burning his way through the academy ranks. Name of Lionel Messi.

It was very nearly Koeman, not his 1988 UEFA European Championship-winning team-mate Frank Rijkaard, who reaped that golden, home-bred harvest, along with the magic of Ronaldinho – and, later, Koeman’s current assistant Henrik Larsson. Life-changing, legacy-ensuring. But it didn’t happen. The story of football. What might have been.

Sadly for Koeman, it was a simple matter of principle – and compensation. Ajax, understandably, thought they’d hit pay dirt. Not because Barcelona wanted to liberate their free-scoring Dream Team sweeper, but because the Ajax board knew this was a coach of purpose, character and vision, someone at the absolute height of his energetic ambition. They didn’t want to lose him.

Years later, on Catalan radio, Koeman ruefully revisited that episode: “It’s true that president Laporta wanted me in 2003, but Barcelona and Ajax couldn’t come to an agreement so Frank took over instead. Maybe my history and Barça’s would have been different had it happened. I’d pay to be in charge of those players; it’s great to have footballers like that in your team. You don’t have to teach them much. They stand out for knowing perfectly what they should be doing.”

Cut to the present day. “Every time I came back to Barcelona, I felt as if it was my home,” Koeman tells me. “I’m Dutch, but maybe I’m a little bit Dutch-Catalan, after a total of nine years in Barcelona. Every time my wife and I went back to Barcelona, we had that feeling of, ‘OK, we’re home, we have friends.’ Now it’s a fantastic feeling to be back.”

But it’s hard to call the timing perfect. Xavi is slated to be the club’s next coach if the imminent presidential elections fall in Victor Font’s direction. Xavi has stated he’ll take Puyol with him into his technical team and, eventually, Busquets will be an assistant coach.

Ronald Koeman with team-mate Michael Laudrup


Koeman is now 57, not 40. Messi, more importantly, is 33 rather than a teenage phenomenon about to take greatness by the scruff of the neck and redefine its meaning. On top of that, a few weeks into Koeman’s long-delayed reign – which began with an abundance of common sense, purpose and structure, plus significant improvement in both the training-ground atmosphere and matchday football – the board that appointed him resigned en masse.

If you don’t feel a scintilla of compassion, even impotent frustration, on Koeman’s behalf, then either you’re a diehard Real Madrid fan, an Espanyol season-ticket holder or a little heartless. For the rest who do, there may be more than a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel.

Over the 32 years since Cruyff began to completely redesign Barcelona’s footballing ideas, there have been several landmark summers on the transfer front. It began with their excellent start in 1988/89, buying three members of the team who’d start that first victorious European Cup final, plus one of the substitutes. Then came the construction of two treble-winning sides, built on shrewd purchases and B team promotions in 2008 and 2014, the latter bringing Luis Suárez, Marc-André ter Stegen, Claudio Bravo, Ivan Rakitić and Jérémy Mathieu into the Camp Nou fold to snare the Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League within ten months.

Fast forward to 2020 and there’s just a hint that – amid what it’s not unfair to call chaos – Barcelona may just have achieved something similar. Chaos? Well, a record 8-2 defeat by Bayern back in August, the club’s greatest ever player officially requesting to leave (for free), sufficient unrest among the socios that the board felt obliged to resign, a new coach, negotiations for the squad to temporarily renounce part of their salaries due to the pandemic impact, and the contentious departure of football director Éric Abidal.

Despite all that, Barcelona have planted seeds of optimism. For a start, they did early business last season by signing Pedri from Las Palmas in September 2019 and Francisco Trincão from Braga in January, the duo aged 17 and 20 respectively at the time of writing. Total cost? Under €40m.

“SOMETIMES COACHES WILL MAKE THINGS TOO DIFFICULT. THIS GAME IS STILL JUST 11 v 11”
By

Both currently look exceptional bargains, real stand-out players and have had immediate, significant game time. Add to that the incorporation of the excellent, wily Miralem Pjanić, the promotion from Barça B of Ronald Araújo – who’ll save them millions on buying a centre-back – and the emergence of record-shattering Ansu Fati, just turned 18.

Then there’s Sergiño Dest, another superior tyro-talent. It’s worth stopping here and turning the focus back on Koeman. Even before his impact was felt, or a ball had been kicked competitively, he insisted on signing the Dutch-born USA right-back from Ajax. It was fully his initiative and the football department had to abandon plans to add Max Aarons from Norwich.

