Portrait of an iconic manager – Stefan Kovacs

Stefan Kovacs began his playing career as a midfielder for Oradea in Romania and went on to play for several outfits in the country as well as Charleroi in Belgium. He also had a three-year stint with CFR Cluj, before he hanged his boots at the end of the 1952/53 season at Universatea Cluj.

He wasn’t as gifted as his older brother Nicolae who went on to win 37 caps for the Romania national team and represented the side at all three World Cups before the outbreak of the Second World War. Nevertheless, the younger Kovacs made up for the lack of his playing success with some remarkable achievements in management.

Tactics and man-management

Kovacs got the best out of his Ajax Amsterdam side not on the basis of implementing any revolutionary tactical system rather giving his players, who were enmeshed in the Total Football philosophy, the freedom to express themselves on the pitch.

The players enjoyed the freedom under Kovacs after years of rigour under Rinus Michels and went on to win back-to-back European Cups under him.

Best Spell as a manager

When Kovacs joined Ajax in 1971, his appointment confounded many in the Netherlands. However, Kovas was not a complete novice when it came to management; he had guided Steaua Bucharest to a league title and two domestic cups in his four years at the Romanian giants.

It was perhaps the manner of his appointment that failed to convince many. After the legendary Michels left Ajax for Barcelona, the officials at the Dutch club appointed Kovacs from a list of 15 managers simply because he was the cheapest. Kovacs, being a pragmatist, it is said, had booked his return ticket to Romania as he headed to Amsterdam convinced that it wouldn’t be a long gig. But he was soon to be proven wrong.

Ajax are lauded for their three successive European Cup wins in the early 1970s yet not many know that two of those three cups came under Kovacs along with several more trophies.

Greatest players in his legendary teams

Being at the helm of the legendary Ajax of the 1970s meant that Kovacs had the privilege of coaching some of the greatest players of that era, including Arie Haan, Ruud Krol, Johann Neeskens, Sjaak Swart, Piet Keizer, Jonny Rep and of course, the legendary Johan Cruyff.

Legacy

The fact that he was at the helm of the Ajax side as they won two European Cups places Kovacs high in the list of the most successful managers in world football.

In his later managerial career, he took charge of the France national team and although it wasn’t a particularly successful tenure, he instituted the iconic Clairfontaine academy that has gone on to produce some of the best French players of the recent past, including Thierry Henry and William Gallas among others.

Honours

Steaua Bucharest:
Divizia A (1): 1967–68
Romanian Cup (2): 1968–69, 1969–70

Ajax Amsterdam:
Eredivisie (2): 1971–72, 1972–73
KNVB Cup (1): 1971–72
European Cup (2): 1971–72, 1972–73
European Super Cup (1): 1972
Intercontinental Cup (1): 1972

Panathinaikos:
Greek Cup (1): 1981–82