When the topic of club football in the Netherlands pops up, it’s hard not to think of Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven. Coming from the three major cities, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Eindhoven, the trio have dominated the domestic scene. For decades, they have also boasted some of the finest academies in Europe, developing talent aplenty that has benefited they and the national team alike.
Going north in the country, however, guides you to Groningen, the city that’s home to the football club of the same name. Although their trophy haul list isn’t as prestigious as the big three, they can take pride in the fact that they too have blessed the nation with some of its finest talent. Take Arjen Robben, for example, who started his career there before going on to play in England, Spain and Germany. Even Virgil van Dijk, perhaps the best centre-back in the world, started off at the Euroborg.
Long before them, though, there was Ronald Koeman, who developed in the Groningen academy. It was in the green and white that his journey would begin, going on to become one of the finest central defenders in the game’s history.
Born in Zaandam, Koeman was raised with football at his feet. His father Martin inspired his two sons, Erwin and Ronald, to take up the sport, whilst his surroundings, much like the rest of the Netherlands, lived and breathed the sport. Koeman could proudly say that the great Johnny Rep came from his town, while the likes of Johan Neeskens also boasted the colours of Groningen, enlightening the region and inspiring new followers.
Koeman’s start in football came at local amateur clubs VV Helpman and GRG Groningen, before making his move to Groningen, following the path of brother Erwin. Playing mostly in his own third of the pitch, in defence and midfield, he could ping the ball with comfort and accuracy, had great technique, and was confident when moving it through the pitch. He was also a smart, clean defender.
For the Koeman brothers, father Martin was a source of knowledge and inspiration, training them and helping fulfil their ambitions to light up the national game. During their younger years, there were times when their mother used to throw them food from the balcony of their home as the pair played in the streets without taking breath. It would all be worth it.
Ronald made his debut for the senior team in September 1980 against NEC at the age of 17 years and 183 days, becoming Groningen’s third-youngest player. Playing 66 minutes, he showed the maturity of someone who had been in the senior game for years, which unsurprisingly caught the media’s attention, who hailed him as a star of the future.
In his first season at Groningen Koeman scored six times, a fine record considering the position he played in and the role he performed. He was a major threat from free-kicks and penalties, while he also possessed great ability from range. What’s astonishing is that his tally of six would be his lowest in a single campaign for the rest of his career.
With a strong start, Koeman would score no fewer than 29 more goals over the next two years. While still just 19, he had proved himself as one of Europe’s foremost talents, eventually making his Netherlands debut in 1983, aged just 20. The Oranje, though, were going through a transitioning period that would result in missing Euro 84 and the 1986 World Cup. Such setbacks would strengthen his resolve as a natural-born leader, someone capable of ushering in a new era of Dutch promise.
It was clear that a player this good wouldn’t be playing at Groningen for too long, which is why, when Ajax came calling in 1983, he made the first big move of his career. At the time, it seemed like the right choice, a place where Koeman could succeed in the European Cup and Ajax could build on their dynasty. Indeed, the Amsterdammers had just won back-to-back league titles as well as the KNVB Cup.
However, the plan went awry. Feyenoord, who boasted two Dutch greats on their payroll in Johan Cruyff – who had been let go by Ajax – and Willem van Hanegem as coach would inspire the Rotterdam giants to success in both the league and cup. There was personal success for Koeman, however, as his exceptional goalscoring record only continued in the capital.
Feyenoord couldn’t maintain their success in the following season, as the retirement of Cruyff meant they lost a key figure in the dressing room. Ajax would hit back, taking the Eredivisie crown with relative ease. It was surprising that it had taken this long for Koeman to win the first trophy of his career.
Marco van Basten, still in his formative years, was scoring goals at will and he contributed 22 of the team’s 93, which included Koeman’s nine. This was a superb side that featured a litany talent. Alongside the aforementioned duo, there was Frank Rijkaard, John Bosman and Gerald Vanenburg. The following season, they added the KNVB Cup to their cabinet, but it was PSV who would run away with the title.
While Ajax were renowned for their glorious past, it was in Eindhoven that the trophies were more likely to come. It was a strange period for Dutch football at the time, with the domestic sides in constant gripping fights for the title, producing splendid talent, yet the national team struggled. However, as the youthful Koeman, Van Basten, Rijkaard and Ruud Gullit grew in stature, there was confidence that the quartet could be at the centre of a new revolution.
