We live in a deeply divided world, but when was it any different? One of Europe’s most ingrained divisions has been between the so-called Teutonic spirit and the Mediterranean spirit. It was a contrast that exercised the mind and the pen of artist, Emil Nolde, who saw the Germans as the embodiment of all things good, brave and true, and the southerners as a group of shiftless, lazy ne’er-do-wells.
History was not kind to Nolde, a Nazi sympathiser who found himself stigmatised as a “degenerate artist” by the Party he admired. The moral of the story is that people who champion racial and ethnic stereotyping should not be surprised when they, themselves, are negatively stereotyped. Nevertheless, there are few Europeans today who don’t hold fixed views about the differences between Northerners and Southerners.
Christopher André Marks’s irresistible documentary, King Otto, manages to confirm and confound every idea about the contrasts between the Greeks and the Germans. The royal personage in question is not Otto, the second son of Ludwig of Bavaria, who ruled as King of Greece from 1832-62, but German football legend, Otto Rehhagel (b.1938), hired to coach the Greek national team in 2001.
Rehhagel’s appointment was controversial. He didn’t speak a word of Greek and was temperamentally at odds with the entire squad. The standard joke was that he had only come to Athens to see the Parthenon. After an inauspicious beginning when the Greeks lost 5-1 to Finland in an away game, Rehhagel rebuilt the team and hired Ioannis Topalidis as his assistant. Fluent in both Greek and German, Topalidis was also sensitive to the prevailing cultural differences. In translating Rehhagel’s words he would soften the blows, giving a diplomatic varnish to the coach’s angry outbursts.
The aim was to qualify for the European Football Championships to be held in Portugal in 2004. It would be Greece’s second ever appearance in the finals, following Euro 1980, when they were eliminated in the first round. The only subsequent highlight for came in 1994 when the Greeks qualified for the first time for the World Cup Finals, held that year in the United States. The campaign would end in humiliation, with successive losses to Argentina, Bulgaria and Nigeria. Ten gaols were conceded and none scored.
By the time Rehhagel arrived the national side was widely regarded as a joke. The Greeks had lost faith in their team and in football. Reflecting on this low point, players and officials make scathing, derisive comments. The complaints are so bleak it’s hard not to laugh out loud.
It’s now history that Rehhagel’s men would win Euro 2004, at odds of 150-1, defeating the powerful home team, Portugal, in both the first game of the tournament and in the final. Within a few years the coach had taken a group of despised and demoralised players and turned them into a side capable of beating great footballing nations boasting superstars such as Cristiano Ronaldo and Thierry Henry.
In the process Rehhagel re-energised a cynical and lethargic nation. When the Greek team walked out onto the stadium for the final in Lisbon they were met by a seething mass of blue and white, as 15,000 fans turned up. The players had never seen anything like it. Public indifference had been replaced with roaring, hysterical enthusiasm. Those sentiments echoed all over the world, as the Greek diaspora watched the game on TV and cheered on its newfound heroes.
The return to Athens, cup in hand, was even more outlandish. Hundreds of thousands of people swarmed through the streets, making it impossible for the team bus to proceed. Victory celebrations were held at the original Olympics stadium, packed tight with fans. It was the greatest act of public cartharsis ever witnessed in Greece. The Athenians must have partied hard after they defeated the Persians in the battle of Marathon in 490 BC – but not like this.
Rehhagel had succeeded by getting the players to believe in themselves. The coach drew comparisons with the Greek myths and legends, invoking the spirit of Homeric times. It sounds parodic, especially coming from a German, but it worked. The team may not have been packed with celebrities but they were a close-knit, well-drilled unit – living confirmation of the old sporting adage that a star team will beat a team of superstars.
The more fancied sides uniformly underestimated the Greeks and had little familiarity with the players. The French did not seem to believe it was possible to lose to Greece, even when they went behind on the scoreboard. Considering the stature of their French opponents some of the Greek players had felt tempted to pack their suitcases the night before the quarter-final, but they were not overawed on the football field.
None of the opposing teams nor the media responded well to Rehhagel’s tactics which were relentlessly defensive, intended to wear down opponents and take advantage of a quick counterattack. This style of play was frustrating for fans of “the beautiful game” as well, with The Guardian declaring Greece was the only underdog nobody wanted to see win. It was the very same strategy great military commanders have always used to triumph over stronger opponents.
What makes this documentary so uplifting is not just the spectacle of the underdog emerging on top but the union of two antithetical worldviews as the disciplined, intellectual approach of the German coach came to terms with the more laid-back and emotional character of his charges. One of the players says they watched Rehhagel become more Greek while they became more German. For the first time ever the Baltic and the Mediterranean were joined.
Marks’s film captures the suspense of the build-up to Euro 2004 and the outpouring of emotion that came with the win. For Greece it was a glorious reminder of a heroic past that had been buried under centuries of economic and political dysfunction. Shame gave way to pride, bursting forth with volcanic force – and what a thrill to see a crowd gathered in celebration rather than for a protest or a riot. The sporting field may be a substitute for the battlefields of the past but it’s one of the few arenas where nationalistic fervour can find a positive outlet.
It wouldn’t be long before Greece was plunged into another economic crisis and the national team began to slide back down the FIFA rankings, but the events of 2004 send a message that transcends football. Rehhagel’s miracle shows that anything is possible if we stop obsessing about our differences and focus on the goal posts.
Written & directed by Christopher André Marks
Starring Otto Rehhagel, Ioannis Topalidis, Traianos Dellas, Panagiotis Fyssas, Vassillis Gagatsis, Antonios Nikopolidis, Giorgos Kargounis, Giourkas Seitaridis
Greece/USA/UK, rated G, 82 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 29 May, 2021