May 30, 2014

ZAGREB, Croatia (AP) Niko Kovac wants to combine a German winning mentality with some Croatian flare at the World Cup in Brazil, and he just might have the background to succeed.

The former national team midfielder, who played for the ''Golden Generation'' that placed third at the 1998 World Cup, was born and raised in Germany. And as coach of the national team heading to Brazil, he is hoping instill some of that German professionalism into his squad.

''They've obviously not had the experience I've had in Germany,'' the 42-year-old Kovac told ''Sometimes I make certain assumptions but find they're not immediately obvious to my players. But I think we've basically got it well under control.''

Kovac spent years playing in the Bundesliga for Hertha Berlin, Bayer Leverkusen, Hamburger SV and Bayern Munich. He also made 83 appearances for the Croatian national team, scoring 14 goals.

The squad Kovac now has includes players like stylish Real Madrid midfielder Luka Modric and prolific Bayern Munich striker Mario Mandzukic.

''When we succeed in combining our passionate approach with the ability to keep our cool in certain situations, we're a pretty good national team,'' Kovac said.

Kovac took over as Croatia coach in mid-October after a shaky qualification campaign led by predecessor Igor Stimac. He guided Croatia to the final tournament following a two-leg playoff victory over Iceland.

Croatia was drawn to play host Brazil in the opening game of the World Cup. Cameroon and Mexico are the other teams in the group.

''Brazil is the obvious favorite, but second place is wide open,'' Kovac said after the draw. ''Mexico may have struggled recently but they are always strong at the World Cup. It is really tight for second place.''

Although he has vast experience as a player, the national team is Kovac's first major coaching job. The two-leg playoff against Iceland - which Croatia won 2-0 on aggregate - was his biggest test so far as a trainer.

''I knew if I took on the job of Croatia coach I'd face the toughest five weeks of my life,'' he said. ''Expectations run immensely high in Croatia. We may only be a small country, but people expect us to be our best at every major tournament.''

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