In 1986, Koeman made the controversial move from Ajax to bitter rivals PSV. Still only 23, it was recognised as a passing of the baton from Amsterdam to Eindhoven. Under the tutelage of Hans Kraay, who had led PSV to the previous season’s title, there was optimism that this move would help them go further in Europe. Until now, Koeman had failed to make much of an impact in the European Cup, but if he was to do it, PSV was the right place for him to be.
He got plenty of heat from the Ajax fans for making such a contentious move, but Koeman knew what his objective was. His first season in Eindhoven looked like falling below expectations, with Kraay unable to repeat the success of the previous year, handing in a resignation which opened the door for Guus Hiddink. Hiddink had been with the club since 1983 as an assistant manager and he knew this side just as well as Kraay. So, when he got the top job in March 1987 with ten matches of the season remaining and his team three points behind Ajax, he pulled off a few masterstrokes.
In the end, PSV overturned Ajax’s lead with Koeman netting 19 times – his best record to date – as he lifted his second Eredivisie title. While it has been his best season on a personal level, the best was yet to come, with Hiddink and Koeman guiding PSV to their greatest peaks.
There are three phases in Koeman’s career that define him as a player. The first came in the 1987/88 season, where, as one of the best players in the world, he was a senior figure at PSV. The Eindhoven outfit were fighting on three fronts: in the league, the KNVB Cup and the European Cup. Although they had lost the incomparable Gullit at the start of the season over disputes between the player and management, there seemed to be little doubt that they would do well in the upcoming campaign. Inspired by Koeman, the Dutch Footballer of the Year, it would be a season of gluttony.
They started the league campaign in impeccable fashion. Seventeen consecutive victories included thrashings of Utrecht (9-0) and Dordecht (7-0), whilst their nearest rivals, Ajax (4-2) and Feyenoord (3-1), were all handled with relative ease. This was a PSV side at the peak of their powers, oozing class. Koeman, too, was in top form, with his defensive solidity ensuring the back-line remained watertight, while his influence at the other end kept improving.
This was seen in their opening European Cup tie against Turkish champions, Galatasaray. They began strongly with a home win as Koeman scored once to give them a 3-0 advantage. In a hostile Istanbul, though, they were in trouble. Galatasaray scored twice before half-time, but Koeman’s leadership and organisation got PSV out of jail as they progressed by the skin of their teeth.
The next two rounds brought challenges against Austria’s Rapid Wien and France’s Bordeaux and, once again, it was Koeman’s defensive prowess rather than his attacking capabilities that were on display. Against the Austrians, they eased to a 4-2 aggregate win and against Bordeaux, a 1-1 away success was followed by a Koeman masterclass to secure progress.
By the middle of the season Feyenoord’s domestic form stuttered, but such was their imposing start, they could afford a few slip-ups as their attention shifted to Europe. In the semi-final of the European Cup, they would meet Real Madrid – and Koeman would step up once again. A 1-1 away success was followed by a 0-0 home draw, meaning that PSV were yet to concede at home in the competition,
Arguably the best defender in the world at this point, his roles in the Netherlands and in Europe switched. While he was given more freedom to attack domestically, in Europe, Koeman was reserved, leading the defence and ensuring PSV were difficult to break down. The formula worked, as PSV made their way to a first European Cup final, where Benfica awaited them in Stuttgart.
In the Eredivisie, Feyenoord would finally break PSV’s unbeaten record, but it wasn’t enough. The Eindhoven outfit would lose just twice all season as they romped to the title, scoring 117 goals in the process and proving to be one of the best teams in Eredivisie history. The story was the same in the cup, where they would ease their way to the final, and despite Koeman missing a rare penalty, PSV would ultimately triumph.
All eyes then shifted to the European Cup final. In Stuttgart, Koeman would be at his best again in a dire 0-0 affair. He was vigilant throughout the clash and, along with Benfica’s Carlos Mozer, was the best player on the pitch. The match would go to penalties, with Koeman scoring first in a 6-5 win as Hiddink’s side sealed a remarkable treble. The defensive maestro would register a scarcely believable 26 goals for the campaign.
After a stale decade where they struggled for the most part, the Netherlands went into Euro 88 in good spirits. At the time, the nation played had perhaps the best player in the world in Ruud Gullit, the holder of the Ballon d’Or, and they also hosted the best club side in Europe in PSV. Between Van Basten, Rijkaard, Gullit and Koeman, this was a team that had quality across the pitch.
After a tough start against the Soviet Union, the Netherlands dispatched England and Ireland, meaning they would play the hosts, Germany, in the semi-final. In an expectedly difficult affair, they went a goal down but Koeman scored again to spare their blushes, before Van Basten’s late winner booked a place in the final.
