Ronald Koeman could hardly believe what Johan Cruyff had decided. “Boss,” he said. “This is the first time and also the last time.”
The Dream Team was winding towards the end of its cycle, but it remained a force to be reckoned with; a juggernaut capable of blowing its competitors away. Michael Laudrup’s elegance, coupled with the enigmatic brilliance of Hristo Stoichkov, had sculpted Barcelona into a ruthless attacking machine with the 1993/94 season approaching. At the other end of the pitch, Netherlands international Koeman boasted an uncompromisingly confident swagger, marshalling the back-line and progressing play from deep.
Cruyff was obsessed with winning and he had found what was considered a near-perfect formula. On the back of five seasons decorated with silverware – three LaLiga titles, one European Cup, two Supercopa de España crowns, a Copa del Rey, the UEFA Super Cup, and the Cup Winners’ Cup – few could argue against his tactical nous and ability to make big decisions.
However, in his quest to ascertain the truly perfect marriage between his personnel and his Total Football approach, he signed Romário, the eccentric Brazilian striker who had been in prolific form for PSV Eindhoven. Four players from abroad were now on Barcelona’s books and, as a consequence of the three-foreigner rule, one would succumb to a place on the sidelines each game.
The wonderfully gifted Laudrup was generally the player who felt the brunt of Romário’s arrival, with Cruyff often favouring the blossoming partnership and friendship of Stoichkov and the Brazil star. Koeman was a mainstay in the starting line-up but when his manager sprung a surprise and dropped him for the opening game of the LaLiga season against Real Sociedad, instead plumping for Barcelona’s newest recruit in a bold, attacking setup, he did not hesitate to inform his coach that benching him regularly was simply not an option.
The Dutchman carried himself with professionalism. Softly spoken but firm and assertive, he led by example at Camp Nou. Koeman conveyed his self-belief on the pitch in a classy, unperturbed style and hardly minced his words when he felt an injustice had been done. Barcelona eased to a 3–0 win over Sociedad courtesy of a hat-trick from Romário, vindicating Cruyff’s choice to exclude the central defender and accommodate the exciting new arrival. However, it would prove to be an exception, rather than the rule, as the iconic manager proceeded to think twice about overlooking his compatriot again in the future.
Koeman’s confidence – almost a quiet arrogance – could have rubbed many up the wrong way. Cruyff, though a divisive figure at times during his managerial stint in Catalonia, perfectly understood the mentality of his central defender, whose faultless decision-making and breathtaking technique earned him a place in Barcelona folklore. He was a unique talent, and after the disappointment of being benched at the beginning of the 1993/94 season, he went on to write his name into European football history books.
First and foremost, Koeman was a brilliant defender. His reading of the game was second to none and his ability to anticipate play while acting decisively was valued enormously by Cruyff. It is seldom the case, however, that a centre-back is renowned for their exploits in the final third rather than in their own half. The Dutchman did things differently.
Koeman’s lowest goalscoring tally in a top-flight season was six, a return that would have been impressive for most defenders. These efforts came during the 1982/83 campaign at Groningen, where he emerged from the club’s academy as a 17-year-old. During his formative years, it became apparent that he would not develop into the quintessential central defender of his time, but instead, an idiosyncratic talent destined for the very top.
Indeed, it was at the summit where Koeman found himself, and in the 1993/94 campaign, he displayed a remarkable efficiency in front of goal on the biggest stage of them all. Barcelona didn’t reclaim the Champions League trophy after their triumph, courtesy of Koeman, in 1991/92 as they fell dramatically short at the final hurdle, but the defender still made history as he embarked upon an unprecedented goalscoring run, bettering almost every other player’s total in the tournament with his eight strikes from 12 games.
Koeman had already enjoyed the taste of success and went out in pursuit of his third European Cup. He scored a penalty for PSV during their shootout win in the final against Benfica in 1988 under Guus Hiddink, clinching his first title in the competition. What preceded the glorious evening in Stuttgart was an excellent individual campaign for Koeman, who netted 22 goals for the Eredivisie giants.
