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Rehhagel's diplomatic mission

Panagiotis Kouparanis / sst
March 27, 2013

Otto Rehhagel, who coached Greece's national team to a Euro 2004 championship, set out to drum up support for German-Greek cooperation in Germany and Greece. As always, he did so on his own terms.

Greece coach Otto Rehhagel holds the trophy as he celebrates with his players (photo: AP Photo/Luca Bruno)
Image: picture-alliance/AP

Otto Rehhagel's schedule in the Greek capital is jam-packed: first, a meeting with Greece's interior minister, then on to the Ministry of Tourism, then off to watch a match between two junior teams. Rehhagel does it all with self-assured ease. He enjoys being in Greece, even though he knows expectations are high.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel had asked him to travel there in an attempt to improve German-Greek relations. Greek Interior Minister Evripides Stylianidis, meanwhile, flipped the proposal on its head and suggested Rehhagel become the ambassador for Greece in Germany. The minister envisioned Rehhagel's mission as one that would convince regular Germans that Greeks are indeed hardworking and that they intend to fulfil the troika's terms.

Greece's tourism minister thanked Rehhagel in advance for his support of a plan that would potentially bring German soccer clubs to Greece for winter training sessions.

Later, Rehhagel's former assistant, Giannis Topalidis, noted that Greece in fact lacks the proper hotel accommodations for such training sessions.

But since the idea came from Rehhagel himself, the former assistant trainer will soon be visiting a hotel in Greece's north to see whether it would be appropriate for the teams' needs.

King Otto II returns

Ever since Rehhagel coached Greece to win the 2004 European Championship, Greeks believe he can accomplish nearly anything. Rehhagel is well aware of his celebrity status and likes to play with his image as "King Otto II." Greece's first king was a German who ruled the country for 32 years. Rehhagel himself, the uncrowned Otto II, stayed in Greece for 10. During periods of lesser success, members of the Greek sports press had demanded he step down. Rehhagel refused. Finally, on his own terms, he decided to return to Germany.

Today, Rehhagel continues to play by his own rules. When attending a soccer game between junior team Panathinaikos Athens and a team of refugee kids, a handful of journalists approached the former Greek trainer for a statement. They wanted him to acknowledge that the game as a message against racism and xenophobia - but Rehhagel didn't play along.

Greece fans cheer (photo: REUTERS/Kacper Pempel)
Greek fans still think highly of Rehhagel, who helped their national team win the Euro 2004Image: Reuters

"I told the players, 'Show what you got, respect each other," Rehhagel said. "We want to see a great game."

He probably didn't say much more when he talked to the Greek national team in 2004. The most important element in soccer, Rehhagel said, is not the tactical calculations but the individual players. He was successful in 2004, he claimed, because he accepted the spontaneity and fierceness of his Greek players. Rehhagel's contribution was in teaching them order and discipline.

No pain, no gain 

Could that be the right path for solving today's problems in Greece? Rehhagel preferred not to answer those kinds of questions, instead passing them along to German Deputy Labor Minister Hans-Joachim Fuchtel, the chancellor's appointee for German-Greek relations. It was Fuchtel who came up with the idea of bringing Rehhagel to Greece to drum up support for joint German-Greek cooperation. Working with local governments, the two plan to improve waste management, increase the efficiency of administrative processes and help establish local energy suppliers.

Greek journalists, however, show little interest in such projects. They focus on developments in Cyprus and more recent plans to solving the eurozone crisis. In addition to Rehhagel's visit, a delegation from th EU Troika is in Athens at the moment to demand further reforms of Greece.

In response to whether Greece can overcome the challenges facing it, Rehhagel had a clear answer.

Angela Merkel and Otto Rehagel (photo: Oliver Lang/dapd)
Rehhagel defended Merkel's policy in GreeceImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"One can accomplish everything," he said, "if you work together."

Rehhagel's resume seems to support that statement. When he took over the Greek national team in 2001, players were at odds with each other. Ultimately, he coerced them into joining forces. According to Rehhagel, that's what needs to happen during the economic crisis as well.

When questions were asked regarding promises the chancellor may have made regarding Greece, Rehhagel answered indirectly. "If we get into a difficult situation, we have to stick together," he said. "We need to tighten our belts, but not so much that we are unable to breathe." Greeks love these statements - just like when he says that he complies with rules to "some 90 percent."

Rehhagel manages to convey the message that change is needed in Greece while avoiding harsh criticisms of the country, a fact that allows him to speak his mind when it comes to questions of Merkel's responsibility for Greece's crisis.

"Merkel didn't invent the crisis," Rehhagel said.

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