The odyssey of Rudi Gutendorf, the German who saw genocide, corruption and coached 18 national teams

The odyssey of Rudi Gutendorf, the German who saw genocide, corruption and coached 18 national teams

NOT MANY COACHES in the history of professional football can provide first-hand accounts of genocide, tell stories of a close connection to a South American president, or put manager of 18 different national football teams on their CV. One man, however, who can lay bare such remarkable feats, is the incredible Rudi Gutendorf. In a colourful coaching career spanning nearly half a century, the German manager held jobs everywhere from Trinidad & Tobago to Nepal, Sao Tome & Príncipe to Iran and pretty much everywhere in between.

Gutendorf never reached the most lucrative jobs in management, but his storied career stands as an example of how a passion for coaching and a vision of building a team can take a footballing man into the further reaches of the planet.

Gutendorf coached through wars and genocides and in locations where football is barely an entity, never mind a beloved national sport. But he persisted because of his love for the game and his unquenchable thirst to teach it. He was thrilled by the prospect of extending his influence as far as he possibly could and although his astonishing coaching portfolio seems anachronistic when pitted against the mega-rich managers of elite football, his tales are as important as those told by Sir Alex Ferguson or Pep Guardiola.

Revitalizing his love for football after an unspectacular playing career in Germany, Gutendorf started his coaching career with Blue Stars Zürich in Switzerland and steadily grew a reputation. In 1963, German domestic football entered the modern era with the launch of the Bundesliga and Gutendorf was appointed head coach of MSV Duisburg for the new season. He led them to a runners-up spot behind FC Köln but decided that his future coaching career belonged elsewhere.

After a brief spell with Stuttgart, Gutendorf started his global odyssey as a footballing missionary with St. Louis Stars in the North American Soccer League. His time in the USA was brief and largely forgotten but it set him on his path to becoming the definitive traveller and ignited his passion for bringing his coaching methods to the lesser known teams on the map.

After leaving the USA to return to Germany, Gutendorf moved to South America to take charge of Sporting Christal in Peru where he tasted success as a manager for the first time. After winning the National Cup with Christal, Gutendorf received a letter from the Chilean Football Association inviting him to become the new manager of their national side. Always excited by the option for a fresh challenge in a different location and, knowing that he had a decent grasp of the Spanish language, Rudi accepted and was charged with the task of leading the country to the 1974 World Cup in Germany.

Gutendorf has fond memories of his time in Chile and has openly discussed his warm friendship with the beloved president, Salvador Allende. “I spent a lot of time with the president on his estate outside of Santiago. We often drank whisky at his place and afterwards we’d return to Santiago by helicopter.” His adventure in Chile extended far beyond football, however, as he was invited by Allende to perform several actions as an honorary government official.

He opened bridges and schools and crowned Miss Chile as an official of the government while fulfilling his duties as coach of the country’s national team. He started an affair with a woman twenty years his junior who was rumoured to be secretly working for the CIA. One night, when Gutendorf and his lover were lying in bed, a man entered the room and shot the woman in the head, killing her instantly. Rudi suffered a shattered jawbone and bears the scar to this day to remind him. He also married for the first time in Chile although settling down proved impossible due to the country’s increasingly chaotic political climate.

Just as Gutendorf prepared to take Chile to a World Cup playoff against the Soviet Union, Augusto Pinochet and the Chilean army staged a brutal military coup and seized control of the country. The army incarcerated 2,000 people as political prisoners on the first day and subjected them to torture if they were supporters of president Allende. Gutendorf was advised by the German ambassador to flee the country considering his previous connections with the deposed Allende and was told that, if he had stayed, he would have been killed.

President Allende had been a popular leader but his socialist policies were opposed by the Chilean congress, judiciary and military. When tensions boiled over, with Pinochet declaring an imminent overthrow of Allende, the president addressed his followers with a farewell radio speech where he expressed his love for the country. Feeling that he could no longer live to see his people in the hands of a military junta, he committed suicide instead of seeking exile.

For Gutendorf, the pain was both personal and professional. Allende had welcomed him into his country as both a football manager and a friend, and Gutendorf felt that he had left his players in a dangerous situation. However, he feared for his life and was left with no option but to leave behind everything he had built. The apex of his lament stems from the fact that, although he coached national football teams in all four corners of the globe, he never experienced the pride of leading a team to the World Cup. Had Chile’s political tinderbox not exploded at that time, he may well have fulfilled that dream.

However, he still cherishes his footballing memories in Chile. During his time as manager, football’s popularity was booming in Chile. Gutendorf spoke of how their matches during his time in charge attracted 100,000 people into the Santiago National Stadium and how they created a spectacular atmosphere built on a love for football. Gutendorf spoke of a unique training exercise he popularised with the Chilean players where they warmed up for matches in the stadium by kicking footballs at a wall he erected in the stadium to increase accuracy.