Signed by Cruyff in 1989 to operate as a sweeper in the heart of his defensive unit, he played a pivotal part in helping Barcelona secure their status as European champions in 1992. The final was tense and Sampdoria held their Spanish counterparts to a 0–0 draw as extra-time beckoned.
The Catalans were in need of inspiration as the clock ticked down towards what seemed to be the inevitable conclusion of a penalty shootout. When a free-kick was awarded with eight minutes of the 120 left to play, though, all eyes rested on Koeman, who delivered a piledriver that sent Wembley into raptures, clinching the trophy for his men with one of the competition’s most iconic goals.
Peculiarly, the strike against Sampdoria in 1992 was the Dutchman’s one and only throughout Barcelona’s victorious European campaign. Still, he found the back of the net 16 times in LaLiga, again displaying his magnificent form in the final third. More remarkably, however, he was not the highest-scoring defender in Spain – Fernando Hierro netted 21 times for Real Madrid – and came fourth in the race for the Pichichi, with Atlético Madrid striker Manolo scooping the accolade with 27 goals to his name.
Bitter disappointment then followed. Barcelona’s attempt to retain their solitary crown in 1992/93 was feeble at best, as they crashed out in the second round of the tournament at the hands of CSKA Moscow. However, inspired by the relentless consistency of imperious showings from Koeman, as well as Stoichkov and Laudrup’s form in front of goal, Cruyff’s men looked all but set to launch an assault on their European rivals once again, with the team full of confidence and their talismanic central defender at the peak of his powers.
The new season brought about fresh optimism – the exciting arrival of Romário heightened expectations, too – but the experienced head of Koeman was at the forefront of everything Barcelona did well. The first test was presented by Dynamo Kyiv, who threatened to spoil any hopes of European glory in the opening round of the competition.
Cruyff and his men underwhelmed in Ukraine as their opponents drew first blood. Barcelona succumbed to a 3–1 defeat despite playing against ten men for longer than two-thirds of the match, a penalty from Koeman after half an hour unable to prevent the hosts from bouncing back and turning in a commendable performance. The second leg at the Camp Nou required a fightback, and for some time, the club’s place in the second round hung in the balance.
Laudrup opened the scoring before José Mari Bakero scored a brace. Serhiy Rebrov had netted a first-half goal, though, meaning that the two sides had cancelled each other out, with a 4–4 result on aggregate leaving the final stages of the affair finely poised.
As they did in 1992 during difficult moments, however, Barcelona looked towards Koeman for a source of magic – and he duly delivered a killer blow to the Ukrainian side. From 20 yards out, the defender swept a free-kick with exquisite accuracy into the bottom corner past Igor Kutepov, deceived by the effort aimed towards his starting position and into the net: 5–4 and Barcelona were through – albeit by the skin of their teeth.
The second round pitted them against Austria Wien, and they were again convincing on home soil. Barcelona eased to a 3-0 win at the Camp Nou in the first leg courtesy of another two goals from Koeman, who took his tally in the competition to four after three games. Cruyff later took his team to Vienna and they turned in a composed performance, winning 2–1 in the second leg after a brace from Stoichkov booked their place in the groups.
Barcelona were the favourites to progress from the next stage of the tournament, in which they would encounter Galatasaray, Monaco and Spartak Moscow, but challenging tasks still awaited them. In their first outing, the Spanish outfit travelled to Turkey and were left frustrated, with Galatasaray holding them to a stalemate. The team then locked horns with Monaco and eased the nerves somewhat with an assured performance in a 2–0 victory courtesy of a brace from Txiki Begiristain.
Soon after, Barça arrived in Moscow, perhaps with their failings against CSKA from the previous season in the back of their minds, to face Spartak, but could only manage a 2–2 draw as Romário and Laudrup’s strikes were rendered insufficient. Koeman hadn’t found the back of the net in a little while by his own elevated standards – he would only fail to score in six of Barcelona’s 12 European fixtures during this season – but did turn in some resolute defensive showings along the way.
