Rudi Gutendorf: The Diplomat in a Tracksuit


In my time writing and researching for A Halftime Report, I have come across some truly fascinating stories and careers, from Sindelar’s battle with fascism to Franklin’s failed Bogota adventure, but I would be willing to go out on a limb and say that there are none so plentiful, so remarkable and so charming as that of Rudi Gutendorf. His name is not that obscure, many are aware of Gutendorf, typically due to his statistic of having managed more national teams than any other manager in history. Yet the fact that he is best known as a snippet of trivia is a tragedy in of itself. Gutendorf’s career involves seeing some of the most harrowing scenes the world has to offer, from genocide in Rwanda to women being raped and beat in Iran, and Gutendorf, a German former outside-right, was challenged with conquering bigotry, hatred and violence all with football as his only tool. It is this task which has earned him the nickname, ‘the Diplomat in a Tracksuit’, and in a 48 year managerial career, Gutendorf took charge of 18 different national teams, 15 club teams and claims he has only two regrets after it all.

Born in the historic German city of Koblenz on the 30th of August 1926, Gutendorf was seven years of age when Hitler came to power. Koblenz is not a city steeped in footballing greatness, but they were a more predominant team within Germany during Gutendorf’s time than they find themselves now. German football was re-organized under the Third Reich, but TuS Koblenz tended to fluctuate between the first and second division, consistent but rarely remarkable. Gutendorf joined his local team at the age of 18, in 1944, and played as an outside-right. The Third Reich had little interest in football, and as such, records from the time are scarcely available. We do know Gutendorf played only 90 games over his entire career, which ended at the age of 27, shortly after Koblenz’s greatest footballing achievement, reaching the semi-finals of the German national play-offs, in which they lost 2-1 to Kaiserslautern. Despite retiring at 27, his playing days effectively ended when Gutendorf was only 23 and contracted tuberculosis.

It is somewhat ironic, perhaps, that a man who is best known as a journeyman and nomadic manager of epic proportions was a one-club man as a player. They say the unfulfilled player makes the greatest manager, normally in reference to Brian Clough, but one could consider Gutendorf to come under such a description as well. His career may have ended early but he was certainly in no mood for waving goodbye to football, and he took up his first managerial post just two years after hanging up his boots, aged 29. It was a very brief stint at Swiss minnows FC Blue Stars Zurich which provided Gutendorf with his first taste of management, but after less than a year he had landed a more major job in Switzerland. Gutendorf took the reigns at FC Luzern, a top flight team and a major job for a man yet to hit the age of 30 with almost no managerial experience.

He went on to spend six years with Luzern and after almost half a century in management, now aged 89, Gutendorf can still look back on Luzern as the longest spell he had with one club. His time at Luzern, rather like his playing career, was steady but not spectacular, and when he left in 1961, there wasn’t a queue of top clubs looking to land the emerging young boss. It was at this time that Gutendorf first gave an indication that he would go on to become such a globetrotter. He took up a post in Tunisia, becoming the first team coach at US Monastir. Once more, it was short-lived, as after just a season, Gutendorf was offered a management position within the newly-formed Bundesliga. It was MSV Duisburg who offered a now 38-year-old Gutendorf his first major job.

Gutendorf did a remarkable job at Duisburg. Having taken over one of the lowest ranked teams in the new German top flight, the young coach defied all the odds, guiding them to an incredible second-placed finish, ahead of the likes of Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund and Eintracht Frankfurt, with only FC Koln pipping them to the title. Gutendorf had achieved such a feat due to the excellent defensive drilling he had given his team, establishing them as the most difficult team in the Bundesliga to score against. For this he earned the nickname ‘Bolt-Rudi’ within Germany, and was now one of the most sought after coaches in the country. He left after just one season, in which he had achieved Duisburg’s highest ever league finish. Not in the half century previously nor the half century since have they had such a season as the one under Gutendorf.

His success meant he was offered the Stuttgart job, but the move proved unsuccessful and short-lived once more, lasting just a season. Due to the prolific nature of Gutendorf’s career, any article charting his time at each and every one of the 33 teams he managed would be simply far too lengthy. It is for this reason that we must be selective with his career, for this I apologise. The next stage of Gutendorf’s career we focus on is his time with Hamburg, in 1977, which means skipping 11 years of management. To insure all is not lost, here is a run down of the positions held by Gutendorf in this 11 year period we are missing out on. He moved to North America in 1968, before his first national team job with Bermuda. Following this he coached Schalke, Kickers Offenbach, Sporting Cristal, Chile, Bolivia, Venezuala, 1860 Munchen, Real Valladolid, Fortuna Koln, Trinidad & Tobago, Grenada, Antigua & Barbuda and Botswana, I hope you can now see why going into any form of detail would prove tricky.

