How the perfect Ronald Koeman and the underrated Erwin drove the Netherlands to Euro 88 glory

How the perfect Ronald Koeman and the underrated Erwin drove the Netherlands to Euro 88 glory

On reflection, the Netherlands side of 1988 had pretty much everything. The legendary Rinus Michels in charge, Marco van Basten and Ruud Gullit leading the line up front; even the kit was perfect. Such a team were orchestrated from the back by sweeper Ronald Koeman, a man renowned for his toughness in the tackle, pinpoint passing and accuracy from set-pieces.

In the spirit of Totaalvoetbal, Koeman enjoyed an otherworldly relationship with his teammates. There was however one player with whom this bond extended beyond anything even the best coach could instil. On the left wing of Michels’ 4-4-2 system was Ronald’s older brother Erwin. To this day the pair remain the only siblings to play together in a European Championship final.

The journey to this accolade began in the nondescript city of Zaandam in North Holland. Erwin was born here in September 1961, with Ronald arriving some 18 months later in March 1963. Immediately pedigree was there. The boys’ father Martin was also a footballer, playing over 500 times for Groningen and their predecessors GVAV. Owing to his influence the Koeman boys would grow up in the city and begin their careers at its premier club.

As the older brother, Erwin was naturally first to make his professional debut, in early May 1979 in a top of the table clash in the second tier with Excelsior. A midfielder capable of playing either on the left or down the middle, after just a dozen games he was signed that summer by PSV Eindhoven. In these initial three seasons at Philips Stadion though Erwin would fail to break into the first team, and in 1982 he returned to Groningen.

By this stage, Ronald was firmly established as the side’s star. The sweeper made his debut a year after Erwin against NEC in September 1980, becoming Groningen’s third youngest ever player in the process. Quickly however his completeness, with an equal ability to create goals and stop them, signalled he was destined for greatness. In his first full season, Ronald helped get Groningen promoted, and in the 1982/83 Eredivisie the brothers played side by side in a team that ultimately finished fifth.

The Koemans were now internationals, making their debut in April 1983 in a friendly against Sweden. The performances of Ronald, however, meant he especially was being courted by bigger clubs. In the summer of 1983 he transferred to Ajax, where he would win the Eredivisie in 1985 and KNVB Cup a year later. Erwin, meanwhile, decided his future lay across the Belgian border at rich upstarts KV Mechelen.

Back in the Netherlands, in the summer of 1986, Ronald made the controversial decision to swap Amsterdam for reigning champions PSV. With hindsight, it would prove inspired. Two further Dutch titles and the 1988 European Cup were added to his trophy cabinet. Koeman opened the scoring in the victorious penalty shootout against Benfica, scoring 26 further goals across the campaign despite playing largely at centre back.

That same year Erwin was also enjoying the glory of lifting a European trophy, Mechelen having defeated Ajax 1-0 in the final of the Cup Winners’ Cup. This brought about an unusual situation in the 1989 UEFA Super Cup, with the Koeman brothers facing off in a two-legged contest. Pitting Erwin and Ronald as foes, it was the former who triumphed as Mechelen won 3-1 on aggregate.

The previous summer had seen both players travel to West Germany for the Euros on far better terms. Under Michels guidance, the second generation of Oranje talent was tipped as one of the favourites. They started slowly with a 1-0 loss to the Soviet Union, only for wins over England and the Republic of Ireland to see them progress as group runners-up.

In the semi-finals the Dutch faced West Germany in Hamburg. The hosts took the lead through Lothar Matthäus’ penalty, only for Ronald to show anything you can do, I can better some twenty minutes after. A late winner from Van Basten put the Dutch into the final, where his famous volley and another strike from Gullit clinched a 2-0 win over the USSR.

