On his way out of Camp Nou on Sunday evening, Ronald Koeman got caught in traffic. It can happen when the biggest club stadium in Europe, set close to the heart of a major city, has 80,000-odd exiting at the same time.
But the issue for Koeman, Barcelona’s head coach, was not a gridlock of cars. It was people, on foot, crowding around his vehicle, Barca supporters intent on haranguing, up close and aggressive, and, once the harassment began, the gathering of those who just wanted to film the abuse on their phones.
Fists banged on Koeman’s car. Insults roared at him. What looked like spit landed on the windscreen. His wife was in the passenger seat. Eventually, the vehicle slowly eased away. The next morning Barcelona issued a statement condemning the “violent” incidents. “The club will take security and disciplinary measures to make sure these regrettable events do not happen again,” it said.
Koeman’s Barca had lost 2-1 to Real Madrid, the fourth successive clasico defeat against their fiercest rivals, and the third on Koeman’s watch. But this was different to the previous two, because, for the first time since the Dutchman became head coach 14 months ago, it was played out in front of a crowd close to capacity.
A clasico in front of a packed Camp Nou, with Koeman in the technical area, is a scenario he had been looking forward to for more than two decades. This is the management job Koeman has aspired to since he retired as the player whose finest moment was scoring, with one of his trademark direct free-kicks, the goal at Wembley in 1992 that won for Barcelona a European Cup final for the first time.
Once he went, successfully, into management, Koeman targeted coaching his old club. It has been a roundabout journey to get there, via clubs in Netherlands, Spain, Portugal and the Premier League, where his time at Southampton and Everton was not always made easy by his undisguised longing to one day be head coach at Camp Nou. Last year he gave up managing a rising Netherlands national team to fulfill the long-term dream.
Koeman is not naive. He knew this was as hard a time as any this century to be working at debt-burdened Barcelona, and that coaches with better pedigree than his had been put off applying for a job that means dealing with diminishing resources. Lionel Messi has left Camp Nou on Koeman’s watch, as have Luis Suarez and Antoine Griezmann.
To cover the departure of Griezmann, loaned back to the same Atletico Madrid who Suarez propelled to the Liga title last season, Koeman lobbied for the loan signing of Luuk de Jong. The journeyman target man from the Dutch national team immediately became the focus of derision from some supporters because he is seen as a footballer without the stylish grace barcelonistas regard as obligatory - and because he is seen as Koeman’s man.
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When De Jong came on in the clasico, he was booed. “I don’t like to hear that,” said Koeman, though he also praised the biggest crowd - over 85,000 - to have watched a Barcelona game since before the Covid pandemic. “The public were phenomenal until the last second.”
Once he was driving away from the stadium, Koeman experienced a different aspect of the public.
He is still the Hero of Wembley in Barcelona folklore but being a club icon as a player grants limited credit once you become a head coach at the same club. This is a harsh time for some of those who have made that transition. Since Koeman took up his job, he has seen Andrea Pirlo, the ex-Juventus player promoted with little experience to the coaching role, be hired and fired by Juve. He has seen Zinedine Zidane, European Cup-goalscoring hero for Real Madrid, step down for a second time as Madrid head coach, and even Hansi Flick, ex-Bayern Munich player and brilliantly successful Bayern coach, quit his post.
In Pirlo’s case, he was not ready for the managerial challenge. Zidane and Flick found that past achievements did not gain them the authority over club decisions that they sought.
Juventus, Bayern and Madrid have all beaten Koeman’s Barcelona in the past 12 months. So have Atletico and Paris Saint-Germain. “We are getting closer to winning a big game,” said Koeman before he got into his car on Sunday. He suspects that if he is still in charge for the next heavyweight fixture, it is largely because Barcelona cannot lure an elite replacement or afford the costs of firing one manager and hiring another.