Cruyff had hitherto overseen a satisfactory if unspectacular group-stage campaign, with five points amassed from a possible nine. What followed, however, was an exhibition of the stylish, classy Dream Team that had been embossed upon European football by the Dutchman, as Barcelona dismantled Spartak at home, with Koeman emerging as the lynchpin.
Valeri Karpin put the visitors one up after just three minutes and the fervorous atmosphere within the Camp Nou grew expectant. Stoichkov’s equaliser heading into half time gently eased the disconcertment, but nothing less than a win would have been acceptable. Until the 75th minute, Barcelona stood at level pegging with their Russian opponents. By the full-time whistle, they had obliterated them 5–1 as a consequence of a majestic attacking performance in the final quarter of an hour.
Guillermo Amor put the hosts ahead for the first time in the match before Koeman consolidated the win in emphatic fashion – not once, but twice from free-kicks. As he and Stoichkov loomed over the ball, 30 yards from goal, it was apparent that the Dutchman would be the man to probe Gintaras Staučė’s goal. Barcelona fans had only just regained composure following the delight of Amor’s crucial strike, but they were soon off their feet and breathless once again as Koeman leathered home one of the competition’s most memorable set-pieces.
Stoichkov dummied, running over the ball towards the box before his teammate unleashed a rippling strike. The ball curved around the Spartak wall, leaving them rooted to the spot, and into the top left corner of the goal. Before Staučė had even landed on the floor following a hapless attempt to thwart Koeman, the defender was wheeling away in celebration. He sprinted towards the Camp Nou faithful, arms out wide and a smile etched across his face before sliding on the hallowed turf, his teammates racing to shower him with adulation.
While the 80,000 watching on joined the team in displaying their appreciation for Koeman, Cruyff was emotionless. The manager sat on the bench, stern-faced, and cut a relaxed figure amidst the eruption inside the stadium. His defender’s genius never ceased to enthral the masses, but the boss had probably seen Koeman strike astonishing free-kicks into the top corners with inexplicable regularity on a daily basis in training. It was remarkable, without a doubt, but it was nothing new: Koeman made the extraordinary look easy.
His work wasn’t finished there, either. Just three minutes later, Stoichkov and Koeman again stood before a Spartak wall, this time stationed on the opposite side of the previous free-kick. Unsurprisingly, the Dutchman netted again, but after a more experimental approach to the set-piece on this occasion.
Koeman laid the ball off to Stoichkov before the favour was returned, stopped dead in its tracks by the Bulgarian, and powered an effort around the inside of the defenders – again stood still in awe of their counterpart’s devastating technique – towards the bottom corner of Staučė’s goal. Different style, same outcome: Koeman had scored his fourth free-kick and sixth goal of the tournament before the group stages had even concluded.
Barcelona still had one more goal left in them and Romário was the man who capped an impressive win. The Brazilian’s slaloming run earned his side a penalty and appeared to present Koeman with a chance to score a hat-trick from the spot. It would have been the Dutchman’s second in Spain following his treble in a 7–2 win over Trabzonspor in 1990, most memorable for a frankly outrageous goal in which he lobbed the ball over five of the Turkish side’s defenders in a single action before beating the last man and delicately chipping the goalkeeper. Nevertheless, Cruyff had other ideas.
Koeman played every single minute of Barcelona’s 1993/94 Champions League campaign apart from the final five minutes of their win over Spartak. Just as Romário geared up to take the penalty he had earned, Cruyff opted to take his central defender off. It was a bizarre decision, particularly with his player on the cusp of a hat-trick, but the standing ovation and outpouring of appreciation amongst the supporters made it worthwhile. Koeman gracefully exited the pitch, reciprocating the affection towards the club’s faithful, and watched Romário complete the rout from the unfamiliar location of the bench.
Barcelona had found their groove and they continued their fine form with a 3–0 demolition of Galatasaray. In a controlled display, Amor handed his side the lead after some excellent close control and vision from Begiristain. Shortly before, Koeman had tested Hayrettin Demirbaş with a free-kick from range, but the Turkish goalkeeper did well to scamper across and claw the strike away. He would not be able to deny the defender from 12 yards, though.
