Just days before the draw for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ play-offs, the Croatian FA (HNS) accepted the resignation of former head coach Igor Stimac. His successor, 42-year-old Niko Kovac, is the man tasked with overcoming Iceland in the two-legged play-off and leading the Vatreni to Brazil.
Born in Berlin, the former midfielder says he has adopted a half-Croatian, half-German mentality. He certainly knows a thing or two about winning: Kovac played in the Bundesliga for Hertha Berlin, Bayer Leverkusen, Hamburger SV and Bayern Munich. He also made 83 appearances for the 1998 World Cup bronze-medalists, scoring 14 goals.
After retiring as a player in 2009, the former national team captain worked as a youth coach at RB Salzburg, before becoming assistant coach of the Austrian first-division side. In January this year, he was appointed head coach of Croatia’s U-21s.
FIFA.com spoke exclusively with Kovac about his new role as national head coach, as well as the upcoming play-offs, his expectations of Brazil 2014 and his special relationship with his brother Robert, who made one more international appearance than Niko and is now the national team’s assistant coach.
FIFA.com: You have just been appointed head coach of the Croatian national team. How do you feel?
Niko Kovac: It’s a great job, of course, but also a very difficult one. Here in Croatia, everyone expects great things from us – we’re all aware of that. I think we’re pretty confident. We’re in the middle of a trip through Europe to gauge the mood of the players and to find out what exactly went wrong.
Croatia’s qualifying campaign actually got off to a very good start…
That’s true! We started well, although the matches themselves weren’t that great. The victories papered over the cracks a little bit. Ultimately – and unfortunately for us – the inevitable happened: We lacked many things that used to make Croatia such a force. We used to be a unit on the pitch and I have to admit that we don’t even resemble one at the moment. In footballing terms, we’re definitely a very, very good team. But that counts for nothing unless the team is set up correctly.
Are you planning on making any wholesale changes?
No, not at all. After all, it’s not as if we had 100 players at our disposal. We have to get inside the players’ heads, because the mental side affects things greatly. If we manage to do that, I am sure we’ll have a good chance of reaching the World Cup.
What exactly can you do between now and the play-offs?
We will make sure we know our opponents inside out. We will scout them and analyse them. That’s very important. On top of that, we will watch our team’s last few matches to establish what went wrong. The togetherness was missing on the pitch and we have to rectify that. If we manage that, I'm sure we won’t have too much work to do. The players can obviously play football, they haven’t forgotten how to play well. We have to get inside their heads and I hope we can do that.
You played at the 2002 and 2006 World Cup finals. To what extent does that help you with the job at hand?
I hope the experience that my brother and I bring to the team will make a difference. The lads have to understand what they could miss out on [in Brazil]. Once they do, they are certain to give their all to win.
You’re brother Robert is now the assistant coach. Is that an advantage?
It’s always an advantage! I was lucky enough to play with Robby for Bayer Leverkusen, Bayern Munich and the Croatian national team. He always had my back and he still has now. We work very well with one another and compliment each other. We understand each other implicitly. With the rest of my staff behind me, we’ll be absolutely fine. I am full of confidence, I trust my brother – things couldn’t be better.
What do you think of your play-off opponents?
Iceland are definitely the underdogs, along with Romania. But it doesn’t matter which of the eight teams you play – you still have to beat them. That is sure to be difficult, because they all know they have an opportunity to achieve something great. It will be difficult!
You start away from home, then play the second leg in front of your own fans…
The atmosphere between the team and the fans hasn’t been great in Croatia recently. But, as is always the case in football, that’s down to the performance. If it’s there, the fans will always be 100 per cent behind the team. If it isn’t, you can’t pretend that you played well. We need to be the spark to light the fuse – then the entire country will be behind us. We will try to rediscover the spark that we had during our playing days.
If it was up to me, I would always choose to play the away leg first. Both teams are always a little more cautious, because the home team doesn’t want to concede a goal. You have to be careful and feel the opposition out, as you might not know them very well at all. Things are a lot clearer in the second game – you know the score and know what to do to qualify. That is always an advantage in front of your own fans.
What do you expect from Brazil 2014?
It will be a spectacular tournament. A World Cup is always a spectacle anyway. It’s a football-mad country. It’ll be non-stop football, 24 hours a day. It’s far away from Europe, we are bound to have to adjust a little. But I’m looking forward to it. I have experienced it all as a player and would be happy if we manage to qualify. For my players’ sake, I hope we do, as many of them haven’t experienced a World Cup yet and it would be a special achievement in their careers.