When talking about football legends, some of the finest defenders ever to grace the game often get overlooked in favour of attackers. Perhaps because ‘clean sheets’ and ‘tackles won’ statistics don’t look as impressive as goals scored. It’s why the Ballon D’Or has often been labelled a ‘goalscoring competition’ by players and fans alike. However, there was one unique player who was as gifted a goalscorer as he was a defender. Step forward, Ronald Koeman.
By making his debut for FC Groningen, aged 19, Ronald followed in his father’s footsteps as well as his older brother Erwin. In 1983, Koeman transferred to Ajax where he played under Johan Cruyff for the first time. A relationship whose successes would mainly come in a different league, as Ajax won just the one Eredivisie title with Koeman in 1985. In 1987, he moved to rivals PSV Eindhoven, where his reputation and trophy haul grew rapidly.
Three consecutive Eredivisie titles in 1987, 88’ and 89’ propelled Koeman on to the international stage. His reputation as a goalscorer also grew, as he scored an incredible 51 goals in 98 games (0.52 ratio) at PSV. To put this in comparison, here is where Koeman ranks among some forwards in terms of league goals to games:
Alexis Sanchez at Arsenal – 53 goals in 103 games (0.51 ratio)
Karim Benzema at Real Madrid – 122 goals in 244 games (0.5 ratio)
Alan Shearer at Newcastle – 148 goals in 303 games (0.48 ratio)
Diego Milito at Inter Milan – 62 goals in 128 games (0.48 ratio)
Diego Costa at Atletico Madrid – 43 goals in 94 games (0.45 ratio)
Raul at Real Madrid – 228 goals in 550 games (0.41 ratio)
Jozy Altidore at Sunderland – 1 goal in 42 games (terrible ratio)
If you can’t tell already, Koeman had an eye for goal to say the least. In 1989, aged 26, he was recruited again by Cruyff as part of his ‘Dream Team’. Already an established international, this is where Koeman would enjoy the most prolific and successful period of his career over the next six seasons.
He established his own role as an ‘attacking centre-back’ (imagine John Stones but you know, good at it) and occasionally defensive midfielder. This played to Koeman’s strengths, most notably his incredible technique. His method of striking the ball led to pin-point passes, clinical penalties and of course, those famous free-kicks.
After a difficult first season which included long-term injury, losing out to Real Madrid in La Liga and finishing runners up in the UEFA Super Cup, there would be light at the end of the tunnel for Koeman and Barcelona. And what a bright light it was.
The first of four consecutive La Liga trophies arrived in 1991, and in 1992 came perhaps the most memorable moment of Koeman’s career. In the European Cup Final, 1992 against Sampdoria, Roberto Mancini and co. circle the referee to protest a free kick given against them. Hristo Stoichkov and a young Pep Guardiola are also involved as the decision is made and the ball is placed between 25-30 yards from goal.
Ronald Koeman saunters over, a familiar journey from defense to attacking third and assumes control over the free-kick, by this point his reputation precedes him. Just as he has done so throughout his career, Koeman unleashes a strike into the left-hand side of the net and wheels away in celebration. It would turn out to be the only goal of the night, and the one that lead to Barcelona’s first ever European Cup. That night, and ‘that’ free-kick, cemented Koeman’s legacy as not only a trail-blazing defender, but a history-maker for Barcelona.
Koeman and Barca would also reach the final of the 1994 European Cup (re-branded as the Champions League). In the final, Cruyff’s met were uncharacteristically demolished by Milan 4-0. However, it was still a successful tournament for Koeman as incredibly he finished joint top-scorer with 8 goals.
Two more La Liga titles would follow before Koeman returned home to the Netherlands with Feyenoord. His record secured his legacy as a key figure in Cruyff’s famous ‘Dream Team’. 102 goals in 345 games as a Barca player (26 being free-kicks), whilst also finishing his career the highest-scoring defender in football history with 239 in 685 games. Honest and outspoken as a player and manager, his proudest achievement will always be his legendary twitter account.