For the first few games, 20-year-old Dest was required to adapt and play off his weaker foot at left-back. Not only did he shine, it was fascinating to witness a reversal of the dominant theme since Koeman got the job he’d coveted for so long. He stands for back to basics, order, common sense, players used with strategic intelligence in their best positions – a return to roots.

On the hoary subject of football people overcomplicating the world’s favourite sport, Barcelona’s coach has much to say. “Sometimes coaches will make things too difficult. This game is still just 11 v 11. You must have good organisation in a team. You need to assess the individual qualities of the players, like we have done with Messi.

Koeman’s career was a blur of trophies and success


“The others in this Barça team, they must do a lot of work – a lot of running, because then Messi can still be the best player in the world. And this applies to all our guys, every other position. But I don’t ask for qualities from a player which he does not have. With everyone in their position, playing to their strengths, this team will be stronger.”

As far as Koeman is concerned, that was never more obvious than during Bayern’s 8-2 dismantling in the Champions League quarter-finals. “For me, that was the big lesson. If you don’t play as a team, you will not win. To play against opponents like Bayern, a really strong team with a lot of individual qualities, you must have the best organisation.

“Look at Bayern’s physical state: it’s excellent, and their organisation was excellent. That was a big difference on that night against Barcelona. For sure, my players will have the intention to take revenge for what happened in Lisbon.”

Back to Dest. He’s clearly ambidextrous and, while more confident and dangerous in attack, his versatility is further evidence of how Koeman helped to facilitate Barcelona’s squad rebuilding. And his arrival came after seasons when significant outlay on Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembélé and Antoine Griezmann provoked intense scrutiny.

But although Dest, Ansu and Pedri have already played in at least two positions, despite barely being through the doors, Koeman’s architectural mantra remains the same: square pegs for square holes, round pegs for round holes. That’s especially true of a player he advised to sign up for Blaugrana duty in 2019.

Frenkie De Jong, now pivote in a 4-2-3-1, takes up the tale: “He was really positive about Barcelona, the club and the city, when I called him about the move last summer. He just told me that I have to be careful, that I shouldn’t go to restaurants too much or eat too much because life is really good in Barcelona – sometimes you can feel like you’re on vacation the whole year.”

Koeman after scoring in the 1992 European Cup final


Koeman, now De Jong’s boss, returns serve. “Last season, Frenkie didn’t play in his best position, which is always difficult for a young player who comes to Barcelona. It’s already a big change – the language, how they live, how they train. Frenkie is a very clever football player. He sees all the situations on the pitch, takes the right decisions. The most important thing for me is to put him in the right position in Barça’s team. I will give him that support because there’s no question about his qualities. I feel the same about every player: Frenkie, Griezmann, Coutinho. Deploy them in their best position, then they can make the difference.”

Perhaps Koeman, himself, is finally a square peg in the slot specifically ‘meant’ for him. His best position. Barça coach. Be sure that whatever happens during his reign, however long it lasts, Koeman’s little clutch of starlets are working for a talented tutor.

Among those who can attest to that is Virgil van Dijk. The two were maestro and emerging behemoth together at Southampton from 2015 to 2016. Van Dijk, having now won the Champions League with Liverpool, told me that he felt picked upon, cajoled and unnecessarily singled out during many Southampton training sessions. Having emerged from the experience to vast success and acclaim, the Dutch centre-back also admitted that Koeman’s micro-coaching, however stern, had been central to his rise and rise.

“I like to be the same coach for every player,” responds Koeman. “But sometimes a player who has a personality and plays in the same position I played, you can give him more attention. It was great to work with Virgil, because he was an open guy in terms of communication. He liked to learn from everybody, and he had to change his personality a little because sometimes he was a bit too lazy. Maybe people will tell you he was a little bit arrogant in his football.

“On one side, it’s nice, but I always said to Virgil, ‘You have to know the other centre-back will make mistakes and what is your position then?’ If you think, ‘Oh, he will do it,’ you’re in the wrong position. You have to always know what your position should be if there’s a mistake. And then your position needs to be that position. We worked really hard but, finally, the credit is for Virgil because he is now, in my opinion, one of the best defenders in football.”

