Niko Kovac is the kind of person whose upbeat nature and positive drive are infectious. He took over as Croatia head coach last October and successfully steered his side through the play-off double-header against Iceland to seal a berth at the 2014 FIFA World Cup™. The former national team captain is now buzzing with anticipation in the build-up to the tournament in Brazil.
The former midfielder, who was born and raised in Berlin, sat down with FIFA.com for a wide-ranging discussion during the World Cup draw in Costa do Sauipe at the end of last year. Kovac reflected on life as a member of two cultural communities, the special role taken by his brother Robert in their playing and coaching careers, and Croatia’s "Golden Generation". Naturally, we also asked the 42-year-old to look ahead to the summer showdown.
FIFA.com: As a coach you’re equipped with both a German and a Croatian mentality. Presumably you’re always going back and forth between a rational and a more emotional approach. Is it a challenge at times?
Niko Kovac: Yes, it’s actually not at all easy. I have to make allowances for my players. Most of them were born and brought up in Croatia. They’ve obviously not had the experience I’ve had in Germany. Sometimes I make certain assumptions but find they’re not immediately obvious to my players. But I think we’ve basically got it well under control.
How could it benefit your team?
The good Lord has given us a certain talent that others maybe lack. But on the other hand we obviously lack certain things others do have. When we succeed in combining our passionate approach with the ability to keep our cool in certain situations, we’re a pretty good national team.
Do you have more of a German or a Croatian mentality?
More German, to be frank! Perhaps a little more in my case than my brother Robert. Obviously we’re still Croatian. We’re impulsive and emotional. But we’re also rational. I try to apply rational thinking to my decision-making. Obviously you can never completely ignore the emotional dimension. But I prefer to get beneath the surface of certain things. You can make things difficult for yourself if you make too many decisions based on gut feel, in my opinion. I do try to engage my brain.
When I was still captain I was the one imposing discipline and organisation. The young players kept saying to me: 'Don’t be so strict!' but now that’s his job!
How would you describe yourself as a coach?
I want to be human, open and honest. I was born and brought up in Germany and played most of my football there. I completely and totally embody the typical German virtues of thoroughness, orderliness, discipline and organisation. We [Croats] are the kind of people who like a bit of spontaneity. Organisation isn’t the be-all and end-all for us. I’m trying to instil the idea that some rules have to be kept. Success is based on discipline, organisation and hard work. All my players know that and it’s what I told them up front. Any player who can’t go along with that will find his options limited under me.
Your brother is now your assistant coach. That’s not something you see every day…
I played alongside Robbie for the national team, at Bayer Leverkusen and for Bayern, and we’re together again now. It’s obviously a bit special. I’ve always been able to rely on him, especially during our playing days. He was always right behind me [as a defender] and our communication was perfect. It's still like that now we’re a coaching team.
What’s your brother’s role?
He’s one of those people who sees a lot of things. I can be busy with the day-to-day workload but he’s a very good observer and sometimes sees things I miss. It gives you a chance to nip certain things in the bud or take action if we see things are heading in the wrong direction.
A good coaching team always needs an on-field general. What do you demand from your captain?
Darijo Srna is experienced and now has more than 100 caps. He regularly plays in the UEFA Champions League and he’s won the UEFA Cup. He now has to step up and take responsibility. I handed the armband to him and he took on the captaincy at a very young age. When I was still captain I was the one imposing discipline and organisation. The young players kept saying to me: 'Don’t be so strict!' but now that’s his job [laughs]. But he’s got a very good grip on it now, working with the other senior players. It’s very important.
You became Croatia coach last October and were immediately confronted with the play-offs. How much pressure were you under?
I knew if I took on the job of Croatia coach I’d face the toughest five weeks of my life. Expectations run immensely high in Croatia. We may only be a small country but people expect us to be at every major tournament.
How did you approach the double-header against Iceland?
I actually played alongside many of my squad and I know they’re exceptionally good footballers. But if your confidence is shot you can’t even do the simple things right. Some people might say: 'But they all play for big clubs.' Club football is one thing, the national team another thing entirely. You fight for the league title every year, but the World Cup only comes around every four years. The play-offs were like a final, with no second chances. So I told them: 'Okay, Iceland are good, but we’re better. Not just because we say so, but because of our hard work.' The performance is what matters, as we always say with good reason. That’s what I conveyed to the lads.
We’ve scraped in by the back door. But we’ll go there looking to perform. We won’t just be there as tourists.
What did you feel when the final whistle blew in the play-off return leg in Zagreb and you knew you were going to the World Cup?
There was a real feeling of relief. It was a huge weight off my shoulders. The emotions suddenly welled up in me and I wept. But I was obviously proud because it was a great achievement in a relatively short time. We’re a small nation but we regularly compete at the big tournaments. That’s never guaranteed so it was very special.
And what about the next few days?
We were caught up in the euphoria. Given the situation we’re in, including the economic problems, every small success is obviously a measure of relief for the people, at least for the next couple of days. It doesn’t take much to put the smile back on Croatian faces.
The 2014 World Cup is coming up fast. What are you expecting from the finals in Brazil?
I’m really looking forward to the atmosphere. The Brazilians are well known for getting into the party mood. The fans will be passionately involved regardless of whether the host nation are playing at the time.
How far can Croatia go in Brazil?
We’ve scraped in by the back door. But we’ll go there looking to perform. We won’t just be there as tourists. You only get a shot at the World Cup every four years so we want to leave behind a lasting impression.
Croatia stunned the world by finishing third at the 1998 World Cup in France. What are your memories of that team?
I really don’t know whether we’ll ever have a generation like that again. All the players were top individuals.
Are they role models?
Of course. They achieved greatness for a small country. Nobody expected us to come third at the 1998 World Cup. Those players have to be our idols and role models, but obviously we know a repeat performance will be incredibly tough.