Freshly crowned, another fine campaign with PSV saw Ronald answer the inevitable calling from Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona in 1989. In his first season, he helped the club defeat Real Madrid 2-0 in the Copa del Rey final. Obviously missing a Koeman in their midst, a year later the PSV hierarchy brought Erwin back from Belgium. Second time round he would fare much better in Eindhoven, winning back to back Eredivisie championships in 1991 and 1992. 

Original Series  |  Brothers in Arms

If league titles were the order of the day for the Koeman boys, in Spain Ronald they would begin to border on monotonous. Alongside the likes of Michael Laudrup and Hristo Stoichkov in Cruyff’s Dream Team, Koeman would win four LaLigas in a row from 1991 to 1994.

Despite these successes, none were Ronald’s defining moment in Spain. That honour would be left to the 1992 European Cup final against Sampdoria. With eight minutes of extra-time remaining at Wembley, Koeman lined up a free-kick on the edge of the box. Smashing home what would prove the only goal of the game, it handed Barça their first European Cup.

As mentioned, such accuracy from set-pieces was one of Ronald’s most potent weapons. Despite playing as a sweeper, Koeman’s ability from dead balls meant he scored an unusually high number of goals – 67 of them in 192 appearances for Barça to be precise, with eight in the 1994 Champions League making him the competition’s joint top scorer. When it comes to footballers, Ronald Koeman was a unique breed.

He would bring down the curtain on his career at Feyenoord, joining in 1995 before retiring two years later. Here he would line up against Erwin once more who, keeping it in the family, spent the final four years of his career back at Groningen.

Having been exposed so much to Michels and Cruyff, it was only natural both brothers would end up in coaching. For Ronald, this began as second in command to Guus Hiddink with the Netherlands, before adopting an identical role back at Barcelona with Louis van Gaal.

Meanwhile, Erwin spent six years between PSV’s youth side and as first-team assistant. Both brothers would earn their stripes at lesser Dutch sides, Ronald with Vitesse in 2000/01 and Erwin at RKC Waalwijk in 2004.

Having led Vitesse to a UEFA Cup spot in his sole season, Ronald was appointed Ajax manager in 2002. Winning a league and cup double in his first year, this was followed by the 2004 Eredivisie. Things, however, tailed off, and in late February 2005 he resigned with the club eight points behind PSV.

For contrasting reasons, that same 2004/05 campaign would prove pivotal for Erwin. Leading RKC to eighth was enough to earn him the top job at Feyenoord. In 2006/07 he would face up Ronald once again, after he had returned to the Netherlands with PSV following a disappointing year at Benfica. Reflecting the contrasting directions of their managerial careers, during this season Ronald came out on top with a win and a draw.

Erwin would leave Feyenoord in May 2007 after a 5-1 defeat to Heerenveen, whilst Ronald guided PSV to their twentieth Eredivisie title. He would then enjoy failed spells at Valencia and AZ before returning to Feyenoord in 2011. In doing so he became the first person to both play for and coach all of Holland’s big three clubs.

Here he would encounter Erwin once again, who had returned to RKC after indifferent stints in charge of Hungary, Utrecht and FC Eindhoven. This season would be the last time the duo would compete; following the conclusion of the 2013/14 campaign, Ronald took Erwin with him as assistant in his new job at Southampton. Impressing in two seasons at St. Mary’s, the duo would move on for a fateful 15 months at Everton before going their separate ways once again.

In February 2018, Ronald was appointed as the manager of the national team, tasked with rebuilding a squad that had failed to qualify for Euro 2018 to win the inaugural UEFA Nations League the following year. Erwin moved on to Fenerbahçe as Phillip Cocu’s assistant. He briefly served as caretaker after Cocu was sacked following a dreadful start, before moving on to coach Oman.

Given Erwin’s sacking in December of last year and Ronald’s recent appointment as manager of Barcelona, the brothers now appear further apart than ever. This, however, only tells half the story. From childhood and career beginnings in Groningen to lifting the Euros and managing both against and alongside one another, Erwin and Ronald Koeman have been there for each other for the best part of 57 years.

By James Kelly @jkell403

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