Now the lessons continue at the Camp Nou, where Pedri, Dest, Ansu, Dembélé, De Jong, Trincão and Araújo all look like the bedrock for a youth-inspired but old-school Barça revival. Whether or not that eventually transpires, there’s no question that their early development in Barça’s renaissance is in the hands of a proper football professor who’s back at his alma mater. And ready to teach.

Interview
'I got lucky'

Memory plays tricks on us all. Admittedly, nobody will ever forget that Ronald Koeman thundered home the goal that won Barcelona their first European Cup final victory in 1992. But ask those who recall his searing drive past Sampdoria goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca and the majority will suggest it was a direct free-kick. That Koeman used his dead-ball skill to produce the apogee moment of Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team era.

Not exactly. Yes, there was a foul awarded just outside the Sampdoria box. But a little improvised routine led to a change of angle for Koeman and perhaps the greatest connection between foot and ball of his 250+ goal career.

“It was not planned,” says Koeman, delighted to recall the ‘Eureka’ moment in the 112th minute at Wembley, the moment when Bulgarian Hristo Stoichkov took charge. “I remember we’d taken free-kicks in the last training sessions the day before. We were shooting direct, but we never tried the pass between Stoichkov and José Mari Bakero that ended up with me shooting. It was a product of that moment.

“Normally, if you shoot that ball, it will touch one of the defenders who runs out of the wall, but that time I got lucky. With the change of angle, it was probably difficult for the goalkeeper to react faster to get across. My shot was hard enough to score and perhaps the routine was unpredictable.”

Less unpredictable was the euphoria back in Catalonia. “The reaction in Barcelona was a fantastic feeling because it was their first Champions League,” he says. “If you score the winning goal you are, of course, the hero of the night. It’s still a fantastic memory.”

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Interview

In the eye of the storm

Ronald Koeman has waited patiently for the chance to return as coach to Barcelona, where he enjoyed so much success as a player. Graham Hunter caught up with the Dutch legend and says it will take more than the current turbulence to steer him off course

WORDS Graham Hunter | PORTRAIT Simon Hofmann

When Joan Laporta became Barcelona president in 2003 – and before the club unleashed an almost unprecedented 15-year tidal wave of exciting football, trophy-hoovering and evangelical impact – he, along with Johan Cruyff and Txiki Begiristain, immediately envisioned the man to lead the transformation.

Their first phone call was to one Ronald Koeman.

Recall for a moment the scale of the challenge Barça then faced. The club were in the middle of a dreadful drought – what would eventually be six trophyless years – and regeneration wasn’t simply a case of a new board, drastic modernisation, a charismatic president or even having a genius like Cruyff as voluntary consultant. The coach needed to be brilliant.

Koeman was already a serious candidate. Not only had he bulged Sampdoria’s net for the most iconic goal in Barça’s entire history, sealing victory in the 1992 European Cup final, he had also been assistant to Louis van Gaal the last time the Catalan club won the Spanish title in 1998/99. And since leaving that post in 2000 to coach Vitesse and then Ajax, he’d led the Amsterdam side to a league and cup double.

Koeman was an über-confident, bullish 40 years old, pawing the ground to get back to where he believed he could paint his ideas on a bigger canvas. The biggest canvas, some would argue.

“EVERY TIME MY WIFE AND I WENT BACK TO BARCELONA, WE FELT, ‘OK, WE’RE HOME’”


Barcelona were already starting to see the flowering of green shoots in the form of Xavi Hernández, Carles Puyol, Andrés Iniesta and Víctor Valdés. There was also this diminutive but mesmeric Argentinian player burning his way through the academy ranks. Name of Lionel Messi.

It was very nearly Koeman, not his 1988 UEFA European Championship-winning team-mate Frank Rijkaard, who reaped that golden, home-bred harvest, along with the magic of Ronaldinho – and, later, Koeman’s current assistant Henrik Larsson. Life-changing, legacy-ensuring. But it didn’t happen. The story of football. What might have been.

Sadly for Koeman, it was a simple matter of principle – and compensation. Ajax, understandably, thought they’d hit pay dirt. Not because Barcelona wanted to liberate their free-scoring Dream Team sweeper, but because the Ajax board knew this was a coach of purpose, character and vision, someone at the absolute height of his energetic ambition. They didn’t want to lose him.

