Winner of two consecutive European Cups with Ajax Amsterdam from 1972-73, Ştefan Kovács is the mjost successful Romanian football coach in history. For a number of reasons however – not least his Hungarian ethnicity – he has for some time (both before and after his death in 1995) been the forgotten man of Romanian football.
When Rinus Michels, the begetter of what would become known as Total Football - left Ajax for Barcelona in 1971 (having just beaten Panathinaikos in the European Cup Final at Wembley), legend has it that the Dutch side drew up a list of 15 names to replace him, and that they chose the cheapest. Kovacs had led Steaua to a league title and three Romanian Cups in the previous four years, and as a player had had a brief spell with the Belgian side Charleroi, but he was far from well-known in the Netherlands – indeed, was all but unheard of outside Romania - and his appointment was a massive shock. 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 would be a long one.
As it turned out he stayed 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. Low key where Michels had been combative and attention-seeking, Kovács nevertheless became a star in Holland. When Nicolae Ceausescu visited the Netherlands in 1973, the Dutch Queen Beatrix 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, sensibly deciding to leave when the team was at its peak. It was a wise decision. Johan Cruyff, the team’s best player and galvanizing force, left for Barcelona to join Michels shortly after, and the great Ajax quickly disintegrated. Kovács left to coach first France, then Romania, achieving nothing. His career ended in ignominy: his Romania side missing out on qualification for the 1982 World Cup after losing a match against Hungary. Kovács was ridiculously accused of throwing the match. He went into retirement, only resurfacing (briefly) for an unhappy spell at Monaco in 1987. He was sacked after a handful of games, and replaced by Arsene Wenger.
Below is a short film of Ajax beating Juventus 1-0 in the 1973 European Cup Final. Kovacs is seen holding the trophy at the end of the video.