'A time to make friends™' was the much-loved slogan of the 2006 FIFA World Cup Germany™, but the same sentiment could easily have applied to FIFA International Football Symposium / UEFA Conference for National Coaches Berlin 2006.
Two months after the dramatic climax to the global tournament, the coaches who were involved at the FIFA World Cup joined their European colleagues for a seminar in the German capital.
Alongside Marcello Lippi, who was honoured for leading Italy to the world crown, the man who guided Greece to the European Championship was also there. Otto Rehhagel and his men failed to make the world showpiece event, but as boss of the current top dogs in Europe, the 68-year-old German was an in-demand figure in Berlin. FIFA.com sat down with the Greece supremo for an informal chat.
FIFA.com: Otto, what's your impression of the gathering here today?
Otto Rehhagel: It's wonderful meeting up with colleagues who you wouldn't see that often otherwise. It's an opportunity to talk things through with your fellow coaches and exchange opinions. And the subjects under discussion here are interesting, and that goes for the statistics too. But when you look around you, you find yourself in total agreement with what the mayor has just put so well, that football transcends national boundaries. We get along like a house on fire, regardless of nationality or skin colour. We have no problems at all, as we've all known each other for many, many years.
One of the main items on the agenda is an analysis of the 2006 FIFA World Cup. You followed the tournament closely, so did you discern any technical or tactical innovations?
Everything's become so wide open nowadays, and the smaller countries have caught up. The bigger names haven't come on at the same pace, as we still don't have footballers capable of covering 100 metres in eight seconds. The pitch remains 70 yards wide and 120 yards long, but the players have become more athletic. The teams you used to regard as a little behind tactically, the Africans for example, have caught up. They're physically even better off than we are, as they have tremendous natural athleticism, and they've come on enormously in the areas which were non-existent before, discipline and tactics for example. Every team which faced Ghana or Cote d'Ivoire knew they'd been in a game.
Would your team have benefited from taking part at an event like the FIFA World Cup?
I have a pretty experienced team, as most of them play for clubs around Europe. They closely followed what happened, analysed and evaluated it. With one sole exception, I still have all of the team which won the European Championship in 2004.
You've started out on a long and hard qualifying campaign as reigning European champions. How would you rate your chances?
Let me just repeat one thing: as European champions, we were obviously devastated at not qualifying for the World Cup. But we were hit by a couple of selection problems, mainly relating to injury, which ultimately cost us dearly. But we've regrouped and we're utterly determined to defend our European Championship title in 2008. We've made a good start, which we certainly didn't manage in FIFA World Cup qualifying. We lost our opening match to Albania back then, but we've beaten Moldova this time out. It's one of those games which people regard as easy, but there are no easy games any more. Take Spain, they lost to Northern Ireland, or the Dutch, who only beat Luxembourg 1-0. You wouldn't have seen that 30 years ago.
How do you rate your group opponents?
Obviously we faced Turkey in World Cup qualifying. Norway are always strong, and Bosnia and Herzegovina have just won their first match. Add in Greece, and you've got four equally strong teams. We'll need a stroke or two of luck in this respect. Malta and Moldova must be regarded as making up the numbers. Our next game is at home to Norway. Our away win has stirred up the passions again back home. The fans always react to results.
How high are expectations in Greece?
Expectations are always high, just as high as you see in Turkey. The folk down there live in a world of extremes, there's an unbelievable chasm between defeat and victory. You see an over-reaction: they react to defeat as if someone's died, and overdo the euphoria after a win.
Do you honestly believe we could see another major surprise such as Greece winning the 2004 European Championship?
One of the best things about football is that you'll always get surprises. That's why people come to watch. Things happen in an instant, things you were never prepared for. The inclination is always to try and control everything, but you shouldn't do that really, or football would lose a lot of its appeal.
As you've mentioned, the core of your 2004 squad has remained together. Do you have a crop of up and coming youngsters too?
I don't look at it in terms of young and old players. The question is whether a player has the ability to go out and perform the way you want him to. That has nothing to do with age. I think a journalist wrote, 'the French will be stunned when they come up against the young Spanish side,' and what do you know, the French won. And now the Spanish and their young team have lost in Northern Ireland, so who's got it right? You don't win the World Cup with a youth team. Just look as the average age of the Italians, who won the trophy, or the French. It's like everything in life, there's no substitute for experience. The youngsters grow into the role whatever happens, but the backbone of your team will always consist of experienced players.