Years later, on Catalan radio, Koeman ruefully revisited that episode: “It’s true that president Laporta wanted me in 2003, but Barcelona and Ajax couldn’t come to an agreement so Frank took over instead. Maybe my history and Barça’s would have been different had it happened. I’d pay to be in charge of those players; it’s great to have footballers like that in your team. You don’t have to teach them much. They stand out for knowing perfectly what they should be doing.”

Cut to the present day. “Every time I came back to Barcelona, I felt as if it was my home,” Koeman tells me. “I’m Dutch, but maybe I’m a little bit Dutch-Catalan, after a total of nine years in Barcelona. Every time my wife and I went back to Barcelona, we had that feeling of, ‘OK, we’re home, we have friends.’ Now it’s a fantastic feeling to be back.”

But it’s hard to call the timing perfect. Xavi is slated to be the club’s next coach if the imminent presidential elections fall in Victor Font’s direction. Xavi has stated he’ll take Puyol with him into his technical team and, eventually, Busquets will be an assistant coach.

Ronald Koeman with team-mate Michael Laudrup


Koeman is now 57, not 40. Messi, more importantly, is 33 rather than a teenage phenomenon about to take greatness by the scruff of the neck and redefine its meaning. On top of that, a few weeks into Koeman’s long-delayed reign – which began with an abundance of common sense, purpose and structure, plus significant improvement in both the training-ground atmosphere and matchday football – the board that appointed him resigned en masse.

If you don’t feel a scintilla of compassion, even impotent frustration, on Koeman’s behalf, then either you’re a diehard Real Madrid fan, an Espanyol season-ticket holder or a little heartless. For the rest who do, there may be more than a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel.

Over the 32 years since Cruyff began to completely redesign Barcelona’s footballing ideas, there have been several landmark summers on the transfer front. It began with their excellent start in 1988/89, buying three members of the team who’d start that first victorious European Cup final, plus one of the substitutes. Then came the construction of two treble-winning sides, built on shrewd purchases and B team promotions in 2008 and 2014, the latter bringing Luis Suárez, Marc-André ter Stegen, Claudio Bravo, Ivan Rakitić and Jérémy Mathieu into the Camp Nou fold to snare the Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League within ten months.

Fast forward to 2020 and there’s just a hint that – amid what it’s not unfair to call chaos – Barcelona may just have achieved something similar. Chaos? Well, a record 8-2 defeat by Bayern back in August, the club’s greatest ever player officially requesting to leave (for free), sufficient unrest among the socios that the board felt obliged to resign, a new coach, negotiations for the squad to temporarily renounce part of their salaries due to the pandemic impact, and the contentious departure of football director Éric Abidal.

Despite all that, Barcelona have planted seeds of optimism. For a start, they did early business last season by signing Pedri from Las Palmas in September 2019 and Francisco Trincão from Braga in January, the duo aged 17 and 20 respectively at the time of writing. Total cost? Under €40m.

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“SOMETIMES COACHES WILL MAKE THINGS TOO DIFFICULT. THIS GAME IS STILL JUST 11 v 11”
By

Both currently look exceptional bargains, real stand-out players and have had immediate, significant game time. Add to that the incorporation of the excellent, wily Miralem Pjanić, the promotion from Barça B of Ronald Araújo – who’ll save them millions on buying a centre-back – and the emergence of record-shattering Ansu Fati, just turned 18.

Then there’s Sergiño Dest, another superior tyro-talent. It’s worth stopping here and turning the focus back on Koeman. Even before his impact was felt, or a ball had been kicked competitively, he insisted on signing the Dutch-born USA right-back from Ajax. It was fully his initiative and the football department had to abandon plans to add Max Aarons from Norwich.

For the first few games, 20-year-old Dest was required to adapt and play off his weaker foot at left-back. Not only did he shine, it was fascinating to witness a reversal of the dominant theme since Koeman got the job he’d coveted for so long. He stands for back to basics, order, common sense, players used with strategic intelligence in their best positions – a return to roots.

On the hoary subject of football people overcomplicating the world’s favourite sport, Barcelona’s coach has much to say. “Sometimes coaches will make things too difficult. This game is still just 11 v 11. You must have good organisation in a team. You need to assess the individual qualities of the players, like we have done with Messi.

Koeman’s career was a blur of trophies and success


“The others in this Barça team, they must do a lot of work – a lot of running, because then Messi can still be the best player in the world. And this applies to all our guys, every other position. But I don’t ask for qualities from a player which he does not have. With everyone in their position, playing to their strengths, this team will be stronger.”

