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Exclusive interview

Kovac brothers: Pep’s a perfectionist

Two familiar faces have been among the crowds in Doha, closely observing Pep Guardiola as he puts his men through their paces on the training ground. Niko Kovac is Croatia head coach, assisted by his younger brother Robert – and both are former Bayern men. spoke exclusively to the brothers about how they are learning the coaching trade, their impression of Pep Guardiola, and why a childhood dream came true in 2001.

Interview with Niko and Robert Kovac Niko, Robert, what brings you to Qatar?
Niko Kovac: “We have more time off than we’d like as national coaches. So we use the time for self-improvement by watching the world’s top coaches. We look for similarities and differences because we want to grow into the job.”
Robert Kovac: “We watch and analyse every training session, but otherwise we’re observing our own team and preparing for our next EURO 2016 qualifier against Norway in March.” So being a national coach is relatively relaxing…
Niko Kovac: “No, we’re not sitting at home twiddling our thumbs, we’re out and about monitoring our players. We’re a small country but we have expectations as great as Germany’s. It’s hard to imagine!” Is it nicer to be watching the rigours of mid-season training rather than actually doing it?
Robert Kovac:
“I’m happy not to be the one charging about on the pitch, it was always tough. But it’s obvious the FCB players are enjoying it! You do get nostalgic about your time as a pro but my legs aren’t up to it any more.” What’s the biggest difference between playing and coaching?
Robert Kovac:
“As a player you have to be in perfect condition but as a coach you’re busy with everything: the players, the media, the physios and the whole set-up. It’s a 24/7 job, and the smaller the national association, the more difficult it is. Other people look after a lot of it at a big team.”
Niko Kovac: “As a player you focus on the dressing room, but as a coach you have to keep an eye on absolutely everything.” Niko, you spent two years in Munich and Robert, you were there twice as long. What do you remember most about your time at FC Bayern?
Niko Kovac: “The trophies. Bayern are always successful. We were already the best back then, but everything’s even bigger now. All these people working for the team….”
Robert Kovac: “My first thought is also the titles we won, and then all the friends we made in the four years there. I’m still in touch with lots of the staff and former players, and I turn out for the Bayern All Stars. FC Bayern is still one big family.”
Niko Kovac: “We’re often in Munich, we visit the Säbener Strasse and go to the stadium. The doors are always open to former FCB players. It’s a really likeable aspect of the club.” Robert, you once said that joining Bayern at the same time realised a childhood dream for the two of you.
Robert Kovac: “Yes, we were Bayern fans as little boys. Niko had a number 11 shirt as worn by Karl-Heinz Rummenigge. Years later, a dream came true when we joined the club. I had a great time for four years.” Brothers don’t always get along harmoniously… do you argue about the Croatia line-up?
Niko Kovac: “You have your arguments as kids, but we get along fantastically out on the pitch nowadays. We complement and support each other. We rarely disagree about the line-up. Maybe it’s in our blood… (laughs)
Robert Kovac: “Maybe it’s our shared philosophy. We think the same way about football.” You were born and raised in Germany, so do you have problems being accepted in Croatia?
Robert Kovac: “It can be tough when you think and act like a German. It’s a bit different in Croatia with more improvisation and less planning. We had our problems at the start but we’re determined to stick to our guns.”
Niko Kovac: “We’re a mixture of German and Croatian, although the first of those mentalities predominates. It can sometimes be a problem, but we’re focused on putting our nation’s football where it belongs: in the world top ten.” What especially have you learned from former coaches?
Robert Kovac: “Lots of good things. Ottmar Hitzfeld at Bayern, Christoph Daum in Leverkusen or Hermann Gerland – I played for him for a year in Nürnberg. And Fabio Capello at Juventus. You always pick up a few things on the way.” Such as?
Robert Kovac: “Ottmar Hitzfeld gave us a few tips before our World Cup play-off against Iceland, as he’d already played them with the Swiss. It really helped.”
Niko Kovac: “Robert is right: you always pick up a few things. You learn from the coaching staff too. You learn as you go, but nobody’s perfect and we’re only human.” Is your style more like Ottmar Hitzfeld or rather Felix Magath?
Robert Kovac:
“Definitely not Felix Magath! (laughs) Joking aside: we actually played on a team with plenty of our current squad so the relationship is a bit different. But you can’t be too chummy with the players – there has to be a certain distance.”
Niko Kovac: “You need the right blend. A totally authoritarian approach doesn’t work any more. The relationship between the players and the coach has changed and you need that relationship if you’re to succeed.” What’s your impression of Pep Guardiola?
Niko Kovac: “He’s obsessed with the details and his work is truly meticulous. He dissects every game as a whole. The difference between him and other coaches is that he goes down to the last atom. Nothing happens by accident with him. And his success proves he’s getting it right! It’s how we’re trying to work. We do a few things well, but other things are more like a starting point for us.” You’re products of the Bundesliga. Might we see you in a coaching position back in Germany some day?
Robert Kovac: “We might return to club coaching at some point, and Germany would be an obvious choice because we know the league back to front. It’s the best league in Europe along with Spain. But at the moment all that matters is qualifying for EURO 2016 in France with Croatia, and it’s looking good so far.”
Niko Kovac: “Yes, we’re focused exclusively on the EURO in France. And we want to keep on learning. We’ve picked up the basics, but it’s true you never stop learning.”