We met with Ronald Koeman, head coach of AFC Ajax Amsterdam, in the media room of the Amsterdam Arena on Thursday, March 06, 2002, four days after the Ajax-Feyenoord match.
Koeman is still more recognizeable as a player than as a coach, and despite the modest extra weight he's picked up since his playing days, you get a clear sense from his robust health and confidence that he could still make it as a player. But he is now The Trainer. Indeed, there is a huge amount of optimism surrounding Koeman's coaching tenure at Ajax. Since he assumed the helm from Co Adriaanse in December of last year, Ajax have lost just once: a tough 3-1 match at Utrecht. Currently, Ajax sit atop the Eredivisie with just a few points separating them from chasers Feyenoord and PSV.
We interviewed Koeman shortly after an Ajax 1 training session at the Arena. Midway through the training, Ajax' two beleaguered strikers both walked out of training before it was finished; first Machlas, then Zlatan....
Ajax USA: I noticed that two players, Zlatan and Machlas, each left training early, on their own today. Why is that?
Koeman: Machlas had a little bit of an injury, and it was just best for him to rest. And Zlatan, it was... other problems. If a player is not giving 100%, then it's best not to stay at training. Not good but... it can happen.
Ajax USA: On the subject of Zlatan, I notice that he takes a lot of abuse from the fans for all his mistakes, his failures to finish. Do you think that's right and proper, for a teenager?
Koeman: No, he's 20 years. He's still a very young player, and I think it's a little bit of a problem. He came to Ajax for a lot of money, and people expect a lot from the first day. It's normal when they bought you for big money, that you have to show that from the beginning. And in the beginning he was not playing well. Of course, he wasn't scoring a lot, and there came some critics to him.
And sometimes it's also his fault, because he doesn't give... He tries to do 100%, but somebody can show the public that you do 100%, and he is a little bit difficult person. Sometimes he gives the public the feeling (he's) not interested, and that's very difficult, and very dangerous.
And the other one, Machlas, is a little bit like him, but now he's scoring more goals in the last few weeks, but...
But, still, he (Zlatan) is a fantastic young player. But he has to learn and learn. You have to accept that he has to learn a lot, and he has to accept that he has to be a player of a football team, not that the most important player is Zlatan. We have 22, 23 more players, and everybody likes to be playing in the first team, and one of the (first) eleven players, but you have to show that... You have to do 100% for that case. And that is also the problem. Not always 100%. And that was also the problem this morning.
Ajax USA: How long does a club give a player who maybe seems to need a little bit more time?
Koeman: Oh, he's still a young player, but (at some point) you come to the decision (that) we've done enough, we did enough, we don't have more space. And (there is) place enough still, because he's young; Ajax is his first club outside Sweden. And we can accept that. But you don't accept that he doesn't give 100%.
Ajax USA: What was your assessment of the Feyenoord game?
Koeman: I think it was, from our side, a good game. I think we played better than our opponent. We lost good chances to win that game. We created three or four 100% possibilities to score, and if you play well, but only score (because of) a present from the referee of a penalty, that's not good, not 100%. (If) we score two times, it's a perfect game. But we played well, better in the game, but we are lucky to get the draw, and that's not best.
Ajax USA: What did you say to the team after the game?
Koeman: Well you try always to be positive. But the negative part was, we let them stay in the game and we lost good chances. But positive... after the 0-1, the team kept fighting to make the draw, and I think we're lucky a little bit in the present from the referee, but it was right in that game (that) we did not lose the game. From our part it was a good game, but we missed two points. But you can play a draw against Feyenoord at home; it's no problem. But we lost two very expensive points three days before it in Sittard, and that's not good.
Ajax USA: What do you think needs to change for Ajax to win the championship, because it seems very much on the knife's edge.
Koeman: Well, I think in the defense way we play better than a three months before. I think in that case we are growing up, and maybe that's why we lost a little bit in the front. But I think there's not a lot of difference between Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV. It's a little bit on the same level, some little details in the decision (of) who will be the champion. I think we have also to know that Van der Vaart is a very young player but he was scoring 14 goals for the team. We miss also at this moment a player who can make the difference in front. But we have to keep working. (If) we win the games at home, then we have possibilities, like the other two teams also, to be the champion of Holland.