As far as Koeman is concerned, that was never more obvious than during Bayern’s 8-2 dismantling in the Champions League quarter-finals. “For me, that was the big lesson. If you don’t play as a team, you will not win. To play against opponents like Bayern, a really strong team with a lot of individual qualities, you must have the best organisation.

“Look at Bayern’s physical state: it’s excellent, and their organisation was excellent. That was a big difference on that night against Barcelona. For sure, my players will have the intention to take revenge for what happened in Lisbon.”

Back to Dest. He’s clearly ambidextrous and, while more confident and dangerous in attack, his versatility is further evidence of how Koeman helped to facilitate Barcelona’s squad rebuilding. And his arrival came after seasons when significant outlay on Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembélé and Antoine Griezmann provoked intense scrutiny.

But although Dest, Ansu and Pedri have already played in at least two positions, despite barely being through the doors, Koeman’s architectural mantra remains the same: square pegs for square holes, round pegs for round holes. That’s especially true of a player he advised to sign up for Blaugrana duty in 2019.

Frenkie De Jong, now pivote in a 4-2-3-1, takes up the tale: “He was really positive about Barcelona, the club and the city, when I called him about the move last summer. He just told me that I have to be careful, that I shouldn’t go to restaurants too much or eat too much because life is really good in Barcelona – sometimes you can feel like you’re on vacation the whole year.”

Koeman after scoring in the 1992 European Cup final


Koeman, now De Jong’s boss, returns serve. “Last season, Frenkie didn’t play in his best position, which is always difficult for a young player who comes to Barcelona. It’s already a big change – the language, how they live, how they train. Frenkie is a very clever football player. He sees all the situations on the pitch, takes the right decisions. The most important thing for me is to put him in the right position in Barça’s team. I will give him that support because there’s no question about his qualities. I feel the same about every player: Frenkie, Griezmann, Coutinho. Deploy them in their best position, then they can make the difference.”

Perhaps Koeman, himself, is finally a square peg in the slot specifically ‘meant’ for him. His best position. Barça coach. Be sure that whatever happens during his reign, however long it lasts, Koeman’s little clutch of starlets are working for a talented tutor.

Among those who can attest to that is Virgil van Dijk. The two were maestro and emerging behemoth together at Southampton from 2015 to 2016. Van Dijk, having now won the Champions League with Liverpool, told me that he felt picked upon, cajoled and unnecessarily singled out during many Southampton training sessions. Having emerged from the experience to vast success and acclaim, the Dutch centre-back also admitted that Koeman’s micro-coaching, however stern, had been central to his rise and rise.

“I like to be the same coach for every player,” responds Koeman. “But sometimes a player who has a personality and plays in the same position I played, you can give him more attention. It was great to work with Virgil, because he was an open guy in terms of communication. He liked to learn from everybody, and he had to change his personality a little because sometimes he was a bit too lazy. Maybe people will tell you he was a little bit arrogant in his football.

“On one side, it’s nice, but I always said to Virgil, ‘You have to know the other centre-back will make mistakes and what is your position then?’ If you think, ‘Oh, he will do it,’ you’re in the wrong position. You have to always know what your position should be if there’s a mistake. And then your position needs to be that position. We worked really hard but, finally, the credit is for Virgil because he is now, in my opinion, one of the best defenders in football.”

Now the lessons continue at the Camp Nou, where Pedri, Dest, Ansu, Dembélé, De Jong, Trincão and Araújo all look like the bedrock for a youth-inspired but old-school Barça revival. Whether or not that eventually transpires, there’s no question that their early development in Barça’s renaissance is in the hands of a proper football professor who’s back at his alma mater. And ready to teach.

Interview
'I got lucky'

Memory plays tricks on us all. Admittedly, nobody will ever forget that Ronald Koeman thundered home the goal that won Barcelona their first European Cup final victory in 1992. But ask those who recall his searing drive past Sampdoria goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca and the majority will suggest it was a direct free-kick. That Koeman used his dead-ball skill to produce the apogee moment of Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team era.

Not exactly. Yes, there was a foul awarded just outside the Sampdoria box. But a little improvised routine led to a change of angle for Koeman and perhaps the greatest connection between foot and ball of his 250+ goal career.

