Ronald Koeman goes back home on Friday night as he begins his second tenure as manager of the Netherlands. The 60-year-old last coached the Oranje between 2018 and 2020. Koeman left for a disappointing spell at Barcelona, the La Liga side at which he enjoyed legendary status as a player. Now Koeman seeks redemption as he returns to the national team hotseat.
Despite its abrupt end, Koeman’s first tenure as Netherlands boss was a successful one. The team had failed to qualify for the Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup when Dick Advocaat resigned. Koeman took the reins and steered the Netherlands to their first tournament since 2014, qualifying for Euro 2020.
The global pandemic saw that tournament postponed until the following year. With no international showpiece on the horizon, Koeman found the call of Camp Nou impossible to resist. An icon in Catalonia, making 264 appearances and scoring a whopping 88 goals despite primarily playing in defence, Koeman won four La Liga titles and helped the club lift its first European Cup.
It’s safe to say that Koeman’s spell in the dugout paled in comparison to his time on the Camp Nou pitch. The Dutchman did win the Copa del Rey during his 14-month tenure, but that was as good as it got. As a financial hurricane swirled around the club, eventually holding Lionel Messi in its sway, Koeman could not keep the fire burning at home or abroad.
3rd place, the aforementioned cup triumph and a Champions League round of 16 elimination was not the stellar season the Blaugrana fans had hoped for. There was some acknowledgement that with the threat of La Liga sanctions necessitating a tightening of the belts, it was an acceptable transitional season. But when Barca found themselves in ninth place the following October, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Being a club legend only buys you so much grace, especially when another in the form of Xavi is waiting in the wings.
Had an unprecedented global pandemic not delayed Euro 2020, Koeman might never have left the role he now returns to. It is impossible to discern how he would have done in the two tournaments that have taken place since he swapped country for club. Would Koeman still be in situ, having presided over respectable-to-remarkable results in either the continent-hopping Euros or the Qatar World Cup? Or would his reputation lay in tatters in that unique way only a failed international stint can accomplish?
In a way, Koeman has benefited from his international standing being in a sort of suspended animation. The former Southampton manager did everything asked of him with the Oranje during his first spell. The differences between international and club management, particularly a club as neurotic as Barcelona, are stark enough to ring-fence his international achievements from his latest club failings. Koeman is accomplished as a club manager but his Barcelona ending has damaged his standing in that world. Now a successful spell with the Netherlands can revive it.
That journey starts against France on Friday. The World Cup finalists provide a robust first test. Win here and Koeman will kick his tenure off in style. Lose and the visit of Gibraltar on Monday should provide a pressure-free chance to gain his bearings. Welcome to Koeman’s Netherlands 2.0.
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