Barça’s media staff recently had a lengthy talk with Ronald Koeman. The Dutchman spoke about the best way to win a football game, how he plans to rotate Leo Messi, and everything else Barcelona.
You are back at Camp Nou, where you had such success as a player, but now there are no fans, with the coronavirus having created such a strange situation. How has it been for you?
I played a lot of games here, and the fans always helped drive me forward, so without them, it’s been very difficult. But it’s the same for every team: we are all facing difficulties because of Covid.
Is the team noticing the pandemic?
A pandemic is also something new for me, so it’s been hard. And yes, the team does feel the difference. It’s especially hard when we play at home, because it’s such a huge ground and you really sense that it’s empty. After a while you might get used to playing without fans, but I think when the players go out onto the pitch and there’s no atmosphere, it’s very strange. You really miss the atmosphere.
You had the coronavirus. How was the experience?
I was really unwell. I was very tired and I had fever. It was worse at night but the symptoms weren’t of the worst type. I did feel very unwell though, and very tired.
If the pandemic hadn’t pushed the Euros back to 2021, you may still have managed Holland and not ended up at Barça.
Maybe. When Barcelona called me in January to ask if I’d be interested in the job, I said that I couldn’t leave the national team four or five months before the Euros. In March, when I knew we wouldn’t be going to the Euros in 2020, the situation changed. We were expecting a normal European Championship, with fans, albeit in different countries, but then it all changed. Perhaps if it hadn’t have been for Covid I’d have had to wait another year to take the Barcelona job.
In May you had a small health issue that you had to overcome. Did that change your life in any way?
When things like that happen, or when people close to you get sick, then life does change. In my case I had a small stroke, and it has made me think about things differently. Perhaps managing Barça became a case of ‘now or never.’ I’ve already been coaching for many years, and I don’t want to be coaching football when I’m 70. This was the right time.
Do you remember the day you told your wife Bartina, or your children, that you’d be coaching Barça?
Well, whenever Barça were looking for a new coach my name would come up, at the club and among the fans, but also from me because I often said that coaching Barça was always one of my dreams. When the chance came, my children and wife knew i was very excited. They actually preferred the idea of living in Barcelona rather than in Holland. That’s not a sporting thing, it’s about life. We have always felt at home here, but most importantly, they knew that it was one of my biggest dreams.
You’d been hoping to manage Barça for a long time, but it came at a very difficult time. But you didn’t need to give the matter much thought and people appreciate your bravery.
No, it was always my dream to coach Barcelona. I don’t think you should wait until the perfect moment for these things. If a team is getting good results, they don’t change the coach. Changes happen when the people are unhappy, because the team isn’t winning. I don’t know if I’d myself brave for accepting the job. I think any coach given that kind of chance would say yes to the job. Because of the people’s affection for me, because of the club, because of my personal relationship – I know the club well, I know the people, and I played here for six years and was assistant to Van Gaal for a year and a half. I knew it was a difficult time and that there would be big changes at the club. But I’m a coach and I know we have to play well and win our games. The rest of it is not in my hands.
You made history as a player, but would you like to do that as a coach too?
At a club like Barça you have to win trophies. I think our ultimate purpose is to win games and trophies. You get no prizes for finishing fourth, you need to be first. That’s the mentality that the team must have. We can’t settle for anything less. We know that this is a season with a lot of changes. The club are in a difficult financial situation. We’ve had issues regarding the players’ salaries. Despite all that, Barcelona are still a team that needs to win, with the awareness that changes need to be made (within the club), but still aspiring to the be at the highest level and making the biggest demands. That has been the mentality here and always has to be the mentality.
Does being a club legend add to the pressure not to disappoint?