During the coup, the military used this wall to line prisoners up and execute them. The Soviet Union refused to travel to Santiago to play in the return leg of the playoff as they said they would never play in a stadium “stained with blood”. However, the match went ahead without them and Chile progressed to the World Cup.

Gutendorf spoke of how he kept tabs on the unfolding events and the disgust he felt when he heard the football stadium was being used as a detention centre. For Gutendorf and his players, it had been a scene of great happiness when they played Peru in World Cup qualifiers but it the backdrop was dramatically transformed into a dark scene of conflict. “The biggest scandal of the return leg in Chile was that the game kicked off in a stadium where human beings were imprisoned. They took the national stadium, my workshop, and abused it by imprisoning and executing people – like a concentration camp,” Gutendorf sadly reflected.

Brief spells in Bolivia and Venezuela followed along with unremarkable tenures with Botswana and Grenada before he took travelled down under to lead the Australian national team in 1979. Australia had failed to qualify for the 1978 World Cup in Argentina and the Soccer Federation President Sir Arthur George appointed turned to Gutendorf to curb the decline. He sought to mould an offensively-minded side centred on Australian-born players – the national team experienced an influx of foreigners – and emphasised youth development as a key facet of his philosophy in charge of the Socceroos.

They prepared intensively for the 1982 World Cup qualification campaign and generated relative optimism but it transpired to be an ill-fated spell as they failed to qualify and the players and Federation turned on Gutendorf’s tactics and style of management. After a 3-3 draw away to New Zealand, the Aussie’s were downed 2-0 by the Kiwi’s at the Sydney Cricket Ground and saw their hopes of qualification dashed by their rivals.

Gutendorf once again saw his dream of coaching in the World Cup in tatters, but his determination remained undimmed and remained as hungry as ever to work wherever the job took him. The chastening Australian experience drove Gutendorf to continue his global football education.

Fresh off a short endeavour, Gutendorf headed up the national side of Nepal where he found himself at the centre of a major scandal. He was offered $500,000 by Sheikh Fahd, of oil-rich Kuwait, to lose 8-0 in a match in the Asian Games but refused. Kuwait were leading 4-0 when a brawl developed between the players and the referee chose to abandon proceedings. Gutendorf claimed that he was attracted to the money but felt he could not betray the honour of his coaching principles, the trust of his players and the respect of his wife. If anything, it added further experience of football’s dark side that penetrates the game at all levels. Gutendorf anecdote illustrates the ideals every coach should hold dear.

Rudi’s voyage then took him to Iran and China, where he managed the two nation’s Olympic football teams at the 1988 and 1992 games, respectively. Having held nearly fifty jobs and fresh off celebrating his 70th birthday, some would have forgiven Gutendorf if he had chosen to wind his coaching life down. However, the thought never entered his mind. A perennial traveller and enthusiastic student of the game, Gutendorf set forth to Rwanda in 1999, five years after the country was torn apart by genocide.

Gutendorf, a strong believer in sport’s powers of reconciliation, took on the job with the hope of bringing the Tutsi and Hutu elements of the football team harmony: “Technically they were as good as German players but they knew nothing of organisation, tactics or teamwork. But we helped reunite them. The team was 50-50 Tutsi and Hutu and they learned to understand the power of forgiveness. It was my most important job in a way.”

Gutendorf was under no illusions as to the continuing fighting and tensions between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes but he was determined to leave a mark of peace and unity behind him. He said that uniting the two tribes to play football together was his greatest accomplishment in world football. “After training in the evening, we made a campfire. We were sitting around and I made half Hutu, half Tutsi. I explained that revenge leads to nothing and to forgive each other. It was not easy because they saw how they killed each other. I said it makes no sense, you’re now a footballer. I came here so we can work together, and that made a big impression.”

Gutendorf said he was thrilled to see Tutsi and Hutu in the stadium watching football together and hugging each other when a goal was scored. He said that the nation felt united inside the stadium, filling him with pride and a sense that he achieved something meaningful in Rwanda.

He was unable to lead Rwanda to the African Cup of Nations but he was proud of his work and the fact that he had shown the footballers their potential in making the country forget about circumstance and politics momentarily. This is what symbolised Gutendorf’s missionary career as a football coach; he never collected reams of silverware or coached the world’s greatest players but, for him, that was secondary to the opportunity to travel the globe and collect the ultimate coaching education.

His time as football’s most remarkable vagabond looks incongruous when compared to the high-flying celebrity managers of modern times. He never coached in the World Cup and was never appointed to any of the world’s biggest teams, club or country, but his legacy remains every bit as valuable when considering coaching as a craft.

By Matt Gault. Follow @MattGault11

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