Niko Kovac has played with Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic and won the league and cup double with Bayern Munich both as a player and coach - clearly this is a man accustomed to success.
He has had to achieve it the hard way, though. Born to Croatian immigrant parents in the working-class Berlin neighbourhood of Wedding, Kovac learned his trade on the unforgiving concrete pitches of Germany’s capital city alongside his younger brother, Robert.
A no-nonsense defensive midfielder in his day, what Niko lacked in physique – he stands at 5’9” – he more than made up for with a never-say-die mentality. “I couldn’t ever stand to lose a game, even in training,” he told the Frankfurter Rundschau, while he was also famously quoted as saying “we have to be scumbags sometimes,” during his playing days.
Hertha Berlin were the first club to benefit from his dalliances with the darker arts, giving him his debut as a 21-year-old in Bundesliga 2 in 1992. There are some serious brains to go with all that brawn, however, as Kovac studied eight semesters of a business studies degree prior to getting his first taste of the Bundesliga in 1996 when he moved to Bayer Leverkusen, joining at the same time as his brother.
Nine goals in 93 games caught the eye of Hamburg, where he spent two years from 1999 to 2001 before Bayern came calling – again arriving alongside his younger sibling. Kovac’s time in Munich lasted only two years, but he left for a second spell at Hertha having scored five goals in 47 competitive games for the Reds, and with the Bundesliga and DFB Cup double from the 2002/03 campaign.
By that stage he was already a full Croatia international, although he was not part of the squad that finished third at the 1998 World Cup in France, having missed out due to injury. He played in every major international tournament between 2002 and 2008, however, providing an experienced shield in a midfield that also housed the flourishing talents of Modric and Rakitic.
Watch: Kovac's top 5 Bundesliga goals
He wound down his playing days in Austria with a three-year stint at Red Bull Salzburg, winning one league title before eventually hanging up his boots for good at the age of 38 in 2009. Kovac moved into coaching almost immediately, first taking charge of the Salzburg reserves for two years before taking the reins of the Croatia U21s in 2012. A successful spell there led to him being promoted to boss of the seniors in 2013 after Croatia had earned just one point in four 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifiers.
With his brother Robert as his assistant, Kovac turned the team’s fortunes around and took a side containing former teammates Modric and Rakitic to the global showpiece in Brazil, where they were ultimately unable to progress beyond the group stage.
Nevertheless, Eintracht Frankfurt had clearly recognised his coaching talent and brought Kovac back to the Bundesliga for his first spell at senior club football management. He was thrown in at the deep end, too, with the Eagles in 16th place on just 24 points after Matchday 25 of the 2015/16 season. Frankfurt took 12 more points in the remaining games and ultimately staved off the drop in the relegation play-offs against Nuremberg.
Kovac, who is a practicing Catholic, even earned two Fair Play awards in Germany following the second leg of those play-offs, having consoled the vanquished Nuremberg players before celebrating with his own.
“They gave their all in 34 games across the Bundesliga 2 season to try and get promoted,” he said afterwards. “And then their dreams were dashed over two games. It’s normal to feel empathy for them. For me it was a completely normal thing to do, and I’m sure a lot of other people would have done the same. But a lot has changed in our society and we should make sure we come to the right conclusions.”
That sense of responsibility and togetherness has translated into his coaching style, and at one point at Frankfurt there were famously 18 different nationalities in his squad.
Rather than being overwhelmed by such a challenge to his man-management ability, Kovac registered himself on a course with the German FA (DFB) on the subject of ‘Intercultural Decision-Making Skills’. “As a coach, I want to be able to communicate with each individual as best as I possibly can,” he said by way of explanation.
He was certainly successful in doing that, managing to transmit his philosophy and bring out the best of a group of players that had previously only narrowly avoided relegation. His approach – usually in a 3-5-2 formation at Frankfurt – might seem somewhat contradictory at first, combining the discipline of his German upbringing with the more spontaneous side of his Balkan roots.
Watch: From the archive: How Kovac turned Frankfurt into European contenders
“Everyone knows what my character his,” Kovac said. “I’m quite impulsive, and that’s something I want the team to reflect – but without it resulting in chaos. As a coach I’m the same way I was as a player – but you also have to have fun.”
His players took the message on board, finishing 11th and eighth in his two full seasons in Frankfurt, as well as reaching two consecutive DFB Cup finals. The latter, in 2018, was his last game in charge of the club and ended in a 3-1 triumph over future employers Bayern.
There was a sense of Kovac coming full circle when he landed in the Allianz Arena hotseat in summer 2018, as just the third former Bayern player (following Franz Beckenbauer and Jürgen Klinsmann) to coach the record German champions. Furthermore, Kovac had been a Bayern fan as a boy, and had a picture of former striker and club CEO at the time Karl-Heinz Rummenigge on his wall.
The pieces had all fallen in to place on paper, but Kovac’s tenure at Bayern did not get off to the best of starts, and they did not sit at the top of the table at all between Matchdays 5 and 25. The Red eventually came good, though, ultimately beating Borussia Dortmund to the title by two points before overpowering RB Leipzig 3-0 in the DFB Cup final.
Kovac’s time at Bayern came to an end midway through the 2019/20 season, ironically following a heavy 5-1 defeat to former club Frankfurt, but his reputation remains very much intact with a track record that speaks for itself.
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