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Bundesliga: Niko Kovač, becoming great at Eintracht Frankfurt

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Less than a year.

That’s how long Croatian coach Niko Kovač has taken to change Eintracht Frankfurt recent history. The former Bayern Munich midfielder steered the to safety in May 2016 and is now leading the Hesse-based club far away from relegation zone, also reaching the German Cup semi-finals. If they win against Borussia Mönchengladbach, they will play DFB Cup final at “Olympiastadion” in Berlin. It could be something special for Kovač, as he was born exactly in the German capital. Niko, alongside his younger brother Robert, began to play football in parks and football pitches in Wedding, the same Berlin neighbourhood where Jérôme and Kevin-Prince Boateng grew up. They joined Rapide Wedding and Hertha Zehlendorf. The latter, well-known for their youth academy (Littbarski, Ziege, Brooks, Rüdiger played there) was Niko’s springboard for his professional career. Kovač was bought by Hertha Berlin and debuted in German second division in 1991, before joining top Bundesliga sides like Bayer Leverkusen, Hamburger SV and Bayern Munich, the club he supported as a child (he had Karl-Heinz Rummenigge‘s poster on his room wall).

Niko was a good defensive midfielder, he hadn’t excellent technical skills but he had a good professional attitude and great understanding of the Game. As Bayern footballer he won one German title, a DFB Cup and an Intercontinental Cup between 2001 and 2003, also turning into a key player and then the captain of Crotian national team. Niko, who spoke German better than Serbo-Croatian during his childhood, chose the citizenship of his parents in 1996, joining the national team coached at that time by Blažević.

Kovač played two European championships and two World Cups for Croatia. In both world championships (2002, 2006) “The Blazers” were eliminated after finishing third in their group stage. However Niko’s greatest regret was his absence due to injury at 1998 World Cup.

A football life spent in Germany and Croatia, sometimes with his brother Robert, that ended in 2009 after a three-year spell in Austria at Red Bull Salzburg. There, just like during his experiences in Leverkusen and Munich, he was coached by a football maestro like Giovanni Trapattoni. His Austrian experience was marked by a goal that made history, as he scored the first Bundesliga goal for RB and won two national titles in 2007 and in 2009.

The birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart became Niko’s home after his retirement. There, halfway between Berlin and Croatia, Kovač settled with his wife Kristine and his daughter. At RB former Bayer Leverkusen midfielder also started a new chapter in his life – he was appointed by the Salzburg club as coach of the reserve team that played in Austrian second division and then in the third tier after league reform.

That was an important period for the Croatian. It was during that experience Niko learnt how to transmit his football ideas and he cleared his head about his future. “At the start, I wondered ‘is this right for me?’,” Kovač remembered in an interview published on in 2013.

In April 2011 RB Salzburg executives sacked Dutch manager Huub Stevens, replacing him with his compatriot Ricardo Moniz, the then-youth academy coordinator. Moniz, who had been Martin Jol assistant coach at Tottenham and Robin Van Persie scout at Feyenoord, wanted Kovač as assistant manager. The couple signed a two-year-contract but they parted ways more than a season later. After winning the Austrian Bundesliga title and national cup, Moniz resigned due to some misunderstandings between him and RB executives. (“In Salzburg someone wanted to take me out,” Moniz said in a interview on Dutch magazine Voetbal International).

For Kovač it looked like the first real big chance was coming, but Red Bull Salzburg management decided to appoint former Paderborn coach Roger Schmidt instead. Niko left the club slamming the door.

He would sit for the first time on the bench as head coach just few months later, in January 2013. Kovač‘s friend and former teammate Davor Šuker, at that time president of Croatian Football Federation, called him to lead U-21 Croatia national team who were trying to qualify for the European Under-21 Championship. Niko accepted this offer and alongside his brother and assistant coach Robert started his “adventure” in the best way possible.
Five games, five wins, 17 goals scored (thanks to two large victories against Liechtenstein) and no nets conceded, lining up a team with players like Brozović, Rebić and Vrsaljko. This “perfect” score persuaded Šuker to offer to Kovač the post of senior national team manager in a very delicate moment, with Croatia waiting for the crucial 2014 World Cup play off.