Any coach that comes to Barça has to win and make the people happy. You can have whatever name you want, and whatever history you want, but ultimately it’s about the trophies you win. If you look at my coaching career, not just with Holland but at other places like Benfica, Valencia and Everton and Southampton in England: I wasn’t at big enough clubs to expect to win everything. Now I need to win over the fans and I have noticed that it’s not done easily. I feel that decisions and changes need to be made. Young players need to get their chance, and then we can assess. A coach has to work hard and show that they have the mentality to coach a club like this.
Has being a Barça legend helped you to manage the dressing room?
In general, it does help. Here, but also at other clubs. When a new coach has played at the highest level, there tends to be more trust. But the players aren’t stupid, and they know if a coach is good or not. It’s useful to have been a top player, but you need to prove your worth as a coach and not depend on things you’ve done in the past.
You have already shown conviction in your ideas and marked out the path forward, whatever happens. Is it important for you to stay faithful to your ideals?
It’s very important because it is much better to have faith in your own ideas because if you do lose your job and also change your ways, then it’s so much harder. It is important to find the right balance, to have people around you with whom you can discuss the decisions you have to make, but the lines need to be firmly set. It is also a clear message to the players. If a coach is black one day and white the next, you won’t get anywhere. If I lose, I have lost because of my ideas and my philosophy.
Analyst Àlex Delmàs asks this question: You were not a typical defender in your time. You were innovative and great at bringing the ball out of defence, with a spectacular shot, and fantastic at changing direction and covering ground. What do Koeman the player and Koeman the coach have in common?
Most of all, the hunger to win, that hasn’t changed. I want to see a team that plays, that dominates, but that also pressures the opponent. Football has also changed. In my time I was more about building from the back, but nowadays full backs are more like wingers. Football has changed, but I want to see my team winning, fighting, working. I want the team to play well, but we also need to be realistic about the way to get a good result.
You are Barça’s fifth Dutch manager and you’ve had relationships with all of them. What do you remember about Cruyff, Van Gaal and Rijkaard and Michels?
I had Johan as a manager for one year at Ajax, before we both went to Barcelona. He was probably the best player in the world during his era and knew so much about the small details in football. I had six very successful years under him. And we were a great bunch of players both on and off the pitch. Those were fantastic years. I was assistant to Van Gaal for a year and a half at Barça. The difference between Johan and Van Gaal is that Johan coached like a player, but Van Gaal was more of a professor, more methodological. Johan based things more on what he had seen, his feeling and experience. I have played with Frank (Rijkaard) but not coached, although we did the coaching course together for a year. I was with Michels in the national team. The only major trophy we have ever won was the European Championship in 1988 with Michels as coach. He was a coach with a lot of personality. You learn things from every coach, both positive and negative.
Messi has always played every game, but he’s now 33 years old. How will you be rotating him?
In theory, it’s the same for every player. If he is fit to play and on form, then he will play. But, of course, Leo is older than before, but he’s a player who still wants to be in every game, and to win them. He trains hard every day. He’s very engaged. As I coach I like to speak to my players, and I also speak to Leo about this and other things because he’s the team captain. We also speak about things regarding the squad, not just the way we play. That’s a part of a coach’s job, you need to be in communication with your players.
You don’t seem to like talking about individuals, but have Ansu and Pedri surprised you?
It’s always nice to talk about youngsters. They deserve it, but they still have a lot to learn. What Ansu and Pedri have done aged just 17 or 18 in such a big team as Barça is very impressive. Pedri has come from Las Palmas very young and is already playing games against teams like Madrid and Juventus, and doing so well.
It is important for a club to have youngsters and for them to get chances. You need to go through a generation change little by little. You still need the older players but they won’t be around forever, so you need to plan ahead. Pedri has earned his place in games because of his work in training. He has shown me what a good player he is and that he’s able to play in a team like Barcelona.
Has the club’s institutional and financial situation had any influence on the team?
It’s very difficult because it’s totally out of our hands. I have always insisted that if they are calm mentally, they’ll be calm in their bodies. But every team needs a certain amount of peace of mind in order to perform.