“It was not planned,” says Koeman, delighted to recall the ‘Eureka’ moment in the 112th minute at Wembley, the moment when Bulgarian Hristo Stoichkov took charge. “I remember we’d taken free-kicks in the last training sessions the day before. We were shooting direct, but we never tried the pass between Stoichkov and José Mari Bakero that ended up with me shooting. It was a product of that moment.

“Normally, if you shoot that ball, it will touch one of the defenders who runs out of the wall, but that time I got lucky. With the change of angle, it was probably difficult for the goalkeeper to react faster to get across. My shot was hard enough to score and perhaps the routine was unpredictable.”

Less unpredictable was the euphoria back in Catalonia. “The reaction in Barcelona was a fantastic feeling because it was their first Champions League,” he says. “If you score the winning goal you are, of course, the hero of the night. It’s still a fantastic memory.”

Interview

In the eye of the storm

Ronald Koeman has waited patiently for the chance to return as coach to Barcelona, where he enjoyed so much success as a player. Graham Hunter caught up with the Dutch legend and says it will take more than the current turbulence to steer him off course

WORDS Graham Hunter | PORTRAIT Simon Hofmann

When Joan Laporta became Barcelona president in 2003 – and before the club unleashed an almost unprecedented 15-year tidal wave of exciting football, trophy-hoovering and evangelical impact – he, along with Johan Cruyff and Txiki Begiristain, immediately envisioned the man to lead the transformation.

Their first phone call was to one Ronald Koeman.

Recall for a moment the scale of the challenge Barça then faced. The club were in the middle of a dreadful drought – what would eventually be six trophyless years – and regeneration wasn’t simply a case of a new board, drastic modernisation, a charismatic president or even having a genius like Cruyff as voluntary consultant. The coach needed to be brilliant.

Koeman was already a serious candidate. Not only had he bulged Sampdoria’s net for the most iconic goal in Barça’s entire history, sealing victory in the 1992 European Cup final, he had also been assistant to Louis van Gaal the last time the Catalan club won the Spanish title in 1998/99. And since leaving that post in 2000 to coach Vitesse and then Ajax, he’d led the Amsterdam side to a league and cup double.

Koeman was an über-confident, bullish 40 years old, pawing the ground to get back to where he believed he could paint his ideas on a bigger canvas. The biggest canvas, some would argue.

“EVERY TIME MY WIFE AND I WENT BACK TO BARCELONA, WE FELT, ‘OK, WE’RE HOME’”


Barcelona were already starting to see the flowering of green shoots in the form of Xavi Hernández, Carles Puyol, Andrés Iniesta and Víctor Valdés. There was also this diminutive but mesmeric Argentinian player burning his way through the academy ranks. Name of Lionel Messi.

It was very nearly Koeman, not his 1988 UEFA European Championship-winning team-mate Frank Rijkaard, who reaped that golden, home-bred harvest, along with the magic of Ronaldinho – and, later, Koeman’s current assistant Henrik Larsson. Life-changing, legacy-ensuring. But it didn’t happen. The story of football. What might have been.

Sadly for Koeman, it was a simple matter of principle – and compensation. Ajax, understandably, thought they’d hit pay dirt. Not because Barcelona wanted to liberate their free-scoring Dream Team sweeper, but because the Ajax board knew this was a coach of purpose, character and vision, someone at the absolute height of his energetic ambition. They didn’t want to lose him.

Years later, on Catalan radio, Koeman ruefully revisited that episode: “It’s true that president Laporta wanted me in 2003, but Barcelona and Ajax couldn’t come to an agreement so Frank took over instead. Maybe my history and Barça’s would have been different had it happened. I’d pay to be in charge of those players; it’s great to have footballers like that in your team. You don’t have to teach them much. They stand out for knowing perfectly what they should be doing.”

Cut to the present day. “Every time I came back to Barcelona, I felt as if it was my home,” Koeman tells me. “I’m Dutch, but maybe I’m a little bit Dutch-Catalan, after a total of nine years in Barcelona. Every time my wife and I went back to Barcelona, we had that feeling of, ‘OK, we’re home, we have friends.’ Now it’s a fantastic feeling to be back.”

But it’s hard to call the timing perfect. Xavi is slated to be the club’s next coach if the imminent presidential elections fall in Victor Font’s direction. Xavi has stated he’ll take Puyol with him into his technical team and, eventually, Busquets will be an assistant coach.