Against the Soviet Union, there were more heroics from Gullit and Van Basten as the Dutch cruised to a 2-0 win in Munich. This was another feather in Koeman’s cap, lifting Europe’s two most coveted prizes in quick succession. For the Netherlands, this success was particularly sweet, sealing their first major international trophy. While the attacking duo of Gullit and Van Basten were rightly lauded as key to the glory, Koeman was just as important. His superb ball-playing skills and ability to contribute in attack made him a constant threat.
Koeman would stay at PSV for another year, winning a third-successive league title and second-successive KNVB Cup, but failed to repeat the European glory. During the season, though, there was a significant moment for him: a battle against brother Erwin in the European Super Cup. Starring for KV Mechelen, the older Koeman came out on top this time around.
In 1989, Cruyff, now the manager of Barcelona, wanted to bring his compatriot to Spain, where he was assembling his famed Dream Team. Koeman duly obliged, joining the likes of José Mari Bakero, Guillermo Amor and Gary Lineker in Catalonia.
The process of building great things takes time, though. In Koeman’s first season, a Copa del Rey victory was achieved, but it was clear that this team and Cruyff wanted more. Given that each club in LaLiga could only have three foreign players, Cruyff knew he needed to strengthen his forward line. He let go of Brazilian defender Aloísio and replaced him with Hristo Stoichkov, a turning point in the club’s history.
The next year was far more fruitful. With the eccentric but brilliant Stoichkov, Barcelona were a supreme attacking force, commanding matches domestically. With their possession-based football and slick attack, they would overcome all challengers to lift a first title in five years, ending Real Madrid’s monopoly in the process.
After failure at Italia 90 and strife within the Netherlands camp, Koeman would reach the third significant phase of his playing career in the 1991/92 season. Integrating the Dutch Totaalvoetbal system into his side, Cruyff’s Barcelona would become better than the one that won LaLiga in the previous season. With a 3-4-3 that saw Koeman play at the heart of the defence with the freedom to move forward, it was the perfect role to get the best out of him.
Koeman and Guardiola, the deep-lying midfielder, worked almost synonymously. The two were key cogs in the attacking build-up and transitions – arguably Cruyff’s most important players. The Dutchman was often given the freedom to move forward and play defence-splitting passes across the pitch. The pair complemented each other’s qualities perfectly. How blessed Barça were to have them in tandem.
Domestically, the Blaugrana were in top form, hitting the same strides as the previous season. But it was the European Cup that was most coveted in these parts, and they went navigated past tricky German opposition in the first two rounds.
In a group consisting of Sparta Prague, Benfica and Dynamo Kyiv, all fighting for a spot in the final, Barcelona would put in stronger performances and reap the rewards. Koeman’s goalscoring ventures were far more restricted, with those duties going to the likes of Stoichkov and Michael Laudrup, but he was as dependable as ever in defence. Awaiting them in the final were Sampdoria.
At Wembley, after securing another LaLiga title, the match finished goalless after a cagey 90 minutes, but in extra-time, Koeman strode forward to take a free-kick that fate had determined he’d score. All the hours practising as a kid, all the dead-balls he’d taken came to this one moment – the moment he’d take Barcelona to their maiden European Cup. A blistering, low finish flew into the Sampdoria net as Koeman’s first European Cup goal of the season registered as the most important of his career.
Following that night at Wembley, Koeman would spend three more years at Barcelona, but none would live up to that famed 1991/92 campaign. Two more LaLiga titles were added but a defeat to AC Milan in the 1994 Champions League final brought the curtain down on Cruyff’s masterpiece. Despite that, Koeman, in a quite incredible feat, would win the top scorer award in the 1993/94 Champions League season, when his eight goals trumped several attacking greats of the game.
He would later return to the Netherlands to play at Feyenoord, citing his hunger to work under the great Willem van Hanegem, in the process becoming one of the few players to have represented the Eredivisie’s big three, finally retiring with 239 goals in 685 club appearances. It’s a record no defender is likely to ever trump.
Despite his flitting allegiances, for which he’d receive more than the odd scorn throughout his career, Koeman remains one of the finest – for some, the very best – ball-playing defender in history. Beyond just the goals and countless assists, he was an intelligent defender, reading the game exceptionally well and strong when he needed to be in the tackle. He was as complete a footballer as there’s ever been. While a generation of fans may only see him as a manager with a solid if inconsistent record, it’s important to remember that Ronald Koeman was, long before his time on the sideline, a footballer like no other.
By Karan Tejwani @karan_tejwani26