Otto Rehhagel: How the pragmatic German masterminded Greece’s Euro 2004 triumph

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Greece Euro 2004 champions

Belligerent, uncompromising, and unwilling to bend to footballing fashion, but all too often correct in his proclamations with the added honours and achievements to back up his stubborn points of view, Otto Rehhagel made for a pragmatic genius. A Germanic answer to Brian Clough, almost.

A player and later a coach with Kaiserslautern, Rehhagel had led the club to Bundesliga glory in 1997/98, just a year after having dragged the club back out of the second tier, after their shock relegation in 1996.

Prior to this, during a 14-year span, Rehhagel had made Werder Bremen a force to be reckoned with once again, during the late-1980s and early 1990s. The winner of multiple Bundesliga titles, multiple DFB Pokals, and a European Cup Winners’ Cup to boot, he had created a whirlwind of success that had truly unsettled Bayern Munich, enough for them to employ him for the 1995/96 campaign.

A complete and utter personality clash, manager and club simply did not see eye-to-eye with one another. While the squad he inherited were unresponsive to Rehhagel’s approach, and tactics, Bayern’s hierarchy could not see what type of genius he had brought into to play so spectacularly at Werder. Neither side could ‘get’ each other.

Even so, the parting of the ways came just four days before the first leg of the 1996 UEFA Cup Final, a final that Rehhagel had delivered Bayern to. In essence, his response with Kaiserslautern was almost comedic, a joke that the Bavarians could not understand.

Despite the success of his spell back at Kaiserslautern, the end was laced with acrimony in the autumn of 2000. It all added to the legend of Rehhagel, as did him being summarily overlooked every time the position of the German national manager became vacant.

By the following August, Rehhagel had accepted the offer to become the head-coach of the Greek national team, in succession to Vassilis Daniil. His first duties were to oversee a calamitous 5-1 World Cup qualifying defeat, in Helsinki, against Finland.

Without having had much time to work with his new charges, while the outcome of the Finland game had been a huge disappointment, it was also begrudgingly understandable.

Otto Rehhagel Greece manager Euro 2004

Gifted the extra month to prepare for the next game, the final qualifier — at Old Trafford against Sven-Göran Eriksson’s England — Rehhagel’s special brand of magic begun to unfold, as Greece came to within a 93rd minute precision David Beckham free kick, from denying them automatic qualification for the 2002 World Cup.

On sighting of the game alone, you would never have guessed that it was Greece’s only point gained on their World Cup travels, during the 2002 qualification cycle. Of course, it had been Germany that were waiting in the wings, hoping to take advantage of Rehhagel and Greece’s excellent display in Salford.

The first two games of the 2004 European Championship qualifiers seemed to represent a return to expected levels for Greece, as they absorbed two 2-0 defeats, the first in Athens, against Spain, the second in Kyiv, against Ukraine.

What came next defied all footballing logic.

Six further qualifiers were played out, of which Greece won every single one, without conceding a goal.

While victories against Armenia, and Northern Ireland did nothing to arouse suspicion of what Rehhagel was concocting, it was their 1-0 win against Spain, in Zaragoza, that set the scene, with Stelios Giannakopoulos the hero.

Even within this gloriously unexpected win, there were plenty of observers who were more willing to pour scorn on a ‘typical’ Spanish self-destruction act, rather than offer any serious appraisal of the emerging Greek threat to the established European giants.

It would be a theme that would run on throughout their path to the very final itself. Rehhagel and his team were never taken seriously, or at least not until it was too late to make a difference to the monumentally shocking outcome.

Four days after their victory over Spain, back in Athens, Greece defeated Ukraine by the same scoreline, with Angelos Charisteas this time taking the honours.

Almost like a flurry of punches from a disregarded challenger that shakes the legs of his opponent, when up against the world champion, suddenly it was the end of the 2002/03 season, and Greece were left with food for thought. They now sat top of the group, with two games left to play, against teams they had already beaten.

With everything surrounding Rehhagel’s Greece having a bludgeoning air to it, by the time the final whistle blew on their penultimate qualifier, another 1-0 win, this time in Armenia, they had qualified with a game to spare, thanks to Ukraine’s inability to beat Northern Ireland, in Kyiv.

Eventually holding out to win their qualifying group ahead of Spain, in the draw for the finals Greece was cast amongst the makeweights in Pot 4, from where they were plucked out to face Portugal, the hosts, along with Spain yet again, and Russia.

Big and physical in defence, Rehhagel selected defenders that were not always required to be technically gifted, instead given the job of doing the basics monotonously well. The basis of a seemingly generic 4-4-2, the Greek midfield was where the genius lay.

With full-backs expected to stay deep and defend, it was a formation that lent itself to natural width, through which the presence and height of Charisteas could be exploited to devastating effect.

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Hosts shockingly defeated in the opening game, Greece then took a valuable point against Spain that proved enough to send them through to the quarter-finals, despite ending the group stages with a loss to the already eliminated Russians.

Percentage playing at its very best, Charisteas was the man in the right place at the right time to score the only goal against Jacques Santini’s France. Still, nobody truly heeded the warning, as they headed into a semi-final against the tournament’s genuine standout team, the Czech Republic.

Having adapted into a 4-3-3 formation, Greece became an unstoppable force. By the time Traianos Dellas decided the outcome of their last-four clash with a jaw dropping silver-goal, in extra time, that almost amounted to a now defunct golden-goal, the trophy should have been handed over the Rehhagel there and then.

His own nation having capitulated in the group stages, Rehhagel led Greece to European Championship glory with an almost predictable 1-0 victory, in the final, against the hosts once more, Charisteas delivering the ultimate punchline.

A stubborn success, entirely within the image of its creator, Greece had scored only 15 goals along their run from their first qualifier to the final itself, keeping nine clean sheets in the process. It made Rehhagel’s Greece the most minimalist, yet perhaps most deserving European champions ever.

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