While Barça announced that Ronald Koeman would be the team’s new coach, it is for his time as a player that he is most renowned, since he became a true club legend.
Born in Zaandam, the Netherlands, and living at a time when his country was a football giant as a national team and also had one of the most dominant leagues in all of Europe, Ronald Koeman had the dream of becoming a great footballer as Johan Cruyff was as a player. Fortunately, Koeman had the opportunity to start his football career at Groningen, a well-known team in today’s Eredivise. In 1980, at only 17 years of age, he was able to make his professional debut alongside his brother Erwin Koeman, also a footballer.
Ronald quickly became an essential player on his team and was drawing attention from everyone but especially from the teams in his country, since at that time there were more bureaucratic obstacles for a footballer to play abroad. While young, he already had that attitude, dominance, and tactical intelligence that characterised him throughout his career.
Three years after his debut he received an offer from Ajax, a team where an ambitious Johan Cruyff had started his –– successful –– trajectory as a coach. There, Koeman was a fundamental piece for the Amsterdam side that was crowned league champion in the 1984/85 season and national cup champion in the 1985/86 campaign. By this time Ronald was already considered one of the best Dutch players, with only 22 years of age and one of the talents with the most potential in the world of football for being a defender who had excellent footwork and, remarkably, an unparalleled eye for goal for someone in such position. The world was at his feet.
In 1986, after two successful courses at Ajax, Koeman signed for the eternal rivals of the Ajacied, PSV Eindhoven, a club where the young Ronald lived his second-best stage as a footballer. For two consecutive years, the player was considered the best Dutchman and one of the best footballers in the world. In addition, he was able to win three leagues, two national cups, and his first European Cup in 1988 by beating Benfica.
At Barcelona from 1989 to 1995, Ronald Koeman would go on to become the foreigner with most appearances in Barcelona’s history, until Lionel Messi, Dani Alves, Javier Mascherano, Ivan Rakitić, Philip Cocu and Luis Suárez overcame him after his departure | Photo by Gerard Julien / AFP via Getty Images
While Koeman was enjoying his first European Cup, now known as the UEFA Champions League, Barcelona hired Johan Cruyff as the new coach. Influenced by Johan and seeing the way in which an entire structure had changed in just one year, Koeman signed for Barça in 1989 to become a cornerstone of the project that Cruyff was starting.
This is where Ronald reached his prime, as during this period no other defender was at his level. Barcelona not only had the best coach of the time, but also one of the best players internationally. Koeman arrived as an experienced player and became a hero and a symbol of success and history for the blaugrana entity when he scored the goal that gave Barça their first European Cup in history. After 111 goalless minutes against Sampdoria, Koeman hit another of his trademark free-kicks –– this time an indirect one –– to hand Barcelona an unprecedented trophy for them. From that moment he became the hero of Wembley.
Furthermore, Ronald Koeman was part of Cruyff’s Dream Team that won four consecutive La Liga titles from 1991 to 1994, in addition to the 1990 Copa del Rey. As a player, Ronald Koeman was unique in the world. A pivot or holding midfielder transformed into a centre-back that was the leader of Cruyff’s back three. Koeman had an outstanding ball control, ability to build up play and break lines, passing range, vision, intelligence and an enormous impact in both areas. Moreover, Ronald was a player with a character and intensity that set him apart from the rest. A tough man who always wanted to win and who never accepted the word defeat. Competitiveness to the maximum level.
Probably the most surprising thing about him is that he is the defender with most goals in football history with 253 goals in 535 official matches –– surreal numbers for a centre-back. Similarly, he is the highest-scoring defender in Barcelona’s history with a total of 90 goals. If we compare them with other legends, he has more goals than Xavi Hernández, the Spanish Luis Suárez and Johan Cruyff. The main reason for Koeman’s high numbers was his great aerial game but, mostly, his shooting power and accuracy from long range, free-kicks or penalties. One of the best set ball specialists ever.
