After leaving behind an impressive Bundesliga pedigree, Otto Rehhagel's greatest coup was leading Greece to an incredible Euro 2004 triumph. Repeating the trick at the World Cup, though, would take a miracle.
Otto Rehagel has led Greece to only its second World Cup
At 71, Otto Rehhagel will be the oldest head coach at the World Cup. Yet the seasoned German, who will be directing Greece in South Africa, will be a World Cup debutant this summer.
Rehhagel was born in Essen in August 1938. The son of a minerh, his playing career began at local workmen's side, Tus Helene Altenessen. A home win meant 5 marks to help with the household budget, which he gave straight to his mother. Rehhagel's father had died when he was a young child.
By the age of 22, he was a robust defender with the then-still top-flight Rot-Weiss Essen, earning 400 marks a month. Rehhagel went on to play 201 games in the Bundesliga with Kaiserslautern and Hertha Berlin before retiring to begin a coaching career in 1972. He now earns around a million euros a year as the Greece national coach, a job he has been at since 2001.
Many would argue that he is worth every cent. Rehhagel's rank outsiders confounded just about everyone to go all the way and win Euro 2004. Their defensive-minded team beat France, the Czech Republic and finally hosts Portugal, all 1-0, in the knockout rounds. "It's not a dream, we have taken the trophy to Athens - to Greece," Rehhagel proclaimed.
After the Greeks failed to qualify for the 2006 World Cup, and defended their European title only as far as the group stage at Euro 2008, the few critical voices got louder. "Everyone should realize that we don't live in 2004 anymore," shot back Greek captain Angelos Basinas.
Rehhagel's popularity with many Greeks, however, is undimmed. A Greek restaurant owner in the coach's hometown of Essen has built a statue of him in his dining room. "Rehhagel remains Rehhagel, the thirteenth Greek god," says restaurateur Ioannis Kokkinidis. This impression was only enhanced after he led Greece through qualifying to only its second World Cup in 2010, the previous appearance coming back in 1994.
The Greek players aren't too careful with their veteran coach after securing their World Cup place
Back then, Rehhagel was working similar miracles in German club football. During a 14-year spell at Werder Bremen he won two Bundesliga titles - their first in twenty years - as well as two German Cups and, in 1992, the European Cup Winners Cup. He became father of the "wonders of the Weser" and Bremen fans mourned when he left for the big job at Bayern Munich in 1995.
He lasted less than a year there before being sacked. But Rehhagel proved himself again in astonishing fashion.. He led second division 1. FC Kaiserslautern to immediate promotion and then, in the 1997-98 season, their first season in the Bundesliga, the club won the league.
"A huge achievement," said Rudi Voeller, "that in 100 - no, 1000 - years nobody will ever again achieve."
Doing it his own way
Rehhagel's success with underdog teams is a result of infusing his players with confidence, making them believe in their own, and more importantly the team's, ability against any opponent. He developed a number of talented players, from Voeller to Mario Basler at Bremen to Michael Ballack and Miroslav Klose at Kaiserslautern.
"In many ways he were like his sons," said Andreas Herzog, who played under Rehhagel at Bremen. He described himself as a "democratic dictator", greeting his players with a handshake, and sticking up for them against the media, but also carefully building a hierarchy within his clubs.
Euro 2004 glory was vindication for Rehagel's defensive tactics
To the Greek team, he brought discipline. "Before I was national team coach, every player did what he wanted. Now they do what I let them do," Rehhagel said. He was already 65, and the oldest manager at the tournament, when his side won Euro 2004.
"I opened my treasure chest of life experience to the players," he revealed. "I said to them: if you go along with an insight that I've gained, in my experience, maybe it will work." Clearly, it did.
After nine years in the Greece job, a European championship and a World Cup finals appearance along with a hugely impressive Bundesliga CV to look back on - one might reckon he's mulled retirement. Not so.
"I don't think of stopping," says Rehhagel. "I was born with football - and I want to die with it."
Author: Olivia Fritz / tms
Editor: Matt Hermann