What does it mean to be Greek? King Otto shows us through a grating between and then a melding of German and Greek cultures on a football pitch. Combining ambitious German discipline with Greek passion and spirit, the result is an improbable underdog run through the 2004 Euros. Like Morocco’s recent run through WC 2022, where fans found head scarves (ghutra) fashionable, this uplifting film makes you want to be a little bit Greek.
For me, what makes this documentary so good are the interviews with Manager Otto Rehhagel and his assistant Ioannis Topalidis. Both come across as charming and a little mischievous, as if they had snuck into a theater through the back door, grabbed the best seats, and stolen all the popcorn and Milk Duds.
In a way, they had. Otto was brought in to get Greece to the 2004 Euros. Looking back, he admits that he started on the wrong foot, refusing to live in Greece as per his contract, unable to speak Greek, and trying to apply German discipline to a team and federation he describes as chaotic and lacking public support. After a terrible showing at their first World Cup in 1994 in the USA, Greek fans are non-existent, and no Greek wants to play for the National Team. Otto is starting at the bottom.
Luckily, after a bad debut, Otto admits he needs help and recruits Ioannis, a German-born Greek working as a scout in Germany. It turns out that Ioannis is the magic glue, translating Otto’s blunt instructions and feedback in a way that the players are willing to receive. Ioannis also manages up, teaching Otto how to be more friendly and respectful. In turn, they realize their players are good, and they only lack confidence… plus a winning strategy.
The Coaching and the Soccer
The film follows the managers and team a little through qualification, and most of the soccer is from the 3 group games and the 3 knockout games the team contests. In his first feature-length documentary, Director Christopher André Marks spent 4 years amassing the media rights to games and interviews across multiple countries and languages. He also interviews key Greek players, and all the footage is put together in a narrative that is fast-paced and entertaining.
In Portugal, Greece and their counter-attacking game are sorely underestimated as they:
- Defeat the Portugal of Scolari, Figo, and Ronaldo in the opening game
- Tie the Spain of Xavi, Xabi, and Torres
- Give up the fastest goal in Euros history to the lowly Russia
- Advance out of the group on 4 goals
- Defeat the defending champion France of Thierry and Zidane
- Defeat Nedved’s Czechoslovakia on a silver goal in the 1st half of extra time
- Defeat Portugal in a rematch, triumphant over a crying Ronaldo
The best coaching tip is when Otto tells his team that they only have to score one goal in a game. This results in some criticism. Thierry claims that Greece scored against them on its only chance. But according to the Euro match facts, Greece actually had 5 shots on goal, which was one more than France. The Guardian headline claims:
“The only underdogs in history that everyone wants [to] see get beaten”The Guardian
In the end, they may not have won the hearts of The Guardian journalists, but Otto tells his players they finally won the hearts of the Greeks. Midfielder and captain Theodoros Zagorakis wins Player of the Tournament. In a funny moment towards the end of the film, Ioannis laments in a self-deprecating way that Otto will always be known as the King, but he (Ioannis) will always be just the assistant. I suspect this happens a lot in football.
King Otto is a unique story that focuses on its Greek aspects and the awakening of national pride. One part that I felt was missing was an explanation of who Otto Reghhagel is. When I researched him, I discovered that he actually had a long history of coaching for long periods at German clubs with an impressive record of success. After the Euros, he turned down a chance to coach the German NT and stayed with Greece through WC 2010. For the sake of the underdog story, it makes sense not to dwell on Otto’s prior success or what he did after. But I felt it should be mentioned in this review.
If you miss watching the World Cup, King Otto is a great alternative that provides 82 minutes of happiness.
Soccer Movie Mom Rating = 10