Once he was criticised for his eccentric behaviour, but Ján Kozák has taken Slovakia to the European Championship for the first time since they became an independent nation in 1993. We met one day before the friendly match against Latvia in March in the team’s hotel in the small town of Senec. While sitting in the hotel’s café, with team captain and Liverpool centre-back Martin Škrtel at the next table, Kozák explained how he has changed the atmosphere around the national squad in a very short time. 

What was the turning point in making a team that hadn’t been able to beat Luxembourg or Lithuania into one of the most dangerous teams in Europe?

When I took over this team, I had the opportunity to work with them in the previous qualification campaign – the forming of a national team always takes very long time. After the win in Bosnia and Herzegovina [1-0, in September 2013] I realised that these players have enough quality to beat stronger teams, too. When the Euro 2016 qualifiers started, I’d been with these players for a long period of time; I knew them well. A great crew got together and the first four wins, particularly against Ukraine and Spain, helped us a lot. Therefore I, and also the players, convinced ourselves that we could also fight with stronger opponents.

Slovakia have achieved their biggest successes with coaches like Dušan Galis, Vladimír Weiss and you – that is, with coaches who have an inner strength as well as tactical skills. Do you think that Slovakia have to be led by a coach with great authority? 

It’s not easy to coach a national team. But when you set rules and you play by the rules, this should not be a problem. The coach of a national team has a big advantage – while a club coach ‘inherits’ the players, a national team coach can choose. That means that when I choose somebody, I appreciate him as a player and also as a human. But I also require his feedback – his respect for me. Problems can appear, but there are fewer of them. My advantage is that when some player does not respect my instructions and he does not play as I want him to play, I can decide not to send him an invitation to the next pre-match camp. Coaches should have a natural authority not only in a national team, but also in a club.

When you select your players, how much does their personality matter? If a player was playing brilliantly for his club but his temperament didn’t suit your team, would you risk selecting him?

Of course, these are details you have to consider. When I arrived, I had coached none of these players before. They were all new to me and it’s not an easy business to get to know a person in such a short time. For example, some players are very good for their clubs in training, but when a match comes, some block appears and they are not able to give the sort of performance I expect. When I worked in club football, I had players I called ‘training players’ – because they were not able to play in a match as well as in training. The national team means the highest level and only players who are able to cope with stress, with the pressure for victories and qualification, can manage to break through.

How could a player in the national team upset you the most?

Even if a player doesn’t perform well, he has to give his best and give everything for the collective. In life as well, not everything goes as you expect. If he doesn’t play a good match, he has to do a lot more work for the team to be successful. If he does not manage that, that is the thing that will upset me.

How do you talk to the players when they are not playing well? For example, at half-time during the home match against Belarus, when they were losing 1-0, did you raise your voice or did you try to calm the players down? What is better in such a situation?

In that match, it was necessary rather to calm them down, as it was a match that we really wanted to win so we could celebrate progression to the Euros with our fans. If we had won, we would have qualified for the Euros. And that desire, restlessness and acceleration of things caused a performance that was not optimal. It was not a problem with the players’ attitude, but we lacked calm and ease. We conceded one goal and we immediately wanted to equalise. Also the Belarusians played really well: it was arguably their best match in the qualifiers.

Marek Hamšík was for long time criticised for his performances for the national team, but he was the most important Slovakia player in the last qualifiers. Did you adapt the tactics in order to give him more freedom on the pitch?

Marek really is a professional. He gives everything in every training. He likes playing for the national team, but football is a collective sport and it was necessary to find quality players who suited him. We managed to do it, as both the boys in the middle, Juraj Kucka and Viktor Pečovský, are different types of players, but they are perfectly balanced together. He has also other players next to him such as Vlado Weiss or Robo Mak. He cooperates well with Adam Nemec, too. As the performances of all the players got better, Marek also had a better environment in which to create.

Do you think that the national team is, from the point of view of creating chances and dominating on the pitch, too dependent on Hamšík’s creativity? Could that be an issue for Slovakia at the Euros? If an opponent stops Hamšík, Slovakia could have problems in attack.

I don’t agree that everything depends on Hamšík and his performance. It is not true. Vice versa, I think, that today we have a lot of creative players, not only experienced ones, but also players whom we count on for the future – for example [Patrik] Hrošovský or [Ondrej] Duda. These are players with great potential and creativity, as is Vladimír Weiss, without a doubt.  

Are Slovakia limited in attack also by the fact that the options at left-back are Tomáš Hubočan or Nórbert Gyombér, both originally centre-backs – players who don’t get forward much?