Ronald Koeman with team-mate Michael Laudrup


Koeman is now 57, not 40. Messi, more importantly, is 33 rather than a teenage phenomenon about to take greatness by the scruff of the neck and redefine its meaning. On top of that, a few weeks into Koeman’s long-delayed reign – which began with an abundance of common sense, purpose and structure, plus significant improvement in both the training-ground atmosphere and matchday football – the board that appointed him resigned en masse.

If you don’t feel a scintilla of compassion, even impotent frustration, on Koeman’s behalf, then either you’re a diehard Real Madrid fan, an Espanyol season-ticket holder or a little heartless. For the rest who do, there may be more than a sliver of light at the end of the tunnel.

Over the 32 years since Cruyff began to completely redesign Barcelona’s footballing ideas, there have been several landmark summers on the transfer front. It began with their excellent start in 1988/89, buying three members of the team who’d start that first victorious European Cup final, plus one of the substitutes. Then came the construction of two treble-winning sides, built on shrewd purchases and B team promotions in 2008 and 2014, the latter bringing Luis Suárez, Marc-André ter Stegen, Claudio Bravo, Ivan Rakitić and Jérémy Mathieu into the Camp Nou fold to snare the Liga, Copa del Rey and Champions League within ten months.

Fast forward to 2020 and there’s just a hint that – amid what it’s not unfair to call chaos – Barcelona may just have achieved something similar. Chaos? Well, a record 8-2 defeat by Bayern back in August, the club’s greatest ever player officially requesting to leave (for free), sufficient unrest among the socios that the board felt obliged to resign, a new coach, negotiations for the squad to temporarily renounce part of their salaries due to the pandemic impact, and the contentious departure of football director Éric Abidal.

Despite all that, Barcelona have planted seeds of optimism. For a start, they did early business last season by signing Pedri from Las Palmas in September 2019 and Francisco Trincão from Braga in January, the duo aged 17 and 20 respectively at the time of writing. Total cost? Under €40m.

“SOMETIMES COACHES WILL MAKE THINGS TOO DIFFICULT. THIS GAME IS STILL JUST 11 v 11”
By

Both currently look exceptional bargains, real stand-out players and have had immediate, significant game time. Add to that the incorporation of the excellent, wily Miralem Pjanić, the promotion from Barça B of Ronald Araújo – who’ll save them millions on buying a centre-back – and the emergence of record-shattering Ansu Fati, just turned 18.

Then there’s Sergiño Dest, another superior tyro-talent. It’s worth stopping here and turning the focus back on Koeman. Even before his impact was felt, or a ball had been kicked competitively, he insisted on signing the Dutch-born USA right-back from Ajax. It was fully his initiative and the football department had to abandon plans to add Max Aarons from Norwich.

For the first few games, 20-year-old Dest was required to adapt and play off his weaker foot at left-back. Not only did he shine, it was fascinating to witness a reversal of the dominant theme since Koeman got the job he’d coveted for so long. He stands for back to basics, order, common sense, players used with strategic intelligence in their best positions – a return to roots.

On the hoary subject of football people overcomplicating the world’s favourite sport, Barcelona’s coach has much to say. “Sometimes coaches will make things too difficult. This game is still just 11 v 11. You must have good organisation in a team. You need to assess the individual qualities of the players, like we have done with Messi.

Koeman’s career was a blur of trophies and success


“The others in this Barça team, they must do a lot of work – a lot of running, because then Messi can still be the best player in the world. And this applies to all our guys, every other position. But I don’t ask for qualities from a player which he does not have. With everyone in their position, playing to their strengths, this team will be stronger.”

As far as Koeman is concerned, that was never more obvious than during Bayern’s 8-2 dismantling in the Champions League quarter-finals. “For me, that was the big lesson. If you don’t play as a team, you will not win. To play against opponents like Bayern, a really strong team with a lot of individual qualities, you must have the best organisation.

“Look at Bayern’s physical state: it’s excellent, and their organisation was excellent. That was a big difference on that night against Barcelona. For sure, my players will have the intention to take revenge for what happened in Lisbon.”

Back to Dest. He’s clearly ambidextrous and, while more confident and dangerous in attack, his versatility is further evidence of how Koeman helped to facilitate Barcelona’s squad rebuilding. And his arrival came after seasons when significant outlay on Philippe Coutinho, Ousmane Dembélé and Antoine Griezmann provoked intense scrutiny.