Ronald Koeman is considered one of the best defenders in the history of football and Barcelona. He’s probably on an exclusive list with Barça icons like Joan Segarra, Migueli, Carles Puyol, Rafa Márquez, and Gerard Piqué. Without a doubt, a living legend who will now look to replicate such triumphs as a coach.
Josep Samitier, the artist and hero of Barcelona’s first golden age
Josep Samitier was a surrealist artist on and off the pitch and a legendary midfielder that brought Barcelona its first successful era in the 1920s, as well as some controversy throughout his career.
Surrealism, a deceptive interrogation of reality that transcends the human subconscious to manipulate or alter the coherent understanding of existence. Josep Samitier Vilalta, or “L’home llagosta” (The lobster man) was the most surreal portrait in the history of FC Barcelona. He was called the ‘surrealista’, because his genius produced the illusions on the pitch that were perplexing to fathom as reality.
History is constructed up on the interdependency of figures and events. Samitier was one of those figures who created a rift in the annals of world football to produce the first reverberation of football in the streets of Barcelona. The footballing revolution in Catalonia peaked in the early 1920s, especially in Barcelona, as it was the beginning of the first golden age.
With the construction of the Les Corts stadium, the club assembled a group of talented, young players. Josep Samitier, along with Paulino Alcántara, Ricardo Zamora, Emili Sagi-Barba, Vicenç Piera and Agustín Sancho became the first generation of the club idols. Samitier, among others, was an integral part of Barcelona’s rebuilding of character and went on to become one of the most significant personalities both in terms of sporting and cultural relevance.
Samitier was born on 2nd February 1902 in a Catalan working-class family. As a young boy in the streets of Barcelona where the roads of passion and dreams lead to the grant Les Corts, ‘El Sami’ would kick the ball around waving at the passing commons.
After the club’s establishment, FC Barcelona had quite an attachment with the proletarian class. Especially at the time of industrial unrest, the institution always kept them close and the stadium was always packed with the same working-class populace. Young minds like Samitier who would grow up in the streets of Barcelona always had the ball on their feet and club in their heart.
Samitier started playing for FC Internacional before making his debut for Barcelona at the age of 17 in 1919. The club museum still preserves and cherishes his signing bonuses, a shimmering watch and a three-piece suit. By 1925, Samitier became the highest-paid player at the club and thus became the highest-earning player in the country.
The division of labour was evident in the early years of European football. Whilst the backline remained static to protect the goal, the forward line had to pick and fight the battle on their own. Samitier was among the key figures who created a paradigm shift from this prevailing ‘Basque style’, where the attackers held the sole responsibility to win the ball and navigate their own way to find a goal. Samitier was among the first players to orchestrate the game from the back. He was like a master of the opera performance where he controlled and navigated the rhythm and flow of the game.
Josep Samitier (middle), alongside teammates Emili Sagi-Barba (left) and Vicenç Piera (right) from the successful Barcelona team of the 1920s | Photo by FC Barcelona
Samitier was an exceptional player who could manipulate the ball like a wizard, and he dribbled the ball around the pitch like a ballet dancer. He was the first midfielder general in the history of Spanish football, whose role was the hybrid between a Pivote (central midfielder) and the Leñero (chopper) or sweeper. Samitier was the harbinger of the modern-day box-to-box role. Despite being positioned in a deep-lying role, Samitier was an outstanding goalscorer. It was rather unusual for a midfielder of that time to score an astonishing 184 goals for any club in Europe.
Even though Barcelona was graced with many prolific players, Samitier was the core of the magnificent Barça team of the 1920s. He would hack the ball from the opposition to carry the ball from the midfield to provide a line-breaking pass in the final third. His glorious days at Les Corts were filled with thrilling langosta (lobster) kicks which would eventually evolve into the modern ‘chilena’ or bicycle-kick. Samitier was an entertainer on the pitch. His ostentatious performance attracted the Catalans into the stadium.
His glittering thirteen years in a blaugrana shirt were decorated with 11 Catalan Championships, 5 Spanish Championships and the first Spanish league that began in 1928. Moreover, his time with Barça was embellished with title-winning goals in the Copa del Rey finals of 1922, 1925, 1926 and 1928.