Referee Leslie Mottram pointed to the spot with little more than 20 minutes to play after Laudrup was felled in the box, and Koeman confidently lifted the ball to the right of Demirbaş, sending him the wrong way to make it 2–0. Once more, Barcelona required a cool head to settle proceedings, and their centre-back was on hand to produce. The team went on to win 3–0 after Eusebio Sacristán finished with a thunderous strike in the 77th minute.
The group-stage campaign culminated as Barcelona travelled to Monaco. Koeman didn’t get on the scoresheet in France, but he played his part in a staunch defensive showing from the visitors, who came away with a 1–0 win after Stoichkov netted in the 13th minute following a sumptuous lofted pass from Pep Guardiola. Cruyff’s men held firm for the subsequent 77 minutes and stoppage time, consummating an unbeaten six games.
Barcelona were one step from Athens, where Fabio Capello’s AC Milan would await after their 3–0 vanquishing of Monaco in the semi-finals. Standing between Cruyff’s side and another European final were Porto. The Portuguese outfit entered the clash on the back of a resilient 0–0 draw against Milan, but their efforts to resist the dynamic attacking orchestra that Cruyff had conducted were inefficacious.
Over 92,000 watched on in anticipation as Barcelona stood on the cusp of the most prestigious club game on the footballing calendar, and the hosts didn’t disappoint. They opened the scoring in impressive fashion as Stoichkov sprinted into the box and powerfully volleyed home a cross to put his side in front. Stoichkov, in merciless form, scored again in the 35th minute as Porto left him unattended at the back post, with the Bulgarian tapping home to make it 2–0.
Barcelona were in cruise control as they eased towards the final. Each player was composed, confident and took minimal risks in possession as the clock continued to tick and the curtains closed on Porto’s European campaign. Then, Koeman decided that something special – something unforgettable – would ensue before the fans.
Guardiola, with whom Koeman enjoyed an almost telepathic relationship – the pair regularly interchanging positions between the back-line and holding midfield – knocked the ball sideways into the Dutchman’s path in the centre circle. Porto’s players had been left exhausted, chasing shadows in a humbling affair made even more challenging by João Pinto’s dismissal after an hour. With 73 minutes on the clock, a vacant channel of space appeared. Koeman accepted the invitation to drive forward with the ball and powerfully advanced into the opposition half without any real pressure.
As the 30-year-old glided across the pitch with the ball at his feet, Porto didn’t press. After all, they were merely affording a central defender the opportunity to progress play, and with ten men in such testing circumstances, making calculated decisions off the ball was necessary. What the Portuguese outfit didn’t account for, and would soon regret, was that this wasn’t just any central defender. This was one who netted 19 goals during the course of the 1993/94 season, and his eighth and final strike of the European campaign was on its way in scarcely believable style.
Koeman ignored the safe options; he was never one to shy from taking a risk. Simple passes to his central midfielders presented themselves. In fact, an ambitious move would have been to thread the ball beyond Fernando Couto, away from the clutches of Jorge Costa, and to the feet of Stoichkov, who was chasing a hat-trick. To suggest that what the Dutchman instead opted to attempt was audacious would be an understatement of immense proportions. Koeman did something that would stagger even those who had grown accustomed to his exuberant style, which saw him plunder more goals than any other defender in European footballing history to date.
He let fly. The defender lashed the ball from the best part of 40 yards without even breaking stride. His right leg simply lunged in the recoil of the strike, with his left leg planted on the surface. It defied physics; a meteoric shot that soared high through the misty air trapped inside the cauldron of Camp Nou; a shot that would appear impossible without the generation of maximum, exhausting power and precision.
Koeman made it look utterly effortless, as he so often did. Porto heads swivelled as they could only gaze at the drive, which arrowed into the top corner of Vítor Baía’s net. The goalkeeper managed to get a hand to the effort, but his attempts were futile; two goalkeepers wouldn’t have stopped it.
