Rai, Giuseppe Baresi, Phil Neville, Gabriel Milito and Paolo Cannavaro’ all fine players in their day, who were unfortunate to have brothers who were better footballers than they were.
Such is the way of things: football is a sport that thrives on comparisons, so if a footballer has a close family member it’s natural that family member will be the main reference point against which said player is judged.
Erwin Koeman is a good example of a player who is less remembered than he should be, not because he had any sort of mediocre career (he achieved much in the game), rather because he was unlucky to be the older brother of one of the game’s greatest ever defenders: Ronald.
This footballing family has a strong association with FC Groningen; Martin Koeman, father to Erwin and Ronald, spent a decade playing there in the 1960s and 70s and earned his single Dutch cap with them. Both Erwin and Ronald took their first steps in the game with the club, too, before moving on to greater things, though Erwin in particular never strayed too far from his hometown club.
As players, Ronald was a curious mix of the defensive (sweeper was his notional role) and the attacking (he was a prolific scorer of goals with long-distance shots and set-pieces), whereas Erwin was a more conventional creative player who found his niche wide on the left side of midfield.
Erwin showed enough promise in his debut season to attract interest from PSV and he spent the next three seasons in Eindhoven without ever quite managing to establish himself. A return to Groningen followed in 1982 and a season playing alongside his emerging brother. Ronald moved on to Ajax in 1983 and Erwin, by now rebuilding his career, became Groningen’s star name and earned a first national team call-up with his strong form.
While Ronald would become strongly associated with exotic Barcelona whom he played for between 1989 and 1995, Erwin’s single foreign adventure came in neighbouring Belgium in the distinctly non-glamorous town of Mechelen. The face of the Belgian game was quite different in the 1980s, however, and KV Mechelen was a well-financed and ambitious club who became a genuine force in the European game.
His Groningen contract having ended, Erwin became their highest-profile signing in 1985 and for the next five seasons starred as the team’s main creative midfield hub. His time there was hugely successful starting with a Belgian Cup success in 1987 and followed up famously with victory in the European Cup Winners Cup the following year.
1988 was undoubtedly Erwin’s year: his club form had established him alongside his brother in the glorious Dutch side that won the European Championships that summer in West Germany. Erwin’s disciplined and selfless play offered up calm and thoughtful contributions on the left side of midfield, making him an integral part of the Dutch success.
Still Mechelen went from strength to strength with Koeman pulling the strings: a European Supercup win with victory over his brother’s PSV team, a first Belgian title in 1989 then a fine run in the European Cup the following season. With financial issues beginning to surface at the over-stretched Belgian club, the high-earning Koeman departed in 1990 for a second spell with PSV which yielded two league titles. It was apt that Erwin would wind down his title with a third spell back at Groningen where he played on to the age of 37 before retiring.
A career spent exclusively playing in the Netherlands and Belgium will always be lower-profile than one played out in Italy, Spain or England, and this reason – along with his uniquely gifted sibling – has meant Erwin Koeman’s intelligent and clever creative play has been increasingly forgotten with time. It’s a shame and a reappraisal is more than overdue for the talented older Koeman brother.