The European champions won't be in Germany after a dismal World Cup campaign but, as Paul Pomonis writes, Otto Rehhagel isn't throwing in the towel just yet
On July 9, 2004, five days after winning the Euro 2004 trophy, coach Otto Rehhagel announced that he had turned down a €5 million (£3.4m) offer from the German FA in favour of leading the Greece to the 2006 World Cup finals. Although this unprecedented vote of confidence to Greek football was greeted with universal enthusiasm (“It is a second victory within a week,” commented Stelios Giannakopoulos) many questioned the wisdom of King Otto’s decision. Having just masterminded one of the biggest upsets in the history of international football, Rehhagel had voluntarily undertaken the task of proving that Greece’s Euro triumph was no fluke. Mission Impossible II, an Athens newspaper called it.
Seventeen months later, it is clear that Rehhagel’s quixotic gamble did not pay off. Greece’s World Cup qualifying campaign was an unhappy affair from start to finish. The first match set the tone for the rest of the series: faced with a spirited Albania team at Tirana’s Qemal Stafa ground, the newly crowned European champions were so badly mauled that the eventual 2‑1 defeat caused the worst race riot Greece had seen in the post-war years. Frantic last-minute diplomacy ensured that the home match against the “age-old enemy”, Turkey, did not cause another Balkan war. However, the final 0-0 score meant, with just two matches played, that in-form Ukraine were already running away with the group. A 1-1 away draw in Kiev, followed by a string of four consecutive wins (including a 2-1 home defeat of Denmark), helped Greece stay in contention. Still, even in victory the chinks in the armour were conspicuous: not only had Rehhagel failed to answer his team’s chronic lack of creative ideas, but his trademark iron-solid defence was showing signs of sloppiness, best exemplified by Antonios Nikopolidis’s recurrent lapses of concentration in goal.
It all came to a crashing end last June. A useful 0‑0 draw in Istanbul was followed by a 1‑0 home defeat to Oleg Blokhin’s Ukraine, who thus relegated Greece to rank outsiders to be runners-up. Still, it was Greece’s woeful performance in the Confederations Cup, a few days later, that delivered the most devastating blow to the players’ morale. The players arrived in Germany as the reigning European champions; ten days later they left having been exposed for what they really were: a workmanlike but ultimately untalented team of limited capabilities. That this took place in front of the German public must have been a particularly bitter pill for Rehhagel to swallow.
Although still in the race for second place, it was obvious that the Confederations Cup disaster had snuffed out any remaining traces of self-confidence from the team. The match in Kazakhstan would have ended in embarrassment but for a goal by Nikos Lyberopoulos, three minutes into stoppage time. Eventually, it was left to Denmark to provide the coup de grâce to a dispirited team that had capitulated long before it landed in Copenhagen. With five wins, three draws and three defeats, Greece finished fourth, surpassing only Kazakhstan, Georgia and Albania. Rehhagel’s dream of a triumphant homecoming at the helm of the reigning European champions had vanished.
Asked, shortly after the end of the Denmark game, about his plans for the future, Rehhagel promised not to rush into decisions. However, less than a month later, King Otto announced that he had agreed to stay on for another two years, in order to lead Greece to the defence of their European title. His decision, he explained, was swayed by the unanimous support shown to him by the FA, the players and the fans (polls carried out after the defeat in Denmark suggested that support for Rehhagel ran as high as 90 per cent). “I owed it to my players,” Rehhagel added, displaying the same stubborn loyalty that, for better or worse, had characterised his stint at the helm of Greece.
So, in his fifth year here, Rehhagel finds himself back at square one. The feel-good factor that was generated by his team’s astonishing success in Portugal dissipated long ago. The small nucleus of players upon whom he so obstinately relied is in dire need of revitalisation, while the Greek FA is once again locked in a bitter power struggle with the Minister of Sports. With hindsight it is easy to be cynical and qualify Rehhagel’s decision to reject the German FA’s offer last summer as a serious miscalculation. Still, it is hard not to admire a man whose obstinate sense of purpose prevented him, even at the age of 67, from playing it safe. “I don’t have to prove anything to anybody but my wife,” snapped Rehhagel when a ZDF reporter asked him about the reasons that led him to renew his contract with the Greek FA. Defiant, arrogant and bold. Even in defeat, there is something regal about King Otto.
From WSC 227 January 2006. What was happening this month
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