Otto Rehhagel has proved throughout his long career as a soccer player and coach that he has many qualities. Diplomacy was never one of them. “Everyone’s free to say what I want,” he once told journalists. His tendency to gradually assume total control of the German clubs he managed even merited its own term – Ottocracy.
Yet, at the age of 74, Rehhagel is being called on by his homeland to show tact and sensitivity on a mission to Greece, which was his adopted home between 2001 and 2010 when he coached the Greek national team. Bild newspaper provided the rather surprising news on Wednesday that German Chancellor Angela Merkel had chosen Rehhagel to go on a goodwill mission to Athens in a bid to give relations between the two countries a boost and ensure that German tourists give the Greek economy a lift over the summer.
Although Rehhagel will reportedly meet with President Karolos Papoulias and Prime Minister Antonis Samaras during the visit, his assignment appears to be the latest attempt at low-level micro-diplomacy between Germany and Greece.
At the International Tourism Fair in Berlin earlier this month, Merkel paid a visit to the Greek stand and encouraged Germans to visit Greece for their vacations. Meanwhile, Germany’s Federal Deputy Labor Minister Hans-Joachim Fuchtel continues to fulfill his role as Merkel’s original special emissary to Greece, where he is trying to cultivate cooperation between local administrations in the two countries.
Those with a proclivity for psychoanalysis might search for evidence of these bouts of friendship being triggered by an underlying guilt complex.
Others might opt for a political interpretation, keeping in mind that German federal elections are coming up later this year and that Merkel’s main rivals, the Social Democrat Party, have repeatedly accused her of failing to show any sensitivity for the Greeks and other Southern Europeans. The SPD’s chancellor candidate, Peer Steinbrueck, was in the Greek capital last month and apart from his meetings with politicians, he also visited a soup kitchen run by the City of Athens. The only time Merkel got to see Greeks queuing was when there was a line of ministers to greet her at Athens International Airport during her visit in October.
The less intriguing possibility, though, is that the decision to send Rehhagel to Athens for some positive publicity is just one bad decision in the plethora of misguided choices that Berlin has taken since this crisis began.
That’s not to say that Rehhagel is not a suitable ambassador; after all, he led Greece to its greatest success in a team sport in 2004 when his team won the European Championship. He also guided Greece to its first World Cup win in South Africa three years ago. These achievements will never be forgotten.
Also, “King Otto,” or “Rehakles,” as he was sometimes dubbed, has the advantage of having conducted himself admirably off the pitch during his time in Greece. His devilish disdain for the country’s often fickle and snide sports media and a reluctance for grandstanding meant there was much to respect about Rehhagel as a person, not just a soccer coach.
However, to think that his appearance in the midst of Greece’s worst economic crisis since the Second World War – with parts of the country experiencing symptoms of a humanitarian crisis and extremism on the rise – will somehow smooth things over is ridiculous.
Over the last few months, much has been done to improve Greek-German relations and there are already indications that the number of German tourists to visit Greece this year will rise. Some people have been working quietly and anonymously, while Fuchtel has pursued his task in the full glare of the media spotlight. But even in his clumsy way and with his “man in the van” gimmick driving around northern Greece, there has been something positive to take away. Evidence of this can be found in the fact that the shrill voices which emanated from some of the media and politicans in the two countries appear to have died down.
The truth, though, is that Greek-German relations can be mended but not fully restored as long as the worst of this crisis continues to have a chokehold on Greece. This is beyond the powers of one man, regardless of how successful or respected he is. As skepticism about Berlin’s motives and policy choices grows around Europe, there can be little hope of overcoming the negativity in Athens with publicity stunts. Also, since several financial scandals involving German companies in Greece have yet to be adequately tackled by the judicial system, people’s trust will be fleeting.
To send a soccer coach into this environment hoping that he will make a difference is shoddy and shortsighted but absolutely in keeping with the way this crisis has been handled. “In Greece, people have quality of life,” Rehhagel said a few years ago. “They live beautifully.” Later this month, he might find that things have changed since he left Greece in 2010. Sometimes, it’s best to hold on to those halcyon images of the past. The present can be a messy affair.