Ajax USA: You raised an important point about that number 10 position. How do you deal with the absence of Van der Vaart from now on, going forward? Do you play Pienaar in that position?
Koeman: I think we need a little bit more players who play on the position 10 in the team. I have to be a little bit creative. Knopper is a player who depends more on the other players in the team. And Pienaar is also a talent. He played very well in the second team, and I think (it's) also important to give young players possibilities to come to the first team. He's still playing, and now very well.
Ajax USA: There have been rumors, discussions about the return of Richard Witschge and Jari Litmanen. Are these real possibilities for Ajax?
Koeman: No, about Litmanen there is nothing.
Witchge, we talked inside the club about that, and we have to make a decision. We didn't take the decision about Witschge (yet). We did take the decision about Winter and some other players, about the goalkeeper (Fred Grim). But first we have to talk to the player. We're still not talking to Witschge, and that's not straight to make decisions outside (first) and then to the player. First (talk) to the player, and then we can take it outside (public).
Ajax USA: What would a player like Witschge have? Is it his experience that's so valuable?
Koeman: Not only his experience. To be a player of Ajax you need more qualities. Witschge is a player who can also make other players better. He's a creative player, and with a good left foot and, okay, if you play in Spain, you can play in Holland. And he's really an Ajax player. But first we have to talk to him directly. But we have to think about that.
Ajax USA: What's your impression of John O'Brien?
Koeman:I'm very happy about John O'Brien. When I came (to Ajax), he was playing in the midfield. In the last few weeks, he's played in the defense. He played two games at right back, and he played last Sunday against Feyenoord on the left side (of defense). It's very nice for the coach that you can put a player in (so many) different positions. Not always good for the player, but for the coach it's okay.
But he is tactically a very handy player. His biggest quality is that he can play with the right foot and with the left foot. That's very important. I'm very happy about him, about the performance of him, and how he does his job. He's a serious person, he's always giving 100%, and I think that's very good.
Ajax USA: There was some report a few weeks ago about some possibility of you going back to Barcelona.
Koeman: No, no, they're always talking about that. No, it's not serious, no possibility.
Ajax USA: All the players we've talked to are telling us that they learn a lot of small things from you, details. They can tell that you have a lot of experience yourself. How do you do that? Do you speak to individual players and tell them small things?
Koeman: No, when you talk to some players, it's always little things, and you do that individually. And I think that's important, because that's your feeling, that's your experience as a player. You can show them... And that moment is really good for a player to learn.
Koeman participates in a keep-away game during first-team training.
Ajax USA: You were a player at Ajax yourself, in the early eighties, and now you've returned. What has changed at Ajax? Is it still the club that it was before?
Koeman: No, it's not changed a lot, because Ajax is still Ajax, with all the positive things and also some negative things. What's changing is the stadium, (and) maybe for people it's more like big business than for football. But I don't feel that. I have the same feeling when I was 20 years old and came to Ajax to play there. It's still a big club with a big name, it's still the people inside and outside expect a lot of the team. We have to play in an offensive way, we have to win... That's still Ajax.
The pressure is high at Ajax; it was before, it is now, and it will be in the future also. It's not changing a lot. Maybe for people, they say the Arena is not a typical football stadium... No, if you saw that Sunday against Feyenoord, it was fantastic atmosphere, and then it's nice to be here.
Ajax USA: One more question... One thing that's the same now as it was in your time, when you were playing for Ajax: Ajax didn't do too well in European Cup competition; they lost in the first or second round. And that's happened for a few years in a row now, too. What do you think the chances are if Ajax returns to the European stage, maybe in the Champions League?
Koeman: We know that in Holland, it's very difficult. We cannot do the same as Italy or Spain or England, with the money. It will be difficult. We have to keep on working with the youth, to give them possibilities and to be successful in that way. We cannot buy players who can make the difference. That's very difficult.
And also, the competition in Holland is not very important (compared to) Spain or Italy. And that's very difficult; you've lost a lot of things to be at the same level in Europe. We have to be lucky that you can find players ten year before, or five or six years before, (such as) players like De Boer, Litmanen, Kluivert, Seedorf, Davids. We keep working on that, and I still have confidence that we can come back. But it's not very easy. It's very difficult (due to) the money. It's not possible to do it the same way as other countries like England, Spain and Italy.
- Interviewed by Jim McGough and Menno Pot.