World Soccer: You finally have the chance to lead a team at a World Cup finals. After a highly-successful coaching career spanning 35 years, is the campaign in South Africa, the final piece in the jigsaw for you?
Otto Rehhagel: For a long time the World Cup wasn’t a pressing objective for the simple reason I was totally content with the day-to-day intensity of being a club head coach. But inevitably the World Cup came much more into focus when I took over with Greece. We came up short in qualification for the 2006 finals, but this time we’ve climbed the mountain and it’s an achievement we can be proud of. Germans of my generation have a special affinity with the World Cup. I was a teenager at the time of the ‘Miracle of Berne’ (when West Germany upset the odds to beat Hungary in the final of 1954).
Will South Africa 2010 be your last hurrah at the age of 71?
The pulse is still strong. I don’t feel pensionable just yet. I agree with those who say work is the elixir of life. It keeps me living and breathing. Football is in my blood. If someone wants to give me a contract, I’ll carry on with pleasure. The passing years don’t mean that a coach becomes less effective. Quite the reverse. I was 65 when Greece won Euro 2004 and Sir Alex Ferguson, Louis van Gaal, Jupp Heynckes, Luis Aragones and Giovanni Trapattoni are the proof that us old’uns still have much to offer.
What’s the secret of your success?
At the risk of being labelled old-fashioned, I like to work on the premise that football essentially is a simple game. Naturally you have to be set up as well as you possibly can. You have to be organised. But this no computer game. It’s human and unpredictable. My word goes, but it doesn’t mean I see players as pawns. I cherish them, I hold them in the highest esteem. I know what makes these boys tick. I don’t lead by committee. I take the responsibility for my choices. For example I’ve never been one for sports psychologists. I do the motivating, the tactical and the technical preparation.
Does your reputation as an overtly-defensive coach bother you?
Not in the slightest. After all, when I was in charge of Bremen and Kaiserslautern in the Bundesliga, we did lots of attacking and piled up plenty of goals. My mentality is to win and in order to do so, you base your team selection and tactics on the players you have available to you. Spain, for example, play attractively and instinctively because they have exceptional players such as Torres, Xavi and Iniesta. When facing opposition with more weapons than you, the answer is not to give them a free shot.
Have you set yourself any particular target for this World Cup?
I’m in the shoes of three-quarters of the coaches at the finals. The aim is to qualify for the knock-out rounds. I believe in small steps. Make it to the last-16, then set the bar a little higher and so on. In these difficult times, I hope to give the Greek people something to smile about. We have a duty to improve on our showing at Euro 2008, when we went home early.
How do you assess your first-round group?
Obviously Argentina are the clear favourites to finish first. And they aren’t only the wonderful Messi and ten others. They have the ability to go all the way, as do Spain, Brazil and maybe Italy and England. That leaves Nigeria, South Korea and ourselves to battle it out for the remaining qualifying place and needless to say, I’m backing us.
Greece lost to both Argentina and Nigeria in their only previous World Cup finals in 1994. Do you believe in omens?
Irrelevant. Maradona was on the field back then. Now he’s picking the side.
Who do you see as a possible outsider?
I have a lot of respect for Ottmar Hitzfeld as a coach. He has Switzerland working very nicely. His side plays very intelligently and take every opportunity which comes their way. I expect the Africans to be strong as well.
Where are Greece’s strengths to be found?
First of all we have the togetherness and unity of purpose of a club side. This sort of bond, coupled with the enthusiasm, fighting spirit and modesty, they always display, can take you a long way. They are a disciplined, professional bunch and know how to make a gameplan work. Secondly, we’re very underrated. It usually goes unnoticed but there’s much talent in the squad.
Who is your most important player?
No one is above the team. Whether it’s the goalscorer, the guy who makes a last-ditch tackle, the crosser of the ball or the keeper, everyone has to make his contribution. Over and over again.
And literally your Achilles heel?
I don’t have a vast pool of players to pick from. Injuries to key men will be like oil on the road.
Was it always going to be impossible to repeat the exploits of Euro 2004?
Exactly. That summer in Portugal was our time. It was a one-off adventure. Unique and extraordinary. The romantics loved it and we deserved it. We took our chances and we felt nothing could stop us. It’s unlikely to happen again. But the legacy from that tournament was one of belief and we still use it today.