Before embarking on his new career inside the technical area, Niko Kovac was the heartbeat of the Croatian national team for many years. He racked up 83 caps, captained the team for five years, a spell that included 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, and also appeared at Japan/Korea 2002.
At club level, the defensive midfielder began his career at Hertha Berlin, the city in which he was born to Croatian parents, before moving on to the likes Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich, Hamburg and Austrian outfit Red Bull Salzburg.
In the second of a two part exclusive interview, Kovac - speaking to FIFA.com at the FIFA U-20 World Cup - discussed representing Croatia, the impact of his upbringing in Germany and the bittersweet memories of his two FIFA World Cup appearances.
FIFA.com: Croatia are currently going fairly well in their bid to reach Brazil 2014, sitting second in qualifying Group A. How do you feel they are getting on?
Niko Kovac: We lost against Scotland, which nobody expected, but that's football. In the last three or four tournaments we look to be going the wrong way. In South Africa we weren't there, we finished above England [in qualifying for UEFA EURO 2008], but were behind Greece for 2012. The development, for me - and I have to be critical - has been going downhill a little bit. Finishing in second means we have to go into the play-offs, but I hope we [reach Brazil] as it is important – we're not the richest of countries. We need all the money from UEFA and FIFA we can get to stay alive as a football federation. I think we will finish second and then you need some luck in the draw. We have good players, we only need a little bit of restructuring before I think we can get to the top – that's what I believe.
You appeared in two FIFA World Cups yourself. What are your memories of those?
The memory is there, but we did nothing. We went out in the first round and that relates back to the Croatian problem that technically and tactically we are fine, but physically we are not at a high level and, if you want to play at the top, you must do more. You have to prepare your physical capacity more and we're working on it. The two German clubs who were in the [Champions League] final; why? Sure, they were there because they had good players, but it was because physically they were at the top of their game. Especially when the season comes to an end, whether you've won the championship or not, if you're prepared, okay, but if not, you can't do it. But the World Cups, okay, in Germany I feel we could have done more. With Australia in the last match, if we had won we would have reached the last 16, But that's football. Hopefully as a coach I will be more successful!
When you retired from playing with Croatia, Slaven Bilic said they were losing 'their most precious player'. But was the national team an environment you always enjoyed and felt loved in?
I played for five clubs, but for me Croatia was always above them. We are patriots in Croatia, we all love our country, especially me because I was born in Germany, so for me Croatia is something unbelievable. I played for them for a long time, I was captain, I was the the coach's right-hand man – I was the man who delegated everything on the pitch, as obviously the coach can't do anything once the game has begun. I was always working and I think that's why the people in Croatia loved me, as I was working for the team and working for Croatia. They saw this and my status in Croatia is... okay [laughs].
Having grown up in Germany, were there ever any thoughts of representing them?
I was born in Germany, I have the German mentality – and you know the German mentality [laughs] – but I also have the Croatian one too. To be honest, I think I have more of the German one, though nobody ever called me the German, but I know what is needed to be successful. Talent is not enough – you need that work ethic as well. When you look at Ivica Olic and Mario Mandzukic, they are hard workers. In Croatia, Mario was what the French would call an enfant terrible, but now he knows what is important to be successful, and not just for one year. It's easy to get on top, but to stay there is very difficult. I would like these guys to show what is important to get on top and stay there. I have shared my experience [with the younger players], without any charge, but I see some of them thinking, 'What is he talking about?'. But I hope they will take in even just 20 per cent to start a process in their minds. In Croatia it's difficult because everyone quickly says you are good, journalists write that this player or that player is the best, so it is difficult. They are young players and not mentally tough, so I would like to help, not only in football, but in this way too.
You made 83 appearances for Croatia, and are currently the seventh highest cap holder. How do you look back on your career with the national team?
It was a long time, 12 years, with the national team. In 1998 I wasn't in the World Cup because I was injured. Mr [Miroslav] Blazevic said 'Nico, you are not ready for the World Cup', but I was prepared. But [playing for the national team] was a very nice time, especially playing at home in Zagreb, the fantastic fans there, and I miss it. Football is our life but the years go by and I'm getting older. But it was a special time, especially as it was with my brother [Robert]. It's not normal that you get to play with your brother in your teams, and in the national team. God gave us a talent and the luck to play together.
Are you at all annoyed that Robert managed to earn one more cap than you?
That's life, but I scored 15 goals and he didn't score any! [Laughs] Nah, it's my brother, it's okay; 84 and 83, for two brothers it's perfect.
And finally, looking back on your career as a player, what was the highest point for you and do you have any regrets?
In Germany, when I was with [Bayern] Munich, we won the league, we won the cup and then the Intercontinental Cup, that's the biggest thing I've ever won. Regrets? I think I would do everything the same, maybe some things I would change, but I'm very, very happy with my career. I wouldn't change much.