After a long and distinguished career in with Croatia, Niko Kovac has had to confront the question that all players face as their days on the field draw to a close: do I want to stay in football and, if so, in what capacity?
The former national team captain decided coaching was the path for him and now heads up the Croatia U-21 team, having cut his teeth behind the scenes at Red Bull Salzburg in Austria. He is currently at Turkey 2013 as part of Dinko Jelicic's backroom staff.
In the first half of a two-part interview, the former midfielder spoke candidly with FIFA.com about making the move to the bench, the FIFA U-20 World Cup, and what he believes is holding back Croatian football.
FIFA.com: How have you found Turkey 2013 so far, and how important do you think youth tournaments like this are for a player's development?
Niko Kovac: For the boys it's a good tournament; it's a World Cup. How many players can say they've played at a U-20 World Cup? Croatia is a small country and we don't have that many chances to play in big tournaments. It's a big chance for the players to show the scouts how good they are and it's a chance to move to another league. The Croatian league is small, without much money, without a lot of room for development. Our federations future relies on our players going out and playing in the big leagues. I hope the guys will be in the quarter-finals, maybe, and that will offer them a good opportunity for them to grow up.
As U-21 coach, you will most likely be taking some of these into your team too.
Some of them are already U-21 players, but some have come through from the U-19s. I know every player, but this is a tournament and this is a big fight. It's different to playing in the league and I've seen maybe two or three players who were not in my team, but now I think they have a chance after showing some good play. I hope they will eventually be 'A' team players.
As a player, I think I saw everything. As a coach I am young and inexperienced, but I think I can transmit something from my playing career to the coaching side.
The switch from playing to coaching is often a difficult one. How have you found the career change?
[Sighs] Well, at first I think I just felt it was something different, as a player you are always thinking about yourself, as a coach you must think about 22 or 25 players. However, I think the experience I had as a player is important. For a coach who didn't play as a professional, I think it is a little bit harder to know what a player is thinking, I know one side and the other, so I'm at a slight advantage – it means that I have a greater chance at success. As a player, I think I saw everything. As a coach I am young and inexperienced, but I think I can transmit something from my playing career to the coaching side. However, I'm well aware I have a lot to learn.
I like [coaching]. At the start, I wondered 'is this right for me?' But I've worked for four years now, two as a coach at Red Bull Salzburg with the second team, working with young players. Now I'm working with them again and I can realise how good and how bad a young player is. As a coach with a professional team, you don't always trust young players to perform, so for my development I think it is important to see what they can or cannot do. I think it's okay this way, going step-by-step - not every player always wants to be right on top of the game - so this is the better way from my point of view.
Is there any kind of philosophy or style of play you are trying to bring?
Yes, of course, but football is such a big area. As a philosophy, the play is developing in one direction and normally you must follow it if you want to be on top. If we played the same system as 15 years ago, we wouldn't have any chance. The U-20 team is playing 4-1-4-1; maybe similar to Barça, though of course we don't have the players. Our problems are not technical, our problems are the physical preparation. In Croatia, we are always working on talent, and our talent is of quite a high-level. But if you have talent without the fitness to execute it, you can't do anything. I don't know if you saw the game with Uzbekistan, but after 45 minutes we were finished – though I think this has affected many teams – and if you want to be successful we must work on this area. Technically, I believe we are good enough to be on top, but if you can only play for 45-to-60 minutes, it is not enough. The big games are decided in the final minutes. We must restructure our youth football in Croatia, in the clubs and in the national team, and then I think we can be more successful than we are now.
As a defensive midfielder, your role was almost to create a platform for others to perform and see the game tactically slightly differently. Do you think this gives a good frame of mind to become a coach?
There are strikers that are good coaches, but my theory is that we as central defenders and defensive midfielders are looking at the match in another way; we have to organise. When the ball is going forward, we have to see what can happen, so we must organise the side during the whole game. For my work now, it is very important that I had that as a player, so I'm looking at football not just as how to get forward, but also what can happen when being forced backwards. If you saw the Champions League final [between Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund] they were all working in one direction and then the other, not just one. So the teams that can do both, I believe, can be successful for the next 10 to 15 years. That's the reason why we in Croatia have so many problems, because many players are thinking in only in one way, and are only looking at themselves. I had success, I was maybe a 'good player', but the team was always the most important thing for me – I earned my success with the whole team. In the minds of Croatian players, they are too often thinking of themselves, and egoism isn't good. We have to change their mindset.
You're set to pair up with your brother Robert with the U-21s too. How will that work?
I finished my UEFA license, now Robbie is working on his – he did his A license. I asked him 'Hey Robbie, do you want to see how it is to work as a coach with a young team? Come on, let's try.' After he finished he said, 'I don't know if it's the right thing for me, I'll have to see', and this has given him a chance. A few weeks ago, I asked him and he said, 'Okay, it's perfect. I like it and it's a good start for me'. I hope with his experience he stays in football, especially as in Croatia as we need coaches with experience. In front of a coach who was an international, the players stand to attention like the palace guards in London, so we need more ex-players than just Robbie and me, Slaven [Bilic] and [Igor] Stimac.