Ronald Koeman knew even before he arrived in Barcelona that his journey as the club’s manager had ended. His team had just lost for the second time in four days, beaten by Real Madrid on Sunday and then by modest Rayo Vallecano on Wednesday. It was marooned in ninth place in La Liga. There could be, the club decided, no way back.
The decision to fire Koeman was made while he and his players were still in transit. Barcelona’s president, Joan Laporta, had spent the flight back from Madrid consulting with several executives, according to Sport, the Catalan newspaper, and then informed Koeman that he had decided to end his 14-month tenure. A statement from Barcelona made the decision official a little after midnight.
For all the urgency of those last few hours, Koeman’s demise has been anything but swift. He led Barcelona to a disappointing — but hardly disastrous — third-place finish in his first, and only, full campaign at the club, the season salvaged somewhat by a victory in the Copa del Rey.
The summer, though, brought sweeping change. Koeman had to manage the sudden departure of Lionel Messi — a seismic shift for which he was not even forewarned, let alone forearmed — and then try to build a squad to regain the Spanish title, and compete in the Champions League, while operating under considerable financial constraints.
Despite the rise to prominence of a clutch of talented youngsters, including the midfielders Gavi and Pedri, and the return to fitness of another, forward Ansu Fati, Koeman had struggled to forge a cohesive unit. His summer recruits had done little to improve the team’s fortunes: Memphis Depay had flickered occasionally, but both Eric Garcia and Luuk De Jong had struggled to make a positive impact.
By the end of September, the club had already lost ground in the Spanish title race, and it had twice been embarrassed in the Champions League: beaten first by Bayern Munich, 3-0, and then by Benfica. It retains some hope of qualifying for the knockout rounds in the spring after an unconvincing win against Dynamo Kyiv last week.
That victory seemed to have afforded Koeman a stay of execution, but it proved, instead, a false dawn. On Sunday, Real Madrid beat Barcelona 2-1, for its fourth successive triumph in the Clásico. Afterward, dozens of angry fans surrounded Koeman’s car as he and his wife tried to leave Camp Nou after the game.
And then on Wednesday, a single goal from the veteran striker Radamel Falcao condemned Barcelona to defeat against Rayo, a humble, impoverished club from the outskirts of the Spanish capital. Whatever good will there was toward Koeman — an iconic former player for Barcelona, scorer of the goal that brought the team its first-ever Champions League title — evaporated, both inside and outside the club.
Koeman was expected to visit Barcelona’s training facility in Sant Joan Despí on Thursday to say goodbye to his players; by that stage, the club hopes to have identified or, perhaps, even appointed his successor.
Though both Marcelo Gallardo, the coach of the Argentine team River Plate, and Imanol Alguacil, manager of Real Sociedad, have some support as potential replacements, Laporta is thought to see another former Barcelona player, Xavi Hernández, as the standout candidate.
Xavi’s managerial experience remains moderate — he has spent the last three seasons at Al Sadd, the Qatari team where he ended his playing career, and enjoyed some success — but his popular appeal is unmatched.
He was not only part of the great Barcelona team that lifted four Champions League trophies in the space of six years under Pep Guardiola and then Luis Enrique, but came to be seen as the apogee of the philosophy and playing style that has underscored the club for decades. To Laporta, restoring him to his spiritual home would serve as a way of connecting Barcelona’s present to its glorious recent past.