Of course, an ideal player in this position would be left-footed. We have [Dušan] Švento, who has the best abilities to play there, but he doesn’t play for his club regularly and he is often injured. Hubočan has played as a left-sided defender – he has been a universal player in all the clubs he has ever played for. A left-footed player would be better, but we have to compensate for certain things that are given to us: Weiss is strong mainly in the attack, so on his side, there is need for the sort of footballer who has defence in his blood. And Hubočan has. So, as a couple, they function well. 

Slovakia are known as a team that’s more comfortable in games against strong opponents, when the opponent has to dominate on the pitch and they have the opportunity to rely on fast counter-attacks. But, in the matches against ‘easier’ opponents, you have problems. Why?

That is a general truth. It is not only the case for our team. It’s very hard to break through well-organised defences and even the best teams have problems with it. For example, Barcelona have three strong individuals in the attack – they have the ability to break down well-organised defences, but for most teams, it is very difficult. So, it’s understandable that it’s easier for us and also for other teams to play against, for example, Spain who are accustomed to ‘open’ play.

Since the 2010 World Cup, Slovakia have lacked a reliable centre-forward, able to score goals regularly. In both matches against Spain, we played without a typical striker, in a 4-6-0 system. Did you think about permanent introduction of this system?

No, no. We chose this option after analysing the opponent and having considered the power of the Spanish players. When I was thinking if we would be playing with 4-2-3-1 or 4-1-4-1, I still lacked one player and the opponent would have had a lot of space in the middle to manoeuvre and pass for the players like [Cesc] Fàbregas, [David] Silva or [Andrés] Iniesta. So, we had to thicken the space. Our decision was right, as the result says it all [Slovakia beat Spain 2-1 in Žilina]. Before that match, Spain had not lost for eight years in their qualifying matches and they have not lost since. They had, and still have, a great strength which we had to eliminate and I am very happy that we managed that. The 4-6-0 system was an exception that these matches required. 

The atmosphere during the first four home matches was perfect, but then, in the match against Ukraine, the fans whistled the legendary striker Róbert Vittek and there was also a big nervousness during the match against Belarus. Do you think that a Slovak fan is rather a fan of success? That, when the team plays well, he supports them and the stadiums are sold out, but when some short crisis emerges, he is liable to react negatively?

When we played against Malta in Žilina in the friendly match before the qualifiers, there were approximately 2,000 people there. At the match against Spain, there was a full stadium, but let’s be honest, they didn’t come to see us, but Spain. But from that victory, we sold out almost every match. The stadium was always full in Žilina and even in the friendly match in Trnava [against Switzerland]. Even at the friendly match against Latvia, played during Easter, there were 12,500 people. This was not normal before. Our players, thanks to their performances and attitude, won people’s hearts and they encourage them. When I’m travelling in Slovakia, the people I meet confirm that. I think that a really good atmosphere was created. Emotions are part of football and what happened in Žilina against Ukraine was unfortunate. We could not lose that match, because then we wouldn’t have had automatic qualification in our hands. So the match was more anxious. It should not have happened, but it happened and a man can hardly do anything about such a situation. It happens also in other countries, but it was not nice. Against Belarus, it was also tense, but people supported us until the last minute and they applauded even after we lost the match. The proof is also that a lot of fans travelled to Luxembourg, where they supported us loudly and created a home environment for us. 

When I interviewed Iceland’s coach Lars Lagerbäck in September, he said that even if Eidur Gudjohnsen is not in the same form as in the past, he is still a very important member of the squad, particularly from a mental point of view. Is it possible to say the same about Slovakia and Róbert Vittek, who is past his peak but could still offer a lot mentally?

He was not with us for such a long time that it’s impossible to answer this question objectively. I still believe in him as a player with great experience. I still have the inner feeling that he could be able to help the national team. He lost some weight during the winter preparation and is physically well-prepared. [Martin] Jakubko has had health problems. Nemec does not play regularly. We are looking for a player able to help the team. And I feel that he could be that player, as he has been in the past. 

In the last squad, there were only four players from the Slovak league. Is the Fortuna Liga good enough to test a player’s quality?

