Bayern Munich coach Niko Kovac remains under pressure despite winning the Bundesliga title last weekendBayern Munich coach Niko Kovac remains under pressure despite winning the Bundesliga title last weekend (AFP Photo/John MACDOUGALL)
Berlin (AFP) - Legendary former Bayern Munich boss Ottmar Hitzfeld has told AFP that he does not understand the criticism levelled at current coach Niko Kovac, and has backed the Croatian to complete a league and cup double this weekend.
"I don't understand the criticism and controversy around Niko Kovac at all," Hitzfeld, 70, told AFP from his home in Loerrach, Southern Germany.
Hitzfeld won the Champions League and five Bundesliga titles in two spells in charge of Bayern between 1998 and 2008.
He said that Kovac had "held his nerve" to complete a difficult job this season.
Despite leading Bayern to a seventh successive league title this season, Kovac has continuously had to fight off speculation over his future amid rumours of dressing room disharmony and lack of boardroom support.
The 47-year-old is rumoured to be fighting for his job as he looks to complete a domestic double in Saturday's German Cup Final against RB Leipzig.
"I have to congratulate Niko on the way he mastered certain situations this season," said Hitzfeld, praising the way that Kovac had overseen a generational transition at Bayern.
"It was difficult for him as a young coach. You have to give game time to players like Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben, while also building up younger players like Serge Gnabry and Kingsley Coman."
Hitzfeld said he was always "convinced" that Bayern could win the title under Kovac, even when they slipped nine points behind rivals Dortmund in December.
Not everyone was so sure of Kovac's abilities, however. The Croatian has reportedly faced criticism from senior players and club CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge has said that "nobody has a job guarantee" at Bayern.
"That was a legitimate comment (from Rummenigge)," said Hitzfeld.
"That is just Bayern's philosophy. Whether you are a member of staff, a player or a coach, you are always on trial at Bayern."
Hitzfeld knows better than most about the pressures of the Bayern job, having been fired by the club in 2004, a dismissal he later described as "a relief".
"I have sympathy for Kovac, because I know how difficult the Bayern job is. You have to fight on multiple fronts, and trophies are all that matters," he told AFP.
- 'Neck on the line' -
The 70-year-old is one of a select group of coaches who have won the Champions League with two different clubs, having lifted the trophy with Borussia Dortmund in 1997 and Bayern in 2001.
He retired from football in 2014, but dismissed the idea that younger coaches such as Kovac and RB Leipzig-bound prodigy Julian Nagelsmann were a different breed to his generation.
"The job has changed of course. You have bigger squads these days and bigger coaching teams. Back then, there was only you, an assistant, and a maybe a fitness coach or a goalkeeping coach."
"Nowadays, you have seven or eight coaches. But at the end of the day, the coach has to have authority, it is always his neck on the line."
"That will always be the same, whether now or in 10 or 20 years."
Hitzfeld backed Bayern to win Saturday's cup final, but said that both Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund would cause problems for the Munich giants in the coming years.
"Bayern are favourites in the final, it will be an attractive and exciting game. Leipzig are now the third power in German football and they will keep their place at the top."
"Dortmund will also continue to challenge Bayern, they have made some very good signings in the last year."