“It’s a real people’s club – there’s always something going on, but it’s a club with good organisation, a talented squad and ambition. The latter is very important: I am a no-nonsense figure and completely suited to the playing style and vision of the club.”
Ronald Koeman always gives the impression he’s a ship captain. He either takes his crew aground or into uncharted waters on a voyage of discovery, a year since he dropped anchor at Feyenoord the latter has resonated.
A tentative start turned into a consistent run and before he knew it contesting a title race many never foresaw eventually finishing as league runners-up. His previous managerial experience with ambitious clubs laced with promising talents was pivotal.
The appointment of Koeman, looking back in hindsight, was logical though his subsequent success is nothing short of remarkable. The latest in a storied career, those that wrote him off are in good company, looking back at his whole career he’s made a habit of making doubters eat humble pie.
Born in Zaandam in 1963, site where Russian tsar Peter the Great called home during his ‘Grand Embassy’, Koeman you could say was destined for greatness. As Malvolio uttered in Twelfth Night: “some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.”
His father Martin Koeman had a respectable career and was regularly called up to the national squad (albeit only winning one cap), but his sons became his greatest legacy. Older brother Erwin won Eredivisie titles with PSV and 31 caps, while Ronald won 78 caps and two European Cups.
A true student of the game Koeman lived and breathed football for as long as his could remember. He idolised tenacious right-back turned midfielder Johan Neeskens. Summer months would see the young Ronald spend endless hours on target practice, interesting the police on a few occasion after windows had been smashed.
Football became such an obsession for him that he feared his family would see him as anti-social. Dedicating himself for lengthy hours, he so rarely stopped for meal breaks that his mother began throwing down peanut butter sandwiches from the balcony of their home.
Not even being hampered by growth spurts could stop him, in time his stature would surpass his older brother, who many cited would the more successful of the two. His former youth team coach Ger van Gelder described him as having a “burning allergy to losing” and football was his licence to kill.
After three fruitful teenage years at Groningen – joining in 1980 – where he established a reputation as an attacking centre-back, finding the back of the net 15 times in the league – an amazing statistic for any defender, let alone a 19-year-old. Ajax boss Aad de Mos came calling and signed him for $1.25m in 1983. A few months earlier, along with Erwin, made his international debut against Sweden.
The second son of Zaandam to play for Ajax – after Johnny Rep – Koeman overcome with emotion proclaimed Ajax his favourite club and the country’s most special. Nevertheless, his first season was a struggle; adjusting awkwardly to life in Amsterdam, he described loneliness as his friend.
Perhaps it didn’t help Koeman that De Mos wasn’t sure whether to select him at centre-back or as a regista. Even though that eye for goal remained – Ronald ended up the second-highest scorer behind Marco van Basten – he pondered quitting the game as doubts crept in during endless public debates about his ability at the highest level. His mother would even write angry letters to Voetbal International every time a critical piece concerning him was featured.
However, Koeman hadn’t put in all those hours to give up now. His temperament wouldn’t let the naysayers win and the following season he picked up the first of many medals as the Godenzonen won the Eredivisie. His 23 league goals for Ajax, equal with Ruud Krol and Jan Vertonghen, is only bettered by Danny Blind (27) and Frank de Boer (30).
In 1986 he swapped Amsterdam for Eindhoven by joining PSV, where his abilities at centre-back began to define him – a mixture of a sweeper and a deep-lying playmaker. His attacking thinking and forays forward to unleash fearsome long-range strikes were encouraged by Guus Hiddink, who rose from PSV assistant to manager in March 1987. Hiddink led PSV to national titles in 1987, 1988 and 1989 plus the European Cup in 1988 – a month after which he joined four other PSV stars, plus brother Erwin, in leading the national team to success at Euro 88.
Ronald had achieved a certain level of fame – and infamy, after pretending to wipe his backside with a West Germany shirt after victory in the Euro 88 semi-final – but he was undoubtedly rocketed into continent-wide household-name status after his next move: to Barcelona in 1989.
Having taken over at the Camp Nou in 1988, Johan Cruyff was implementing his favoured fluid system. Allowed the same freedom he had enjoyed at PSV, Koeman responded with a flourish of goals, in addition to further improving his defensive game.
