They are one another’s white whales. Ever since Ronald Koeman managed a bright young Ajax team featuring Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Wesley Sneijder and so many others to within inches of the Champions League semifinal in 2003, the former Barcelona star has been in contention to return to the club whenever the manager’s seat was open. Koeman was never shy about flirting back. He, too, envisioned a glorious return to complete his own soaring legacy in Catalonia.
It never quite happened. Most recently, back in January, Barcelona fired Ernesto Valverde for the crime of winning La Liga twice in a row and currently sitting in first place, the club’s first midseason sacking since 2003. It was the flashpoint when a complicated season turned into an annus horribilis. Koeman reportedly turned down the job then. He preferred to remain with the Dutch national team through the planned Euro 2020, before that was delayed a year by the coronavirus pandemic. Even though the latter didn’t pan out, it proved to be a wise move.
Under Quique Setien, Barcelona not only squandered the La Liga title to a rampant Real Madrid but was humiliated 8-2 by Bayern Munich in Friday’s Champions League quarterfinal — the club’s worst-ever European loss, sparking an instant crisis.
So now that Setien has been fired, or will be any minute, Koeman has been lined up to succeed him at last. Just a few months after promising to stay with the Dutch through the Euro, he will leave anyway, although the circumstances are mitigating, of course.
Koeman is a perfectly defensible appointment, if not a particularly inspiring one. Koeman isn’t the hot young manager anymore. He’s a 57-year-old journeyman. One who has worked in Spain before, flaming out with Valencia in less than six months back in 2008. Lately, he’s had a solid spell with Southampton in the Premier League, and then an underwhelming one with Everton. His Dutch national team looked strong in his two years in charge, but then it also had a gifted generation emerge. In ordinary times, this would have been business as usual.
The thing is, these aren’t ordinary times.
The same Monday morning that news of the Koeman appointment trickled out, the soccer world was grappling with a Sunday night report from a Brazilian outlet that superstar Lionel Messi wanted out of the club.
Messi actually leaving would be cataclysmic. Then again, the man himself has remained typically mum and often says he’d like to finish his career at the club he joined at 13, exactly 20 years ago. What’s more, there are few viable options for him at his salary and buyout fee. There is an argument to be made that Messi’s presence and insistence on competing stands in the way of the reboot the club needs. But his departure would be unforgivable to the fans, who also vote in the club’s presidential elections. Woe upon the man who manages to lose Lionel Messi.
These two threads of narrative drama at Barca — because when is there ever not drama at Barca? — are connected. After its first completely trophy-less year since 2007-08, the situation calls for deep introspection at the club. A full accounting of all that has gone wrong needs to be taken, of the failed transfer policies, the irreversible aging of the squad, the erosion of the team’s playing style, the lack of academy products in the first team. The whole lot needs to be reassessed.
Only then can the first team be retooled, or possible rebuilt, Messi permitting.
But quickly replacing one journeyman manager with another is the opposite of that. That’s why Koeman’s appointment, even though it was some 17 years in the making, rankles.
Barcelona is not in the habit of hiring big-time managers. The last time it attracted an up-and-coming manager coveted by other big clubs was the first appointment of Louis van Gaal in 1997. Since then, the succession of managers has veered from the largely unproven to the out-of-their-depth. Ironically, only Valverde had walked a more traditional upward trajectory toward the Barca job, with stops at Athletic Bilbao, Espanyol, Villareal and Valencia.
The board reportedly didn’t even really consider the out-of-work Mauricio Pochettino for the job because of his ties to local rival Espanyol and some old quotes about never working for Barca. Never mind that he’s the rare kind of manager with the wherewithal to oversee the reconstruction the team needs.
Koeman is a quick Band-Aid. Koeman is short-termism. Koeman is rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. A managerial change hardly satisfies when the problems run so much deeper. It won’t satisfy Messi, certainly, which has practically been the club’s raison d’etre for the better part of a decade and perhaps too long.
Every executive at the club is under pressure. More heads are expected to roll. The call for the club’s presidential elections to be held early, rather than next summer, swells by the day so that Josep Maria Bartomeu might face the gauntlet from the fans for the many failures during his five-year reign. Former president Joan Laporta will take another stab at returning and has spoken of bringing Pep Guardiola back as manager. Victor Font promises to install club legend Xavi.
Whatever the outcome, it will mean more flux. Koeman’s days at the club likely won’t be long, certainly not as long as his six triumphant seasons playing there, when he scored an astounding 88 goals as a defender specializing in free kicks. The joke has been made on Dutch soccer Twitter that Koeman will be back with the national team before the Euro anyway.
Barcelona has lost its way. Relying on a new manager to show it the way forward won’t work. Nobody is fooled.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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