Barcelona on Wednesday presented to a shell-shocked fanbase a new manager who to some will seem like an old friend.
Ronald Koeman, unveiled as the replacement of the sacked Quique Setien less than five days after the club's humiliating 8-2 defeat in the Champions League to Bayern Munich, has a cachet for life at the club, and will hope it affords him some protection.
Koeman’s goal, from a direct free-kick at Wembley against Sampdoria, delivered Barcelona the first of their five European Cups. It was 1992, quite late in the 20th century for a heavyweight club to reach their breakthrough moment. Barcelona owe Koeman and they still did 14 years later when, well into the era of Lionel Messi, they finally won their next Champions League title.
Naturally, one of the first questions to confront Koeman, who has left his job as head coach of Holland to accept Barcelona's offer, was how long he envisages the Messi Era enduring, now that the club great and captain is 33 and clearly unhappy at the team's apparent decline.
“I hope Messi is here for many years,” Koeman said. “He’s the best in the world and you want the best in the world with you and not playing for the opposition. I want him in my team. He’s a match-winner who I will be thrilled to work with.”
To coach Barcelona, Koeman added, "is a dream come true." The 57-year-old has signed a two-year deal. Messi is contracted to one more season, and, perhaps more than at any time since he first became attached to Barcelona as a 13-year-old, the bond between the Argentinian and his club looks very frayed.
There are certain repairs no manager of Barcelona can make, and the openly hostile relationship between Messi and a number of senior players and the board, led by president Josep Maria Bartomeu, is an ongoing, toxic issue. Bartomeu’s mandate ends next year, with elections anticipated in March or a little later. Messi would welcome an entirely new regime as soon as possible.
What is awkward for Koeman is that a new regime will not feel compelled to stick by the old boss’s choice of manager. Even before Koeman was presented to the media, one prospective future president was welcoming him with a blunt promise.
“If I am president,” said Victor Font, understood to have solid support among the club’s season-ticket holders, who will vote on the presidency, “Ronald Koeman will not be the coach.
“He’s a club legend, and we must be thoroughly grateful that with the difficulties the club and the dressing-room face, and the decisions that need to be taken, he has accepted the challenge. We wish him the best and let’s hope he wins the Treble. But our plan is for a different management structure and is already thoroughly prepared.”
Koeman responded: “I know there will be elections but there’s nothing I can do about them except win matches and make a case that way.”
There are towering challenges ahead. Messi spelled them out last month, when he described the team who had let slip their advantage in the Liga title race, which Real Madrid won, as "weak". Koeman comes into a Barcelona who have finished a season without a major trophy for the first time in 12 years.
But he brings experience, not only of how the club works but of coaching in Spain, where he was manager at Valencia, a demanding environment, in 2007-08. He has managed Benfica in Portugal and each of the Big Three in the top division of the Netherlands, Ajax, PSV Eindhoven and Feyenoord, winning the league with Ajax and Feyenoord. His last two jobs in club football were in the Premier League, with Southampton, and Everton, the former stint more appreciated than the latter.
The job he has just quit recommends him as the man to turn fortunes around. Holland had failed to even qualify for the 2016 European championship or the 2018 World Cup when he took over. Under Koeman they immediately finished runners-up in the Uefa Nations League.
At Camp Nou, he will have a busy start. A cadre of long-serving and older players will be invited to leave, and some club legends with as much European Cup pedigree as Koeman. Players like Sergio Busquets, the midfielder, and even Luis Suarez, the most productive striking partner Messi has known, are hovering near the exit. Ivan Rakitic may well have played his last game for Barcelona.
Koeman has been warned the money to recruit is limited, too, although Barcelona hope to raise some by selling Philippe Coutinho, who was bought in 2018 for €160 million (Dh698m), but invited to leave last summer, when he went on loan to Bayern.
Barcelona will take a huge loss on their Coutinho investment but hope his sale might fund a new striker, with Inter Milan's Lautaro Martinez a long-term target.