But although Dest, Ansu and Pedri have already played in at least two positions, despite barely being through the doors, Koeman’s architectural mantra remains the same: square pegs for square holes, round pegs for round holes. That’s especially true of a player he advised to sign up for Blaugrana duty in 2019.

Frenkie De Jong, now pivote in a 4-2-3-1, takes up the tale: “He was really positive about Barcelona, the club and the city, when I called him about the move last summer. He just told me that I have to be careful, that I shouldn’t go to restaurants too much or eat too much because life is really good in Barcelona – sometimes you can feel like you’re on vacation the whole year.”

Koeman after scoring in the 1992 European Cup final


Koeman, now De Jong’s boss, returns serve. “Last season, Frenkie didn’t play in his best position, which is always difficult for a young player who comes to Barcelona. It’s already a big change – the language, how they live, how they train. Frenkie is a very clever football player. He sees all the situations on the pitch, takes the right decisions. The most important thing for me is to put him in the right position in Barça’s team. I will give him that support because there’s no question about his qualities. I feel the same about every player: Frenkie, Griezmann, Coutinho. Deploy them in their best position, then they can make the difference.”

Perhaps Koeman, himself, is finally a square peg in the slot specifically ‘meant’ for him. His best position. Barça coach. Be sure that whatever happens during his reign, however long it lasts, Koeman’s little clutch of starlets are working for a talented tutor.

Among those who can attest to that is Virgil van Dijk. The two were maestro and emerging behemoth together at Southampton from 2015 to 2016. Van Dijk, having now won the Champions League with Liverpool, told me that he felt picked upon, cajoled and unnecessarily singled out during many Southampton training sessions. Having emerged from the experience to vast success and acclaim, the Dutch centre-back also admitted that Koeman’s micro-coaching, however stern, had been central to his rise and rise.

“I like to be the same coach for every player,” responds Koeman. “But sometimes a player who has a personality and plays in the same position I played, you can give him more attention. It was great to work with Virgil, because he was an open guy in terms of communication. He liked to learn from everybody, and he had to change his personality a little because sometimes he was a bit too lazy. Maybe people will tell you he was a little bit arrogant in his football.

“On one side, it’s nice, but I always said to Virgil, ‘You have to know the other centre-back will make mistakes and what is your position then?’ If you think, ‘Oh, he will do it,’ you’re in the wrong position. You have to always know what your position should be if there’s a mistake. And then your position needs to be that position. We worked really hard but, finally, the credit is for Virgil because he is now, in my opinion, one of the best defenders in football.”

Now the lessons continue at the Camp Nou, where Pedri, Dest, Ansu, Dembélé, De Jong, Trincão and Araújo all look like the bedrock for a youth-inspired but old-school Barça revival. Whether or not that eventually transpires, there’s no question that their early development in Barça’s renaissance is in the hands of a proper football professor who’s back at his alma mater. And ready to teach.

Interview
'I got lucky'

Memory plays tricks on us all. Admittedly, nobody will ever forget that Ronald Koeman thundered home the goal that won Barcelona their first European Cup final victory in 1992. But ask those who recall his searing drive past Sampdoria goalkeeper Gianluca Pagliuca and the majority will suggest it was a direct free-kick. That Koeman used his dead-ball skill to produce the apogee moment of Johan Cruyff’s Dream Team era.

Not exactly. Yes, there was a foul awarded just outside the Sampdoria box. But a little improvised routine led to a change of angle for Koeman and perhaps the greatest connection between foot and ball of his 250+ goal career.

“It was not planned,” says Koeman, delighted to recall the ‘Eureka’ moment in the 112th minute at Wembley, the moment when Bulgarian Hristo Stoichkov took charge. “I remember we’d taken free-kicks in the last training sessions the day before. We were shooting direct, but we never tried the pass between Stoichkov and José Mari Bakero that ended up with me shooting. It was a product of that moment.

“Normally, if you shoot that ball, it will touch one of the defenders who runs out of the wall, but that time I got lucky. With the change of angle, it was probably difficult for the goalkeeper to react faster to get across. My shot was hard enough to score and perhaps the routine was unpredictable.”

Less unpredictable was the euphoria back in Catalonia. “The reaction in Barcelona was a fantastic feeling because it was their first Champions League,” he says. “If you score the winning goal you are, of course, the hero of the night. It’s still a fantastic memory.”

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