The results of our clubs in the Champions League and Europa League say it is sufficient. We are not able to overcome a serious obstacle: we are not successful in the matches against average European teams. There is a lot of young talent in Slovakia and that is good. The good results of Slovakia’s Under-21 and Under-19 sides are a proof, but those players are still developing. The reality is that every slightly better player goes abroad and there he develops as a player able to play for the national team. The best situation would be if there were two or three clubs in Slovakia where the best players played together and those clubs were able to break through at an international level. But for now it is not possible. Take, for example, [Milan] Škriniar, a player who was proving his quality in hard matches and, despite his young age, he had great authority in MŠK Žilina. In January, he went to an average Sampdoria and he has not had a chance to kick the ball yet. It’s important to treat talented players sensitively and to move them so that they can improve from the point of view of football, not only to sell them. 

Miroslav Stoch and Vladimír Weiss went to the Middle East when they were at their peak and they could have played in top European leagues. Do you think they wasted their potential?

It’s hard for me, as an outsider, to enter into such things. But for me the most important thing is to have a well-prepared player at the national team’s get-togethers. It is true that when Weiss arrived from Olympiakos, a prominent European club, he was physically better prepared than now, because the conditions and the weather in Qatar do not allow such intensive training sessions. But those are the lives of those boys, not my life. They will be playing football for a certain time, their careers could be over even in one or two years if some some injury comes, and I, as a national team coach, cannot and do not want to enter into their lives. 

If you were in their position and could choose between quality football in Europe and a luxurious contract elsewhere, how would you decide?

I don’t want to talk for him, but I know why he decided to do what he did. Life sometimes forces you to take a step, even if you do not fully agree with it. I was also talking with his father [Vladimír Weiss senior, the former national team coach] about this. But if something at some big club doesn’t function as it should according to your contract, what are you going to do? These are very hard and difficult situations and you have to solve them very sensitively in a small amount of time. And it is always better, for the national team, to have a player who is okay and who does not have to think about problems at his club.

Do you think that these players have personal skills good enough to become role models for children?

Yes, I am convinced about that. Slovakia is small, but we have players playing for prominent European clubs. Maťo Škrtel at Liverpool, Marek Hamšík at Napoli, now Juro Kucka at Milan. It’s a dream of every player to get to AC Milan. Of course, also you, journalists, could help with that a lot. 

After the final match in Luxembourg, the media were talking about a scandal at the team hotel with players celebrating loudly and the police being called. Do you think it overshadowed a historical success?

And what happened? After 36 years, we qualified for the Euros. After 36 years. And the team should not have celebrated, should not have sung? Some manageress came in and asked them to be quieter. How can we sing Slovak songs more quietly? On such as joyous occasion? Can you understand that – to sing a Slovak song quietly? I cannot. There was a problem, that some alarm was pressed and because of this the police arrived. I drank one cup of tea with my players and I went to sleep. And if I was able to sleep, they could not have celebrated so horribly. The police had to write a report that they were there and so on. And some of our journalists, instead of being pleased because of our victory and qualification, wanted to find sensation at any cost. Is it normal to come back to the airport in Bratislava and to find a journalist there who wants the players to do a blood-alcohol test? How was that good? We could have policed it more, not to let anything happen, but, honestly – I want us to have reasons for such celebrations as often as possible. For me, it’s important that we created joy for normal Slovak people, whom I meet and who are looking forward to the Euros. That is the fundamental thing, because football is played for people and it could be a big help to Slovak football. When, if not now? Do you think that in two years we will be at the World Cup?

It’s certainly possible.

I hope you speak the truth. Slovakia is, considering its size, a country of unbelievable options. So, it’s necessary to enjoy our collective success and when something is not according to our way of thinking, we have to be slightly more balanced. 

How is it possible that Slovakia are getting better results than in the past? The U-21 team has played very well for a few years and the senior team has qualified for the Euros. Is it a change of system or only luck that a very good group of players have got together?

This generation of players has already achieved something. Only a few national teams from countries such as Slovakia manage to qualify for both the World Cup and also the European Championship in six years. You can count them on the fingers of one hand. Enjoy that. I really appreciate these players. It’s also true that at the same time we have to prepare the next generation, as you cannot stop the ageing process and a lot of players are in their thirties. Actually, this is the peak of their international career for some players. Young players are also coming in and I am convinced that they will be very good internationals in the future. A very good crew has come together and also the team’s background is good. It is important to have the whole thing functioning. 

In Slovakia, a lot of young coaches, such as Martin Ševela (Trenčín) or Adrián Guľa (Žilina) have appeared. Do you think some of them could become national coach in the future?

Certainly, these are boys who know what they want. They tutor good players and give space to youngsters. Each of them has his own way and I respect that. I am not worried that we are not able to educate coaches who could take over the national team. We have enough quality coaches. 