He scored Barcelona’s goal in the 2-1 loss to Manchester United in the 1991 Cup Winners’ Cup Final, but it was on 20 May 1992 that Koeman would become an immortal figure for Barça cules around the world. With the European Cup Final at Wembley heading toward the end of extra time, the Catalans were awarded a free-kick just outside the Sampdoria penalty box. Up stepped Koeman to make history: Barcelona won their first European Cup and the cules had a new hero. The fans affectionately nicknamed him Floquet de Neu, after the albino gorilla in Barcelona’s zoo.
He left Barcelona in 1995, returning to Holland and completing his tour of the big three Dutch teams by representing Feyenoord for two seasons before retiring in 1997. He had won the last of his 78 caps in the 1998 World Cup quarter-final against Brazil. In total he scored 14 goals for his country, a record for a defender, his two most notable being the free-kick against England in the USA 94 qualifiers and the Euro 88 semi-final penalty against Germany.
Koeman’s move into management was hardly unexpected, given his passion for the game and the calibre of coaches he had played under. After stints as assistant coach for the Netherlands (under Guus Hiddink) and Barcelona (under Louis van Gaal) he took charge at Vitesse in 1999 and brought UEFA Cup football to Arnhem, despite some questionable signings in the transfer market.
Replacing Co Adriaanse at Ajax in 2001, he guided the club to their first championship in three years – consequently becoming only the second man after Rinus Michels to win the Eredivisie as an Ajax player and coach. A decade later, Frank de Boer became the third member of this exclusive club.
In the following years he brought through a generation that is currently serving the Dutch national team well – Rafael van der Vaart, Nigel de Jong, Johnny Heitinga and Wesley Sneijder. That group helped win the title in 2004 but a year later he resigned after elimination in the UEFA Cup.
Since then he has rarely settled. At Benfica he won only the season-opening Supercup. Back at PSV to succeed Hiddink he won the 2007 Eredivisie, but only by one goal; criticised by his chairman, he fled four months later to Valencia, leading them to the 2008 Copa del Rey five days before being sacked for awful league form.
A year out of the game he returned to Holland, replacing Van Gaal at champions AZ. Again he won the Super Cup with someone else’s championship-winning team, but again he was out within a year, leaving before Christmas. With each of his clubs except Vitesse, Koeman had won a trophy but left under a cloud.
After leaving AZ in December 2009, Koeman took 18 months out of the game. Last summer completed the same hat-trick he had achieved as a player: being hired by all three of Dutch football’s big clubs in turn. Having played for Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord, his managerial trilogy was also done in the same order by replacing Mario Been at the helm of the Rotterdam club.
“It’s a real people’s club – there’s always something going on,” he enthused. “But it’s a club with good organisation, a talented squad and ambition. The latter is very important: I am a no-nonsense figure and completely suited to the playing style and vision of the club.”
And so far he has kept true to his word. The Rotterdammers recent history is well documented, not long ago they stared relegation in the face, just about mustering enough strength to survive. His arrival met with minimal fanfare was a turning point. The lack of expectation allowed Koeman to work in a climate of near tranquillity.
Champions League football returns to De Kuip after a ten year absence, albeit still a while to go to reach the group stage. Nonetheless reward for a season of trials and tribulations. In the space of a year they’ve gone from the gutter to penthouse, eight places better off. It’s borderline fairytale stuff.
His first port of call was making the defence stubborn and as a result hard to beat. Feyenoord finished with the third best defensive record (behind AZ and Ajax). Once his ethos was successfully adopted a winning platform was created. Everyone stood up to the plate: Erwin Mulder, in goal, through to imperious controlling playmaker Jordy Clasie. John Guidetti and Otman Bakkal proved to be excellent loan signings. Karim El Ahmadi, now in Birmingham, was an excellent foil for Clasie. Ron Vlaar, the people’s captain, in defence alongside the every present Kelvin Leerdam at right-back.
They weren’t stuttering to victories or snatching them from the jaws of defeat, quite the opposite, at times strolling playing an exhibition of football Rotterdam had sorely missed. A strong end to the season: 12 wins from 17, made them worthy runners-up (26 points better off than last year).
As the new season looms, exciting challenges await De Trots van Zuid, there’s also newfound positivity on and off the pitch. A genuine belief a 15th championship is possible. Koeman undoubtedly is grounded knowing full well they could fall victim to the league’s breathtaking competitiveness. But, and this is important, his ship once again sailing is in the right direction.
By Mohamed Moallim
This article originally appeared in In Bed with Maradona