That was the beginning of a two-year spell full of ups and downs. Under Kovač’s guidance Croatia achieved pretty good results, qualifying for the World Cup in Brazil (eliminated in the group stage) and having a good start to Euro 2016 qualifying campaign. However Niko was unable to handle some off-the-pitch aspects: first of all the relationship with Croatian football federation vice president and Dinamo Zagreb executive Zdravko Mamić, then the management of a group full of stars and at last but not at least the pressure of protesting fans (those who caused riots during away match against Italy in Milan). When Croatia earned just one point against Norway and Azerbajian in September 2015, local football federation sacked the Kovač brothers. They would begin a new adventure just few months later after being linked with Niko’s former club, RB Salzburg.
Berlin-born manager accepted the offer to lead Bundesliga club Eintracht Frankfurt previously coached by Armin Veh. Niko Kovač and his brother met the challenge to save “Die launische Diva” from relegation with 10 games to play. The new coach found a team on the edge of ruin and with low morale.

Kovač’s first matches weren’t easy. One win against Hannover and four defeats. At that time Frankfurt were virtually relegated. For many Eintracht fans that situation reminded the final part of 2010-2011 season, when the club slipped to Zweite Bundesliga without winning any match after Christoph Daum‘s appointment.

Now it’s more difficult for us,”

Kovač said in a interview after their fourth loss.

The turning point of Niko’s spell at Eintracht Frankfurt was a comeback win over Mainz. What “die launische Diva” showed in the following games was a more solid defense and a new team spirit. “I need all of you,” Kovač repeated several times during relegation battle.

The Croatian coach adapted “The Eagles’” formation according to opponents and physical conditions of his players. Furthermore he changed the position of some key footballers like midfielder Makoto Hasebe and Marco Russ. Above all, Kovač relied on a team that had no much talent but was able to take advantage of opponent teams’ weak points.

Thanks to Kovač’s “new deal”, Eintracht Frankfurt avoided relegation after a thrilling two-legged play off against Nürnberg. “The Eagles”, that in the last regular season match lost the chance to get to safety due to a last-gasp defeat against Werder Bremen, drew 1-1 at home but won 1-0 in Nurnberg thanks to Seferović‘s goal. A special victory, also because just few hours before the match key player Marco Russ announced that he had been diagnosed with cancer.

The other side of the coin of Frankfurt triumph was Nürnberg huge disappointment. After the end of the return-leg many players were crying on the pitch and Niko Kovač comforted them one by one. Due his nice gesture German Football Federation awarded Croatian coach the fair play prize.

An attitude that explains what Niko is: a mix between German mentality and the typical impulsiveness of Slavic people, as he admitted in a interview published on in October 2016.

Niko Kovač based his work for the 2016-17 season on organization and determination. Alongside general manager Bruno Hübner and sporting director Fredi Bobić, der Retter (“The Saviour” as everyone call him in Frankfurt), he has built a solid team with low budget. They sold some important players like Peruvian defender Carlos Zambrano who joined Russian side Rubin Kazan, and they took a couple of interesting U-25 talents like Guillermo Varela (from Manchester United), Michael Hector (from Chelsea), Ante Rebić and especially two Spanish possible stars like Omar Mascarell and Jesús Vallejo from Real Madrid.

The new signings joined a group of players led by club legend Alexander Meier and formed by rough defenders like David Abraham, talented offensive footballers like Mexican Marcos Fabián and two solid reliable guys like Japanese midfielder Hasebe and Finnish goalkeeper Hradecky. Kovač worked a lot on team organization using a flexible formation (from 3-5-2 to 4-2-3-1 but also 4-5-1) and based on a strong defense. Furthermore Niko and his assistant Robert insisted on the individual development of every player.

“The Saviour” has become “Der Bessenmacher”, the man who makes everyone improve.

Kovač’s work has helped for example Japanese star Hasebe, who plays as “sweeper” providing the best performances in his career or Spaniard Jesús Vallejo. Former Real Zaragoza player forms with Argentinian veteran Abraham one of the best defensive couple in Bundesliga. Kovač has turned Eintracht into a “Treter-Truppe”, a “dirty dozen”.
The Eagles don’t play champagne football, but they fight for every ball, also thanks to the great emphasis put by Croatian coach on fitness. Kovač’s Kraftfußball has led the team one point away from third place in Bundesliga after 17 games. Thanks to these unexpected good performances Eintracht Frankfurt executives decided to extend Kovač’s contract until 2019.

However, the beginning of 2017 hasn’t been so positive for “die launische Diva”. “The Eagles” have clearly showed their weak points, but they have also been able to stay far away from relegation zone. In the last matches of Bundesliga season Niko‘s team needs a change of pace to carry on its development process started more than a year ago. A change of pace that could be important in order to reach German Cup final to be held in Berlin on 25 May.

Eintracht Frankfurt have to win against ‘Gladbach to fly to the German capital, to the same stadium where Niko Kovač began his long way to the top.