Culture, Travel & Sport

Ştefan Kovács: The forgotten legend of Romanian football

Ştefan Kovács is one of the greatest soccer coaches who ever lived. Unfortunately, few of today’s young Romanian football fans have ever heard of him.

Winner of two consecutive European Cups with Ajax Amsterdam (in 1972 and 1973), Ştefan Kovács is the most successful Romanian football coach in history, and – along with Ukrainian Valeriy Lobanovskyi – the greatest from the emerging Europe region. For a number of reasons however – not least the nearly 50 years which have passed since his greatest triumphs – he has for some time been the forgotten man of Romanian football.

These days, if you ask most Romanian football fans to name the country’s best ever coach, they will in unison choose Mircea Lucescu, who has coached teams to league titles in Turkey and Ukraine, as well as winning the 2009 UEFA Cup with Ukraine’s Shaktar Donetsk, but never won the European Cup. Indeed, in a poll conducted by a Romanian sports newspaper a decade ago, Kovács placed only fourth: behind Lucescu, Emerich Ienei and Anghel Iordanescu.

A winner of back-to-back European Cups (only nine coaches have ever done it in the 65-year history of the competition) deserves better.

Urban myth has it that when Rinus Michels, the begetter of what would become known as total football, left Ajax to take the manager’s job at Barcelona in 1971 (having just beaten Panathinaikos in the European Cup Final at Wembley), the Dutch side drew up a list of 15 names to replace him, and that – the Dutch being the Dutch – they chose the cheapest.

The appointment of Kovács to one of the most prestigious jobs in football was certainly a surprise.

Born in the western Romanian city of Timișoara in 1920, Kovács, had led Steaua București to a league title and three Romanian Cups in the previous four years, and in his youth had for three years played for the Belgian side Charleroi, before Romania’s communist government barred its players from moving abroad.

Kovács was nevertheless far from well-known in the Netherlands – indeed, he was all but unheard of outside Romania. Even he could not quite believe his luck and, it is said, bought a return ticket from Bucharest to Amsterdam because he didn’t think his stay in the Netherlands would be a long one.

As it turned out, he stayed for just two seasons, but they were glorious.

Ajax blossomed into the greatest team of its generation, the march towards their third European Cup final being particularly processional, not least a 4-0 demolition of Bayern Munich in the quarter final.

Low key and relaxed where Michels had been combative and a strict disciplinarian, Kovács tolerated the excesses of Ajax’s galaxy of stars. Gerrie Mühren showboating in the 1973 European Cup semi-final against Real Madrid is evidence of that: Michels would have been raging; Kovács loved it.

Johan Cruyff once described the managerial style of Kovács by telling of how one evening, the Romanian caught a number of Ajax stars drinking, smoking and playing cards. Instead of remonstrating with them, he casually sat down with them at the table, lit up a cigarette, poured himself a drink and went on to beat them all at poker, taking their money. “He allowed us to be ourselves, and he in turn became one of us,” said Cruyff.

Football historian Jonathon Wilson however has argued that Kovács was almost too nice, lacking the steel to rein in Cruyff as he took on an increasing prominence in team affairs: “By giving that squad the freedom to reach its peak, Kovács also paved the way for its destruction,” says Wilson.

Nevertheless, Kovács became a star in the Netherlands. When Nicolae Ceaușescu made a visit to the country in 1973, the Dutch Queen Juliana allegedly asked the Romanian dictator at a banquet: “What can we give you to take back to Romania? You must accept something in exchange for sending us Kovács.”

A clever man, Kovács did not outstay his welcome in Amsterdam, sensibly deciding to leave when the team was at its peak, after the 1973 European Cup final, in which Ajax beat Juventus. It was a wise decision. Johan Cruyff, the team’s best player and galvanising force, also left (to join Michels at Barcelona), and the great Ajax quickly disintegrated.

Kovács left to manage first France (and he remains one of only two foreigners to have coach the French national team), then Romania, achieving little. Years in the football wilderness followed, including a spell in Greece at Panathinaikos. He then went into retirement, only resurfacing (briefly) for an unhappy spell at Monaco in 1987. He was sacked after a handful of games, replaced by Arsene Wenger.

Speaking after the death of Kovács (he died almost exactly 25 years ago, on May 12, 1995), Mircea Lucescu said that he had been “one of the greatest coaches who ever lived. All of us who followed him learnt something from the man. Unfortunately, young Romanian football fans today have never heard of him.”

Others remember: in 2019, France Football ranked him at No. 43 on their list of the Top 50 football managers of all time. Rinus Michels placed first.

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