Pepe Samitier’s momentous career at Barcelona transformed him from a sporting figure to a cultural icon in Catalan society. His reputation at the club produced a strong political outline for himself among the intellectuals in the society. It was an unprecedented period in the socio-cultural scenario of Europe. The entrée of subjective art and understanding by Salvador Dalí, Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh among other artistic prominence overtook the existing concepts of impressionism and naturalism.
Samitier aligned with surrealism, indulging the spirit of subjectivity. He reflected this both in the game and in his outside loyalties. His acquaintances mostly consist of radical artists and political figures of the time, including the tango maestro Carlos Gardel, Mauricio Chevalier, Salvador Dalí and, in contrast to his idol figure in Catalonia, he also had a close relationship with the dictator Franco.
In 1933, after a dramatic feud with the Barcelona management, an ageing El Sami dropped from the first team. Real Madrid, then called Madrid CF, took advantage of this dispute and were able to convince him to join the club. However, it was his secret allegiance with General Franco that helped Madrid to accomplish the operation.
Even though his short stint at Madrid wasn’t really celebrated, Samitier did guide them to win the La Liga title in 1932/33 and the Copa de España in 1934. But he played a significant role for Madrid, not as a player but as a super-agent in a decade-defining transfer of Alfredo Di Stéfano, whose intended destination was Barcelona. This signing was the inflexion point for Madrid in the 1960s, as Di Stéfano would go on to score 216 goals and play an important role in their European domination. Although Samitier’s allegiance with General Franco was visible, this transfer saga threw the relationship open into society.
Real Madrid’s signing of Alfredo Di Stéfano (right) changed Real Madrid’s history forever | Photo by Staff / AFP via Getty Images
Before the Spanish civil war burst out in 1936, Samitier spent a brief time in managing Atlético de Madrid, succeeding Fred Pentland in the middle of the season, but failed to keep them in the first division. Nonetheless, the season was scrapped as soon as the civil war started and Samitier, who had strong ties with the nationalist side, found himself blacklisted and arrested by the anarchist militia.
Eventually, he was released by the militia and fled to France. His exile to France was later utilized by the Franco regiment to spread the anti-communist propaganda by portraying this event in a film titled ‘The Stars Search for Peace’, where Samitier enacted himself. During his time in France, Samitier joined OGC Nice as a player, where he would unite with his old teammate Zamora. He went onto score 47 goals in 82 matches. In 1939, he retired as a footballer and briefly managed OGC Nice in 1942.
After two years and 8 months, the civil war ended and the nationalists alliance under General Franco demolished the second Spanish republic to establish the new Spanish state. Josep Samitier returned to Spain in 1944, and he took charge of Barcelona. His homecoming was celebrated as he guided Barcelona to win their second-ever La Liga title in 1945 and lifted the Copa de Oro Argentina by beating the Copa del Generalísimo winners Athletic Club de Bilbao.
Subsequently, Samitier became the chief scout of the club and his keen vision in recognising the talent resulted in the discovery and recruitment of Ladislao Kubala, a player who went on to become a legend at Barcelona. The recruitment of Kubala was the status redemption for Samitier, who had lost its shine after the Di Stéfano transfer saga.
In 1972, Samitier rested his soul and left his showmanship and sorcery to cherish in the memories of Catalans. Despite serving Madrid and his close relationship with General Franco, he was given an honourable state funeral as a Catalan hero. Samitier was the most symbolic player in the history of the club. His close affiliation with both the cultural and sporting context of Barcelona formed an irrevocable stature of him in the Catalan society.
Samitier, as a footballing visionary, is a reference to the modern-day midfielders and, on the other hand, he was an imperative cultural icon who embraced a revolutionary socio-cultural movement in his life. Samitier’s journey from being an ambitious boy in the streets of Barcelona to a footballing legend remains one of the inspiring and reviving narrative in the history of the game. Even today, walking down the Josep Samitier Street, one could still gather an enigmatic chanting celebrating the greatest artist in the history of Barcelona.