Abused by fans as he steered his car away from Barcelona’s last home game, Ronald Koeman was sacked while on the flight back from what turned out to be his final match as head coach.
Two defeats in four days sealed Koeman’s fate and accelerated talks to bring former club captain Xavi Hernandez in as his long-term replacement while Sergi Barjuan, another ex-Barca player, was temporarily promoted from coaching the club’s reserve team to be interim manager.
Wednesday’s 1-0 loss to Rayo Vallecano, the suburban Madrid club who were promoted to Spain’s top division in the summer, left Barca marooned in mid-table in La Liga. Following hard on the heels of the weekend defeat by Real Madrid in the clasico, it pushed club president Joan Laporta to backtrack on the commitment he had made less than a month ago to keep faith in the beleaguered Koeman.
“He deserves our confidence because he’s a man of this club,” Laporta had announced in early October, hours before Barcelona met Spanish champions Atletico Madrid. They lost there, and have since lost twice to opponents rich (Real) and poor (Rayo) from Madrid. Koeman, the “man of the club” who scored the Barcelona goal in 1992 that brought a first European Cup back to Camp Nou had used up his credit.
Another former player of status, Xavi, 41, was meanwhile being lined up to become Barcelona’s fourth different head coach since January 2020. The captain when Barca won the 2015 Champions League and whose number of matches for the club during what became a golden era is bettered only by Lionel Messi’s, Xavi has been head coach at Al-Sadd in Qatar for the last two and half years.
Like Koeman before him, he has made no secret of his ambition to coach Barcelona, and he has enjoyed enough success in Qatar’s domestic football - Al-Sadd won league and Cup last season - to endorse the long-held expectation that he, a masterly creative midfielder, was always destined to be a gifted manager.
Xavi is hugely popular among supporters, and their voice is heard louder than it has been through most of Koeman’s difficult period in charge, with Camp Nou closed to spectators until two months ago. The return of crowds, with Covid-19 restrictions easing, exposed Barca executives to direct expressions of disapproval. At a club where the president is elected by fans, that resonates.
Koeman saw as much on Sunday night, when, leaving the stadium after the 2-1 loss to Real Madrid, his car was surrounded by spectators, some of them banging on the roof and windows of the vehicle and shouting abuse.
In years to come, Koeman will be cheered again when he comes back as a guest to Camp Nou, because he was a hero as a player. But as head coach, he will be remembered as the man who gave up a good job - he had been leading a renaissance of the Dutch national team - for one that presented him with insurmountable challenges.
He was appointed in the wake of a humiliation, the 8-2 defeat by Bayern Munich in the quarter-final of the 2019-20 Champions League, which terminated the eight-month stint of Quique Setien as head coach.
He was then confronted with constraints on spending caused by Barcelona’s debts, which exceed €1bn. Among his first calls were to Suarez, whom he informed he should leave because the club wanted the Uruguayan off their unwieldy salary bill; and to Messi, who had submitted a transfer request that the club turned down.
Among Koeman’s triumphs were to establish a good working relationship with Messi and winning a Messi-inspired Copa del Rey final. Barcelona were in the title race until the penultimate day of last season, too, but proved more brittle than Atletico and Real Madrid under the pressure of a tight contest to finish top of La Liga.
Messi then left abruptly, Laporta explaining that even on a reduced salary, Barcelona could not afford him. Yet with and without Messi, a consistent feature of Koeman’s Barcelona has been their failure in matches against heavyweight opposition. Sunday’s loss in the clasico was the third time in three meetings with Real Madrid as Barca coach that Koeman lost. In the past 11 months, Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain and Bayern have all won by three-goal margins at Camp Nou.
When Benfica, one of Koeman’s many ex-employers in a long, up-and-down coaching career, inflicted a 3-0 defeat in the Champions League last month, Laporta came close to dismissing the Dutchman. He eventually fired him days ahead of the group-stage fixture away at Dynamo Kiev that could, if Barca lose, signpost elimination from the competition at the first hurdle.
The next man in must face up to that possibility, to a battle to finish in La Liga’s top four, and to the deficiencies in a squad that contains some exceptional teenaged talent - led by Pedri and Ansu Fati - but a number of veterans - Gerard Pique, Sergio Busquets, Jordi Alba and Sergio Aguero - whose peak years are behind them.