Elated, Koeman wheeled away, conveying a familiar picture, with his arms outstretched as the Camp Nou rose to its feet for what felt like the thousandth time to lavish the Dutchman with applause. He’d not only put the icing on the cake with the last goal in a comprehensive 3–0 win, sending Barcelona to the Champions League final, but he had stolen the show with his eighth goal of the European campaign – an unprecedented feat for a defender and a tally that would not be bettered by any player in any position that season.
His thunderbolt from distance was a goal worthy of winning any match, and while it didn’t prove decisive in light of Stoichkov’s first-half brace, it was debatably the pick of any Barcelona scored during what was a memorable season for the club.
For all the wealth of attacking quality at Cruyff’s disposal, no-one scored goals quite like Koeman did. He was inimitable, a defender capable of shutting world-class forwards out, able to spray pinpoint passes from side to side, a willing runner with the ball at his feet, and a player blessed with a unique talent for striking from deep. The goal against Porto merely typified what he was all about: calm in bringing possession out from the back, intelligent in exploiting space, and emphatic in the final action. Koeman was sublime and his style perfectly fit the juxtaposition of elegance and intensity demanded by Cruyff.
The Dutchman’s exceptional individual campaign would, however, result in heartbreak at the final hurdle as a fairytale ending to the season eluded him and his teammates. Having been the hero two years before with his game-winning free-kick against Sampdoria, he was a part of the defensive unit that was this time dismantled by another Italian side – Capello’s Milan.
On the back of securing a fourth successive LaLiga title – albeit on the final day of the season, as was also the case in the two prior seasons, with Barcelona pipping Deportivo to first place only owing to their superior goal difference – optimism heading into the final was understandable. However, Cruyff underestimated Milan. “Barcelona are favourites,” the manager insisted with misplaced conviction. “We’re more complete, competitive and experienced than at Wembley [two years before]. Milan are nothing out of this world. They base their game on defence; we base ours on attack.”
Cruyff’s words would come back to bite him, leaving more than just a mark as Capello’s men turned in a complete performance in Athens to humble the Dream Team with a 4–0 thrashing, crushing their hopes of lifting the trophy again. Barcelona failed to find their feet and turned in a showing devoid of the verve and creativity that their exploits over a number of seasons had promised. Daniele Massaro scored twice, while Dejan Savićević and Marcel Desailly also got in on the act as Milan celebrated winning the treble.
It was not the ending that Koeman’s campaign deserved, but it was one to remember for the 30-year-old, who sat at the very summit of the Champions League goalscoring charts alongside Wynton Rufer, the New Zealand international who excelled up front for Werder Bremen, with both players scoring eight apiece.
No defender had ever achieved such an accolade, with Koeman sweeping the top scorer award for his remarkable form in front of goal, which comprised three penalties, four free-kicks and one incredible effort from open play. He was his team’s chief source of inspiration throughout their route to Athens, and it was telling that he never dropped out of the starting line-up despite the pressure on Cruyff to somehow fit Laudrup, Stoichkov, and Romário into one team.
Koeman wouldn’t win another Champions League, but he departed Barcelona in 1995 a legend as he returned to the Netherlands to finish a professional career littered with honours and achievements at Feyenoord. He scored an astonishing 88 goals during his six-year tenure at Camp Nou and collected ten trophies along the way.
Having scored, on average, one goal in fewer than every three games throughout his playing career – Koeman netted 239 times in 685 club appearances – his goalscoring record is unmatched by any defender to have played in Europe. Of course, many of these strikes came from either the penalty spot or from free-kicks, but the Dutchman was a specialist.
He was, at one point in time, the best set-piece taker in football, and his technical quality aided him in achieving such a staggering return of goals across the marvellous career he enjoyed. The game may be changing, as it always will, but it seems impossible to envisage another defender netting quite as often, with the same efficiency and style, as he did.
Ronald Koeman was magnificent, a genuine joy to watch. There was little luck involved in his success, only pinpoint accuracy, unwavering confidence in his own ability and the technique to back it all up. He is one of football’s greatest ever defenders, and his incredible goalscoring run in 1993/94, including that goal against Porto, will forever be recalled as one of his greatest achievements.
By Luke Osman @lukeosman_