How Bayer 04 helped Niko Kovac get married

Niko Kovac spent three seasons playing for Bayer 04 between 1996 and 1999, twice finishing as runner-up in the league. We bring you an interview with the FC Bayern coach on his successful time at Leverkusen, spectacular wins against FCB and Saturday's match.

Mr Kovac, you played for Bayer 04 from 1996 to 1999. What are your memories of that time?
"To be honest, it was a great time. We had a really good squad with Christoph Daum  a coach I was able to learn a lot from later on and we were runners-up and played in the Champions League."

Back then, the team – above all in 1996/97 – did a lot away from the pitch. I've heard you even took part in dancing lessons along with several of your team-mates. is that right?
(He laughs) "Oh yes, that's right. I was definitely one of the reserves there but it was important for me: Only after I'd learned the waltz to a certain extent was I able to get married and risk taking the opening dance at the wedding with my wife without the fear of having any accidents…"

As a player, you were on the pitch in two of the most spectacular home wins against FC Bayern: In the 5-2 win in 1996/97 (a hat-trick from Markus Feldhoff) and then in the following season with the 4-2 victory where Ulf Kirsten scored three goals with Leverkusen reduced to ten men. How significant were the victories over Bayern at the time?
"No doubt about it: Wins against FC Bayern were the be all and end all in the Bundesliga then as they are today. Bayern were at full strength then with Kahn, Matthäus, Helmer, Basler, Scholl, Klinsmann. But it was 3-0 to us after 43 minutes, it was incredible. Then it almost got exciting again when Bayern came back to 3-2. But Markus Feldhoff scored another two goals – we won 5-2! Leverkusen went wild."

What importance do you place on these three years at Leverkusen in your career to date?
"For me, they were not just three successful but also important years. Bayer were my first Bundesliga club. I think I played a total of 77 games and scored eight goals. Finishing runners-up behind Bayern in 1999 was the highlight for me. A great time."

A long time ago: Niko Kovac had every reason to celebrate in a Bayer 04 shirt.

All the best to your brother Robert who also played for Bayer 04 and stayed two years longer…
"I'll be happy to pass on your regards. Robi also has very good memories of that time. He developed as a player at Leverkusen and then started his great career: four years at Bayern, two years at Juventus and finally another two years at Borussia Dortmund. Everything started at Bayer 04."

Are you or Robert still in contact with anybody at Leverkusen?
"Of course. I still keep in contact with Marcel Daum who was my analyst at Eintracht Frankfurt and now works for Bayer 04. A great man, congratulations to Leverkusen for bringing him in. Rudi Völler is still there. Hans-Peter Lehnhoff and a few more. That shows continuity at the club and that's good."

In addition to you and your brother, Peter Hermann and Dr. Holger Broich are two long-standing former Leverkusen men. Do you still sense a close affinity between the two of them and Bayer 04?
"Oh yes. They were two important men at Bayer and you can tell they haven't forgotten their past at Leverkusen. That says a lot for Bayer 04 that they again and again find first-class staff and develop them."

Peter Herman is Bayer 04 through and through. Can you talk to him about the Werkself when Bayer 04 have lost?
"I think Peter spent a good 40 years in and around Leverkusen. You can tell he had a close relationship with this club and that's still there. I think he still has a soft spot for Bayer 04 Leverkusen – and, of course, he also feels it a bit when things aren't quite going right at Leverkusen."

With FC Bayern, you've won seven games in succession. And the previous match against Bayer 04 ended up with a 3-1 win for your team. How do you think the game at the BayArena on Saturday will turn out?
"It will be a really exciting game. Bayer 04 are on the up after the change of coach. The team should actually have won the opening game against Mönchengladbach and last weekend there was an impressive 3-0 win at Wolfsburg. That's a warning for us. We mustn't sit back. After two wins at the start of the second half of the season, the team is in good spirits and full of confidence. And: We want to win at Leverkusen. I'm sure it will be a real battle."

The Werkself have a new coach in Peter Bosz. What effect do you think that has had on the way Bayer 04 play?
"I think things have started moving here. That was evident in the first two games. Bayer 04 are courageous, offensive and they will do all they can to secure qualification for Europe."

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