From Berlin to Bayern: Niko Kovac gets his shot at the big time | Sports| German football and major international sports news | DW | 13.04.2018
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From Berlin to Bayern: Niko Kovac gets his shot at the big time

Bayern Munich confirmed on Thursday that Niko Kovac will take over from Jupp Heynckes at the end of the season. DW chronicles the career of the Berlin-born Croatian to see what Bayern can expect from their new coach.

Niko Kovac has signed a three-year deal with Bayern Munich after the newly-crowned German champions paid €2.2 million ($1.9m) to trigger a release clause in his Eintracht Frankfurt contract. 

Under Kovac, Frankfurt have been one of the Bundesliga success stories of recent years, but the 46-year-old's inexperience has raised eyebrows.

DW profiles the Berlin-born Croatian to see what Bayern can expect from their new coach.

Humble beginnings

Kovac was born and grew up in the working class Berlin suburb of Wedding, the son of a carpenter and a cleaner.

He learnt to play football in the concrete cages of the capital, where he developed the technical ability and physical toughness that later saw him make 379 Bundesliga and 2.Bundesliga appearances for Hertha Berlin, Bayer Leverkusen, Hamburg and Bayern Munich, with whom he won the league in 2003.

After honing his coaching skills as a youth and then assistant coach at Red Bull Salzburg, Kovac managed the Croatian national team to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil before accepting his first club appointment at Eintracht Frankfurt.

Niko Kovac (picture-alliance/dpa/P. Kneffel)

Mia San Mia: Kovac (right) won the league as a Bayern Munich player in 2003.

He rescued the Eagles from the brink of relegation in his first season, led them to the German Cup final in his second, and has guided them to the brink of Champions League football this year – one of the league’s indisputable success stories.

Read more: One loss won't break united Eintracht Frankfurt

A German style with an international flavor

It's a success built primarily on a touch-tackling, solid defensive unit in the former holding midfielder's own image. This season, only Bayern and Schalke have better defensive records than Eintracht while only Hoffenheim have received more yellow cards. Last season, Frankfurt came bottom of the Bundesliga's "fair play" league by some distance.

But the current campaign has also showed a more creative side to Eintracht Frankfurt. With 40 goals so far, they've already exceeded last season's tally of 36, the task of finding the net being shared equally throughout a team which doesn't feature a standout superstar.

Instead, Kovac has built a squad that contains 18 different nationalities and that the German-born Croatian has the experience, understanding and openness to manage.

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'We are not robots"

"Wedding is a working class area, a small district with lots of foreigners, but Germans too," he told the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in December when asked about his upbringing. “But different cultures mean different influences and different ways of thinking.”

"We're all different and we have to accept and tolerate each other's characteristics," he continued, leading him to the conclusion that "you can't manage every footballer the same. Of course you'd love to but it doesn't work like that. We're not robots."

It's an interesting contrast to a criticism frequently levelled at another candidate for the Bayern Munich job, Thomas Tuchel, whose man-management of some Borussia Dortmund players damaged team morale.

Read more: Thomas Tuchel - A talented but difficult coach

But Kovac places huge value on the personal relationship with his players, a quality he attributes to his former coaches Ottmar Hitzfeld, Giovanni Trapattoni and Christoph Daum ("Three coaches who also possessed great human qualities in addition to their professional expertise") but also to his strong Christian faith.

"We were raised as Christians and religion plays an important role for us," he revealed. "If you stick to what the bible teaches, then you have everything you need: honesty, openness, friendliness, respect, tolerance and much more which is often lost nowadays."

Eintracht Frankfurt sporting director Fredi Bobic was not willing to ascribe such values to Bayern Munich at a press conference on Thursday following the announcement.

Deutschland Bundesliga Relegation Eintracht Frankfurt - 1. FC Nürnberg (Reuters/K. Pfaffenbach)

Kovac, far right, saved Eintracht Frankfurt from relegation in a play-off against Nuremberg in 2016.

Gamble

At just 46 years old, Kovac is 24 years younger than current incumbent Heynckes and 12 years younger than Bayern's last permanent coach, Carlo Ancelotti.

Never before have Bayern Munich entrusted the position of head coach to such a young man with no prior experience at a top club. But Heynckes’ long-term assistant and former Fortuna Düsseldorf manager Peter Hermann will remain to support Kovac, who will also be accompanied by his younger brother Robert and Armin Reutershahn, his two Eintracht assistants.

The bosses and supporters at the Allianz Arena will also be expecting more than the physical, uncomfortable style of Eintracht Frankfurt. It's not enough for Bayern to simply win the league, or even the double or the treble – it has to be done in a certain style, too.

Having arguably lost out on their preferred candidates, Tuchel and RB Leipzig coach Ralph Hasenhüttl, Bayern have taken a gamble.

As for Kovac, his chance has come earlier than expected, but it's no less deserved.  

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