While most of us were watching Brazil's Ronaldo score a brace against Japan in Germany this past summer, to become the leading World Cup goal-scorer of all time, the drama was heating up in the parallel game in the group. Croatia needed to beat Australia to qualify for the next stage, but for the Socceroos, a draw was enough. Croatia drew first blood, Australia leveled the scores, Croat captain Niko Kovac put the red-and-whites back in front with a spectacular goal, but Australia leveled again and went through at Croatia's expense.
It was easy to see who the most disappointed player on the field was. Niko Kovac buried his hands in his face, fell on his knees and burst into tears. His dream was over. Eight years earlier, he had missed out on Croatia's historic third place at the 1998 World Cup in France because of injury. Four years later, he was part of the Croatian team that beat Italy at the Japan and Korea World Cup but finished third in its group and failed to qualify for the knockout stages after a sensational defeat to Ecuador.
"I knew it was my last World Cup," the 35-year-old told Haaretz yesterday. "I was very disappointed; I wanted so much for us to advance to the next stage," added Kovac, who leads Croatia against Israel in a Euro 2008 Group E qualifier at Ramat Gan next week.
"To finish third in your group, whether at the World Cup finals or in the qualifiers, is the worst thing that can happen," says Kovac. "That's why the match in Israel is so important. It is obvious to me also that the European Championship, if we qualify, will be my final international tournament, since I will be almost 37. Success at Euro 2008 will be a fantastic end to my career, but for that to happen we have to reach the tournament."
Kovac may be getting on in years, but he is still in great shape and is the kind of player who gives everything in training and serves as an example to players much younger than him. "When you see Kovac in training, putting forth the effort of a player half his age, you begin to understand what professionalism is. He is an inspiration to the young players," says Croatian sportswriter Drazan Korsli.
Kovac is Croatia's playmaker, but unlike a classic No. 10, he does a lot of defense. "He is unbelievably versatile," says Falco Gotz, who coached him at Hertha Berlin during the past two seasons.
Kovac, like his coach Slaven Bilic, has a lot of respect for Israeli soccer, and is not taking next week's game lightly. "Israel achieved excellent results in its World Cup qualifying campaign, and so far in this campaign as well," says the player. "Without a doubt, Israel is improving and playing it in Tel Aviv will not be an easy mission."
Kovac isn't willing to bet on the result, but he did say: "We play to win in every game, but obviously in an away game against a tough opponent, a draw won't be such a bad result.
Do you agree that after your win over England and in view of Russia's unimpressive form, Croatia is the best team in the group?
"There are a few good teams. England is a team that you can't take lightly, and of course you mustn't write off Russia or Israel. Even after Wednesday's game, there are still a lot of points left in the bag and I think things will only be decided in the final stages."
Kovac, whose younger brother Robert is a defender on the squad, was born in Berlin to Croat parents. He spent all of his career in Germany, before moving over the summer to Red Bull Salzburg of Austria, and he has never played in Croatia or lived in the country, but he still feels like a Croat. "In my parents' home, we spoke Serbo-Croat, that's my language and my nationality. Outside, at school, in the street, with my club, I spoke German."
Kovac started his professional career at second-division Hertha Berlin in 1991, and five years later he moved up to first-division Bayer Leverkeusen, where he earned his first call-up for Croatia and was later joined by his brother. Three years later, he left Hertha for Bayern Munich, with Robert following him after two seasons.
Kovac failed to establish himself in Munich, and after two seasons returned to Hertha, now in the first division, with the intention of ending his career there.
Giovanni Trapattoni, who coached Bayern twice, although not during Kovac's time, tempted him to Red Bull Salzburg. "You never know whether he is a playmaker who puts in a lot in defense, or a defensive midfielder who is creative - he does everything," Trapattoni says of Kovac.
Like any captain, Kovac would like to see himself raising the European Championship trophy. But if Croatia wants to qualify, it wil have to avoid another third-place finish, and for that it will need a good result at Ramat Gan next Wednesday.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now