Stefan Kovacs – The Best Manager You’ve Never Heard Of

When Rinus Michels left Ajax for Barcelona in 1971 after a six-year spell that would see him win four league titles and three Dutch Cups, he was tasked with finding his own replacement. Together with the club, he drew up a list of 15 potential managers for Ajax, where had previously spent six years at their academy as well as the entirety of his 12-year playing career. The skeptics said that out of the 15 names, the cheapest one was chosen, Stefan Kovacs. Born in Romania in 1920 and having Hungarian roots, he spent his playing career between Oradea and Timisoara and went into management at only 33. During his first big job, at Steaua Bucharest, he built a young squad that played offensive, free-flowing football.


With Ajax monitoring managers across Europe, he was called up for an interview, no doubt due to his playing style and emphasis on youth. Incredulous, he bought a two-way ticket as he did not expect to actually get the job. The communist regime did not stand in his way, only requesting 200 dollars per month to be sent to the party’s accounts. Upon arrival, the unknown manager was treated with skepticism by a team that had just won their first European Cup. During the first training sessions, Cruyff launched a ball at him, trying to hit Kovacs as he was chatting to one of the assistants. Kovacs spotted the ball with the corner of his eye, stopped it and passed it back, telling Cruyff he should use the inside of the foot next time.


The players kept testing the waters, asking the coach what he thought of their long hair, to which Kovacs responded that he had been assigned as their manager, not their hairdresser. The relaxed jovial style of their new manager was a welcome change from Michels’ draconian discipline, to which players like Johnny Rep and especially Cruyff responded well. Others, like Gerrie Mühren, told journalists years later that Kovacs was too nice. Too nice would be an overstatement, as he simply had a different way of discipline.


Upon taking the squad to a movie, many players sat with their feet up on the opposing chairs. Instead of disciplining them, Kovacs simply remarked to someone, with the players in earshot, that he thought players who won European Cup wouldn’t behave like fifth-tier brutish amateurs. On another occasion, with the players blatantly smoking, drinking and playing poker in the hotel, he sat down with them and proceeded to win all of their money. Some say Cruyff was becoming too powerful in the dressing room, but even the Dutch maestro was humbled by Kovacs.


Clairefontaine: The Secret to France’s Success?


Before one of the team’s games, he complained about knee pain, to which Kovacs responded by rubbing a banknote on his knee, which seemed to magically cure the superstar. Cruyff would later speak out in favour of Kovacs, after the Ajax board decided to sack him after a 0-0 draw against Benfica, which the deluded board believed should have been a 4-0 victory for Ajax. On the pitch, the unshackled Ajax romped to two more European Cups, with Gerrie Mühren doing keepie-uppies at the Bernabeu.


After winning their second European Cup, he left Ajax, as the French Federation apparently made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. He thus became the only foreign manager of the France National Team and laid the groundwork for a new dawn in French football, continuing his work and winning the 1984 European Championship. His work stays relevant to this day, as he initiated the Clairefontaine Academy project, inspired by the Communist training centres he worked at back in Romania. Meanwhile, Ajax appointed George Knobel, who alienated Cruyff and Ajax would have to wait more than 20 years for another European Cup.


By: Eduard Holdis / @He_Ftbl

Featured Image: @GabFoligno / AFP