Christopher André Marks’ documentary King Otto tells the story of how rank underdogs became European champions thanks in significant part to an outsider. The outsider was Otto Rehhagel, a German coach who took the Greek National Football Team to glory at Euro 2004.
Rehhagel was born in 1938 in Essen, where – as a five-year-old – he witnessed the Allied bombing of the city. During the war, his parents lost everything. He was keen to escape that environment and football gave him that opportunity. Rehhagel was a tough defender – enthusiastic and ambitious. He played in the newly formed Bundesliga and then became a highly lauded coach in the same competition.
At the age of 63, having had a great deal of local success, he was asked to take over as coach of Greece. He did so while spending most of his time still living in Germany. First up, he had a major communication problem because he didn’t speak Greek. Early on, tension flared between Rehhagel and the players. Some in the Greek Football Federation wanted to get rid of him, but its president stayed true to him.
Rehhagel engaged a Greek-born assistant who could speak the language and had moved to Germany. He could temper Rehhagel’s brusque, direct style of communication. Rehhagel built in the team a sense of self belief that saw the players perform remarkably at the 2004 European championship, beating host nation Portugal in the final.
The documentary reveals the extraordinary tale of how Rehhagel managed to secure success for a side that wasn’t even considered worthy by its fellow countrymen. It combines file footage of the time (including David Beckham in his prime) with interviews with Rehhagel (then and now), his assistant, the Greek Football Federation president and several players. They present a picture of how the team transitioned under Rehhagel’s tutelage, how his Germanic roots saw him initially dismissed as too cold and calculating (the Greeks are presented as very emotional), before his philosophy is embraced.
I saw the film with a largely Greek audience, who found a great deal of humour in some of the situations. They cheered and clapped every Greek triumph in Euro 2004, with the loudest applause saved for the final.
The film is sold on the notion of underdogs, so I got exactly what I expected. We know the outcome, so that is never in doubt. Rather, we watch it for the journey and that is the one I anticipated. I can’t say there were any surprises, but it was a pleasant, if predictable ride, which will undoubtedly have greatest impact among those with a Greek heritage.
After all, Rehhagel achieved something that had not been achieved before and pride in that outcome is a powerful sales tool.
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Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.