During your spell in Košice, you were involved in several scandals, for example the press conference with Přemysl Bičovský [a Czech coach, at that time managing the Slovak club MFK Ružomberok. When Bičovský was talking in Czech, Kozák told him “not to lisp” and to “learn the Slovak language”. They were both key players of the Czechoslovakia national team in the early eighties. When he said it, Kozák was frustrated because of the way the match had gone] or the scandal in Nitra [Nitra’s management accused him of verbally insulting the players and club during the half-time break and even of attacking the goalkeeping coach Igor Mesároš. “Kozák grabbed him by the throat, shook him and thumped him onto the magnetic tactics board,” said Nitra’s general manager Jozef Petráni] But since you have been the national team coach, nothing similar has happened. Has something in your personality changed?

With the national team, there are fewer impulses for a man to react, from your point of view, disproportionately. I don’t have a reason to change my opinion about Bičovský. At that time, I wanted to protect Slovak coaches, because in our league, there were a lot of foreign coaches who were not as good as ours. I think that I am a mature enough person, due to my age and also experience, to stand up for our coaches. Because I still had my job, I did not have to worry about it. When we are talking about other incidents, for example in Nitra or Trenčín, time showed that those were expressly provocations. But that is behind us. Of course, each of us changes, a man gains experience and when I began as the national team coach, I was talking with the football federation’s chairman [Ján Kováčik] about how it will look. There were not and will not be problems in the national team. If somebody is waiting for them, he will be waiting for a very long time.

What influenced these incidents more – your temperament or your passion for football?

When I felt injustice, I reacted, maybe sometimes disproportionately, but that is life. Maybe I would take some things back, but it’s not possible. Really, with age, a man gains experience and changes himself. 

Antonín Panenka in an interview for The Blizzard1 said, that during his spell in the Czechoslovakia national team, the players were split into Czech and Slovak groups, with players eating at different tables. Did you have the same experience?

I had a very good relationship with Czech players. I played for Dukla Prague, where 12 of the national team’s players were and they accepted me well. When I meet with them now, we have a lot of things to talk about, but also with the others – Rasťo Vojáček from Baník Ostrava, or Libor Radimec, Werner Lička, also players from Brno like [Petr] Janečka or [Karel] Kroupa. I did not have the feeling that we split ourselves up in any way. When I arrived in the national team after the 1976 European Championship, there were fourteen Slovaks and four Czechs and after Belgrade, [Ivo] Viktor and [František] Veselý [both Czechs] retired. On the other hand, when I retired in 1985 when Josef Masopust was coach, there were only two Slovaks in the national squad – me and Ján Kocian – and fourteen Czechs. The structure of the national team always depended on the teams that were at the peak of the league. In the seventies that was [the Slovak clubs] Slovan Bratislava and Spartak Trnava, then, in the eighties [the Czech clubs] Dukla Prague, Bohemians Prague and Baník Ostrava. So, the majority of national team players played for these teams. 

People often have dreams about their problems in their job. Is it the same with you? Do you dream about football after the match?

I do not have to have dreams about football after a match, because I am not able to sleep [laughs]. So, it is also a mental ballast and it is not easy. 

Coaches educate themselves today by going on various courses. How important is intuition for a coach?

Intuition is very important, particularly for coaching during the match. Because a training session is one thing, but coaching is something different – during the match, you have to solve certain situations immediately and intuitively. 

It is typical in football that almost every fan thinks that he understands the game. What do observers – including journalists – miss most often?

Criticism doesn’t upset me. When a stadium is full and somebody pays for a ticket, he or she has a right to an opinion. They can criticise, whistle, support. Of course, stimuli are given particularly by the performance of the players. I’m experienced enough to distinguish these things. 

What is your target for France?

I’m not the type of person to be satisfied with qualification alone. With Košice, we got into the Champions League group stage [in 1997], but the team got no points from Manchester United, Juventus and Feyenoord. I was not managing the team at that time. But when I later talked with the players from that squad, they subsequently agreed with what I said to them: “You were looking forward to the matches and you wanted to enjoy them, but football is not about that.” Football is about something different. I believe that I will energise the players enough and I will be able to explain to them that it is not enough to go and to enjoy the Euros, but to achieve good results there and to do everything to make it a successful tournament. A team that achieves good results is appreciated more – also by its opponents. Because if someone beats you, he pats you on the head. But, he really respects and appreciates you when you beat him. We are going to the Euros with the goal of fighting for the best result. But it is also necessary to respect our opponents. And they are strong. We will see.