It wasn’t like Davor Suker had a choice. When the iconic striker, now the president of the Croatian Football Federation, decided to put his former team-mate Igor Stimac out of his misery by relieving him of his duties as national team manager, there was only one name on Suker’s list of possible successors.
Stimac’s tenure was a disastrous one, and although Croatia finished second only to Belgium in their qualifying group waiting to find out their opponent in the play-offs, the former Derby County and West Ham hard man simply had to go.
His relentless tactical experiments had left the team bereft of confidence, and by the end of the campaign, there was a sense of rapid decay, as the once formidable team looked disorganized and helpless.
The former manager’s relationship with the media didn’t help, either. He was arrogant and tended to lay the blame for his own shortcomings onto the players.
Croatia ended the qualifiers with two defeats—Belgium at home and Scotland away—without even a proper fight. It became clear something radical had to be done if the team, featuring the in-form European football stars such as Mario Mandzukic, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, was to qualify for the World Cup. Too much—money, commercial deals, federation’s image and Suker’s own reputation—was at stake.
But who would be brave and crazy enough to take over the team that seemed to have reached its lowest point, with no time to really influence them ahead of the play-offs against a yet unknown opponent?
Croatia is in a serious lack of successful and respected gaffers, and Suker’s federation wasn’t willing to pay huge money to a big-name foreign manager, even if any would agree to come on such short notice and risk their reputation with a team that appeared to be falling apart. More than anything else, the players were in dire need of someone to lift their spirits.
Enter Niko Kovac, the talismanic captain of the Croatia team that defeated England at Wembley in 2007 and stormed through their 2008 European Championship group with three wins, before stumbling in the quarter-finals against Turkey on penalties.
He had been patiently building his coaching career in the Red Bull Salzburg academy as the assistant to their first team before being called up to take the reins in Croatia U21s in January last year.
His impeccable record there spoke for itself: five wins in five games, 16 goals scored and none conceded.
But that was it—Kovac was promoted to the post of Croatia senior squad manager with ludicrously little experience, his coaching debut with the team coming in the play-offs for the 2014 World Cup. It was a baptism by fire.
He was lucky enough to draw Iceland and the team, including many of his former team-mates, reacted by stepping up a gear. After a goalless draw in Reykjavik, they won with a confident 2-0 in Zagreb, even though they had Mario Mandzukic sent off in the first half of the match. Kovac told FIFA’s official website in an interview:
I knew if I took on the job I’d face the toughest five weeks of my life. ... There was a real feeling of relief [when we beat Iceland]. 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.
Kovac was also credited with forming a double playmaker central midfield, made of Real Madrid’s Luka Modric and Sevilla’s Ivan Rakitic—something that really should have happened long ago—and adding the third tip to that creative axis in Inter Milan’s youngster Mateo Kovacic. Finally, the team’s setup made some sense and was being built around its strongest players.
At 42, Kovac is the second-youngest among the 2014 World Cup managers. Only Ivory Coast’s Sabri Lamouchi is younger, albeit, merely by one month.
But Kovac is also by far the least experienced: his two games with Iceland plus a friendly away match against Switzerland which ended in a 2-2 draw, remain his only outings with a senior squad. Not just the national team, but any senior squad.
As a player, he was an industrious and arguably underrated defensive midfielder who mainly plied his trade in the Bundesliga—at both Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich—alongside his younger brother Robert, who is now his assistant manager.
Niko Kovac’s technique was average, but he possessed extraordinary positional intelligence and reading of the game, while his die-hard approach provided a major impetus to everyone around him.
Raised in a family of Bosnian Croat immigrants in West Berlin, Germany, he became the nation’s first foreign-born captain and a true leader. “On the pitch, he was our metronome”, former Croatia manager Slaven Bilic once said, via the Guardian. “He set the rhythm and the balance of our midfield hanged on his back. It was impossible to replace him.”
Many people would say Croatia’s problems started when Niko Kovac retired in 2008. Six years later, he’s back with the team that includes many of his former team-mates. His task now is to try and translate his former on-field general persona and familiar charisma into his new role as their boss.
Croatia fans had no other choice but to put their faith into the hands of their former captain, who is still an absolute beginner as coach. They don’t have much to rate him by as a gaffer yet.
But if Niko Kovac’s playing days are anything to go by, there’s no one they would rather have in the driver’s seat.