Review: King Otto documents Greece's 2004 European Championship

A scene from King Otto. Picture: Supplied
A scene from King Otto. Picture: Supplied

King Otto (G, 81 minutes)

3 stars

I've never been a huge sports fan. My son could, and does, talk about sports until the wee small hours. He plays all the sports. He is Captain Sporticus. And despite loving my son more than anything, I've never really engaged with the sports he loves so much.

He's eight years into his junior AFL career and I still couldn't tell you the rules. The three times I had to volunteer as goal umpire I spent the previous evenings cramming on the AFL website and still had to wing it on the day.

I have, however, fully engaged with the field-side sausage sizzle.

So imagine my surprise to find real human tears streaming down my face as, spoiler, the Greek national soccer team comes from nowhere to win the 2004 European Championship in Christopher Andre Marks' well-paced and workmanlike documentary charting their unexpected success and the man that led them there.

Of course, they didn't just win the Championship in this film, they won it in real life, but that was completely news to me. My utter ignorance of the outcome certainly added to my own sense of suspense and excitement, but Marks and his team build their pace and suspense so well that even die-hard fans who saw the footage the first time around will have their hearts in their throats.

The King Otto of the title isn't the19th-century constitutional monarch of Greek history, but the German soccer coach Otto Rehhagel who was hired in by the president of the Hellenic Football Federation in 2001 to whip the national team into shape.

Rehhagel had a decent career in Germany as a player and then a decorated coach when Vassilis Gagatsis hired him as much for his nationality as for his experience.

Gagatsis wanted to bring some German austerity and discipline to a team who had never won even a single point in an international competition, never won a game, and who approached their football as the Greeks approach life generally, with a focus on good times.

The film's action really starts with the first international match under Rehhagel's tenure as coach, with the team having its backside handed to it in a match against Finland 5-1.

The film is told through a handful of talking-head interviews with the grizzled older version of Rehhagel who, despite facing media interviews across his decades-long career, seems a little uncomfortable with the attention and directs many of his responses and quips to friends sitting off-camera. Other interview subjects are the mature modern-day versions of the young men, undisciplined boys really, who made up his team in 2004.

For these men, including now-luminaries like midfielder Giorgos Karagounis, defender Traianos Dellas, and goalkeeper Antonios Nikopolidis, their initial recollections of the imposing German are dismissive and disrespectful.

The interesting addition to both the team and to the documentary's narrative comes with the introduction of Ioannis Topalidis, a fluent German-speaking Greek soccer scout.

As one of the players says, "Coach is depriving himself of one of his strengths because you motivate a team with language," and for me, the intricacies of language are among the film's great joys.

With Topalidis as assistant coach, suddenly the German coach can engage with his players, with Topalidis sweetening the harsh German critiques into more palatable syntax. It is a delight reading the subtitles.

The doco rushes through Rehhagel's first few years with the team to spend much of the film's running time on the games of the European Championships.

The players went into their first match against Portugal in the 2014 Championships so convinced of their impending flogging that a few had plane reservations to a wedding immediately after the match, and through interviews and the game footage we see a set of players slowly realising that the subtle work of their coach had a purpose. They start winning.

Marks produces a linear and uncluttered film that focuses undistracted on its subject, resulting in an emotive and memorable little film.

This story This underdog soccer story is emotive first appeared on The Canberra Times.