The Bundesliga's first-ever Berlin derby between Hertha and Union will take place at the Stadion an der Alten Försterei on 2 November, and Berlin-born Ante Covic has the honour of leading the Old Lady into the game as the club's head coach.
Speaking exclusively to bundesliga.com, Covic discusses his first months in charge of the capital club, the importance of players such as Vedad Ibisevic and Javairo Dilrosun, growing up in a divided Berlin, and the importance that the upcoming derby against Union has to the city.
bundesliga.com: Would you say that you have just overcome your first crisis as a professional coach?
Ante Covic: "Sport is hard to predict, and it doesn't always go the way you would hope. We had certain plans during pre-season that we wanted to implement in the team. We succeeded in the first game with the 2-2 draw against Bayern Munich, but we then had a phase where things didn't go to plan. We had to go back to basics to get things to work and we succeeded in doing this. The most important thing during this phase was to stay calm and to not put immediate pressure on the new coaching team, which many would have predicted."
Watch: Hertha took a point from their trip to Munich on opening night!
bundesliga.com: You had a hand in some transfers in the past, such as bringing in Vedad Ibisevic. What do you make of him?
Covic: "Vedad is a true captain for this team. A real captain distinguishes himself on and off the pitch. He can be really proud of how his career has panned out so far, and it's enviable what he has achieved. The main reason for this is his desire. He's never satisfied, and he always wants more. He's a classic striker who always wants to be on the pitch scoring goals, regardless of how old he is. Things are going well for him at the moment."
bundesliga.com: Javairo Dilrosun is also blossoming under your guidance. How have you managed this?
Covic: "When he arrived in Berlin, Javairo was allowed to play a few games for the U23 team. In my opinion, when a player is on the pitch it's because he's being allowed to play rather than because he must play. I therefore already had a relationship with Javairo and I knew how he ticked. I knew his strengths and weaknesses and it's important that a young guy like him trusts his body. He has this trust at the moment, so he's fit and healthy. He recovers quickly from sprints and is able to keep going. The most pleasing thing for such a young player is his composure in front of goal."
bundesliga.com: What are your personal experiences as Hertha coach so far?
Covic: "I already had experience here as a player, but this is different because there isn't as much of a spotlight on you as a player as there is a the coach. The biggest difference compared to back then is media presence and it's become extreme. As a coach nowadays, you have to deal with a whole new generation of people, and you have to explain everything because every player wants to be involved. There's nothing worse than everyone not being on the same page so, as a coach, you must be as transparent as possible so that all of the players understand what you're trying to do. I enjoy waking up and going to work every morning, whether during a run of three defeats or the three victories. I greet my colleagues with a smile and as long as I don't have to change who I am for this job, everything is good."
bundesliga.com: What are your expectations for the derby against Union Berlin?
Covic: "I expect a very emotional game, and I very much hope that this rivalry remains exclusively on the football pitch. Both teams need to be aware of the fact that we'll be under the national spotlight because we've never played each other in Berlin in the top division. We'll have to be role models during these games both on and off the pitch. As a club, we're greatly looking forward to these games and are hoping to get the win."
bundesliga.com: You were born in Berlin. To what extent is this game special to you as a local?
Covic: "It's a very special game because there's a great sporting rivalry between the two teams. Both clubs also have completely different ways of thinking. Hertha is a club for the whole of Berlin, which you can see in the fact that we train in all 12 districts of Berlin. Union is more exclusively centred around Köpenick. We're very transparent and want to be open to everyone who lives in Berlin. We want to see blue and white shirts everywhere, and I think we're on the right path."
bundesliga.com: The Berlin Wall had just fallen when you came back from Croatia. How was it back then?
Covic: "I regularly visited my parents in Berlin during the summer holidays. My children find it hard to imagine when I explain to them how you travelled through certain stations on the underground through East Berlin and there were people with machine guns standing on the platform. It was a grim picture. What makes me happy is that the Wall came down without a drop of blood being shed. This is a credit to the German people and the politics at the time because nowadays, walls don't fall without bloodshed. Berlin can be a great example to many others."
bundesliga.com: How did football in Berlin change at this time?
Covic: "We were mostly affected by the fact that our city was divided. You often had games in the former East where you came up against very good team players, but the top players came from the West. Because of the regime and the time that certain players spent in the East, they weren't able to develop as much on or off the pitch. Berlin became much richer for coming together and it was nice to see how people united."
bundesliga.com: What were the games like at this time?
Covic: "Sometimes it was a bit of a culture shock. The city didn't look like it does today, and you could immediately see which parts belonged to the West and which to the East. It was all new to us because we weren't always in contact with the east side of the city. It was a pleasure to meet the people there because both sides were not told the entire truth. We were all just people and you could feel that we were just happy to get to know one another."
bundesliga.com: What did Hertha’s promotion to the Bundesliga in 1997 mean to you and to the whole city?
Covic: "Up until that point, Hertha had been trying to get promoted to the Bundesliga for decades. Based on the number of inhabitants we have here in Berlin, it was clear that we were a sleeping giant. In 1997, we succeeded in getting promoted. We never had the feeling that we gained promotion alone, rather when we walked through the city, we all felt united. This shaped us in the next few years and it was no coincidence that we were soon playing in the [UEFA] Champions League. We didn't have Neymar or Ronaldo, but we were a united group both on and off the pitch. We were united in everything we did."
bundesliga.com: What was your opinion of Union Berlin as a Hertha player?
Covic: "At that time, I can only remember that there was a friendly relationship between Hertha and Union, and we played friendlies against one another. The rivalry that we have today has grown over several years due to various reasons. I think the city is big enough that we can make use of the remaining 12 districts. We should only measure ourselves against Union on the football pitch."
bundesliga.com: The whole city will be watching the derby. How are you preparing your team for the game?
Covic: "We have a lot of players who grew up outside of Berlin, but because we have such a good youth system, we also have a lot of players from Berlin. It's important that we have fire in our belly, but remain calm in our minds. There is nothing worse than getting so worked up that you cannot perform to your best."
bundesliga.com: What steps is the club taking so that the players learn German as quickly as possible?
Covic: "We give the players German lessons, but there is nothing worse as a club than having to force the players. We have a lot of very intelligent guys who want to learn German for themselves because everyone knows that every language enriches you as a person. This means that the players are able to learn German in a relatively short space of time."
bundesliga.com: Have you been able to help any players with learning German?
Covic: "In my previous job last year, we had a player like Marko Grujic, who immediately showed interest in learning German. We then went with him into the changing room and went through words like ball, flipchart, and midfielder - step-by-step. We went through the basic phrases of football with him so that he could learn as quickly as possible."