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Why Ronald Koeman was wrong to take the Barcelona manager job

Ronald Koeman, Barcelona manager
(Image credit: Getty Images)

A classic story of the huge egos and perennial in-fighting that has given Dutch football the sense of a soap opera as well a school of ideas. When Ronald Koeman built his dream house in the Algarve, so did his friend-turned-foe Louis van Gaal: next to Koeman’s and bigger and better. 

Whether or not a newly unemployed Koeman decamps for Portugal now, there may be a familiar sight when he considers the footballing landscape. Van Gaal could loom over him again. He has the Netherlands job that was Koeman’s: until he relinquished it to go to Barcelona, a club his older compatriot managed in two spells and which Koeman, unlike almost everyone else, seemed to consider it his destiny to lead. When he was at Southampton and Everton while Barcelona represented the world’s most glamorous gig, it felt a case of ambition that was not grounded in reality. 

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That Koeman ended up at the Nou Camp owed something to the free kick he scored in 1992 to win Barcelona their maiden European Cup, but just as much to their financial problems and decline. They declined further on his watch: Barcelona recorded their lowest finish for 13 years, third, last season and their earliest Champions League exit, in the last 16, for 14. He leaves them ninth in La Liga, with a solitary away goal all season. His tenure is destined to be remembered for the summer they lost Lionel Messi while their debt rose to $1.6 billion.

Koeman may have been marginally better than his hapless predecessor Quique Setien, but he departed with the lowest win percentage of any (supposedly permanent) Barcelona manager since Van Gaal’s second stint was curtailed. The dream job proved anything but.

The pay-off is reportedly huge, but, if only to himself, there is a question he must be asking: was it worth it? Because when he walked away from Holland, he left a job he was doing superbly. There may be plenty in Catalonia who feel Koeman is not a top-class manager, and his record is decidedly mixed, but he revived a national team who had plummeted into the wilderness after Van Gaal left in 2014.

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The Netherlands had failed to qualify for two tournaments before Koeman piloted them to Euro 2020, beating Germany 4-2 in Hamburg on the way. They beat Germany, France and England in the Nations League, when they were runners-up. There were genuine reasons to deem a team who had been transformed among the favourites to win Euro 2020. It would have been the crowning achievement Koeman’s career in the dugout has lacked; given his pivotal role when the Netherlands won Euro 1988, it would have seemed still more fitting if he had been the architect of a belated second major trophy. 

But Euro 2020 was delayed for a year and Barcelona came calling. Holland beat an early exit in the last 16; perhaps their tournament was doomed to anti-climax the moment Virgil van Dijk sustained the cruciate ligament injury that ruled him out. But maybe not: Frank de Boer proved a downgrade on Koeman and now Van Gaal has been summoned out of retirement to replace him.

The nature of Dutch football, dominated by big personalities who can team up or feud but never disappear, suggests Koeman may manage his country again – perhaps he could replace a 95-year-old Dick Advocaat after the 2042 World Cup – but his chance with the team he forged may have gone. He spliced together generations, with Van Dijk and Gini Wijnaldum the senior figures and Mattijs de Ligt and Frenkie de Jong their rather younger sidekicks, that looked prime to excel in 2020 or 2022. Perhaps they will under Van Gaal but Koeman’s time with his team has gone. If one regret for him must be that he failed with Barcelona, another may be that he might never know how much he could have succeeded with Holland.

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Richard Jolly also writes for the National, the Guardian, the Observer, the Straits Times, the Independent, Sporting Life, Football 365 and the Blizzard. He has written for the FourFourTwo website since 2018 and for the magazine in the 1990s and the 2020s, but not in between. He has covered 1500+ games and remembers a disturbing number of the 0-0 draws.