In 1977, Gutendorf returned to the Bundesliga. The Hamburg job was a major role for any German coach and Gutendorf was no exception. He was given grand assurances by the Hamburg board, who told him that under his stewardship, they felt Hamburg could become one of Europe’s great clubs, rivalling Real Madrid of Spain and Liverpool of England at the time. Gutendorf agreed that such ambitions were achievable, and had only one request. He told the board he wanted Kevin Keegan, who Gutendorf considered the greatest player in the world at the time. Such was their faith in the new manager that Rudi’s wish was granted, and Keegan signed for Hamburg from Liverpool in 1977. Sadly, Rudi’s dream signing soon turned into a nightmare.

The Hamburg team, who had won the European Cup Winners Cup six weeks prior to Gutendorf’s arrival, told their new manager in no uncertain terms that they did not like Keegan and did not want him in the side. Gutendorf tells the story of his club captain approaching him and telling him that the club had won the Cup Winners Cup and DFB-Pokal without this “little English guy”, even going as far as saying that if Gutendorf was to play Keegan, they had no interest in working with him. Gutendorf told the players he was in charge, and fielded Keegan regardless. Unimpressed, the Hamburg players did not play for Gutendorf, and his Hamburg project to make them a footballing dynasty ended after less than a year.

Rudi describes this as one of only two great regrets in his career of which the wounds have still not yet fully healed. He felt he could have built Hamburg to be a force like Bayern Munich are today, and the fact that it was his players who sabotaged any such aspirations still hurts. Angry, upset and at the lowest point in his career, Gutendorf set out to get as far away from Germany as possible, and did just that, moving to Australia and becoming their national team manager in 1979, where he would remain for two years. Once more, we must skip some years of Rudi’s extraordinary career, all the way to his next great regret, which came in 1988 with Iran. In the seven years between leaving Australia and moving to Iran, Rudi was equally prolific, managing New Caledonia, Fiji, Nepal, Tonga, Tanzania, Hertha BSC, Sao Tome and Principe, Tokyo Verdy, Ghana, Nepal again, Fiji again and China.

Iran was at the time, and still is, a very complex country. The Ayatollah Khomeini had emerged victorious in the 1979 Iranian Revolution and now served as the Supreme Leader of the new Islamic Republic of Iran, which was still largely in its infancy when Gutendorf arrived. Furthermore, Gutendorf arrived just as the Iran-Iraq War was coming to a close. A bloody conflict which had lasted eight years as Iran was battered by Saddam and Iraq, Iran had somewhere between 500,000 and 1,000,000 casualties, including 100,000 to chemical weapons. During Gutendorf’s first months in Iran, the 1988 executions of Iranian political prisoners took place, one of the largest-scale state-sponsored executions in modern history.

Clearly, Gutendorf had arrived in a country of great unrest with an extreme and unstable political and religious landscape. Whether he knew the extent of the issues in Iran upon taking a job there, he certainly knew now. Gutendorf described Iran at this time as the, “most terrible place in my career,” adding that if a woman walked the streets without fully covering her face or hair, they would be taken into the prisons where they would be raped and beaten. He even went as far as likening the Iranian authorities to the Gestapo, a strong claim from probably one of few men to have first hand experience of both regimes. Despite such harrowing scenes, Gutendorf was able to find some results on the pitch.

It was the Iranian under-23 national team that Gutendorf took charge of, his first experience of work with a youth set-up, but under his short watch Iran made huge strides. They completed one of their greatest ever scalps, defeating Poland, and surprised many in qualifying for the last 16 of the Asian Games, which was to be held in South Korea. However, it was at this stage that Gutendorf could no longer separate football and religion. He and his players applied for their visa’s to travel to South Korea for the games when a few days later, Gutendorf was told he wouldn’t be needing a visa, as the religious leaders of Iran informed him that there was no room for an “unbeliever” on the Iranian bench, and his time in Iran was brought to an immediate halt. Gutendorf describes this as his second great regret, having worked so hard in such adverse conditions, only to have the chance of seeing his work through stripped from him.

The pain was such that Gutendorf took three years out of the game, before finally returning in 1991, taking the reigns as the first team manager of the Chinese national team, whose Olympic team he had led into the 1988 Olympics three years prior. Gutendorf, now a pensioner, began taking bigger gaps between jobs, but showed no intentions of leaving the game for good. Over the next six years, he managed Mauritius twice, taking charge of Zimbabwe in between his two spells with the island nation. In 1999, out of work and aged 73, Gutendorf was approached by the German government, who wanted to fund Gutendorf travelling to Rwanda on a social and reconciliatory mission as much as a footballing one. The Rwandan Genocide of 1994 had wiped out 20% of the countries population, in the most deadly genocide since Pol Pot’s despotic regime and the Cambodian Genocide of the 1970’s.

At the heart of Rwanda’s troubles was the intense hatred between the Hutu and Tutsi tribes. A tougher group of people to reconcile you will not find, but Gutendorf, a great believer in the power of sport to unite people and conquer social unrest, took the job on. He described the Rwandan players as being technically just as good as the Germans but tactically clueless, lacking discipline and organisation. Gutendorf had been told the results on the pitch were not the important factor, but he knew that playing good football would be integral to off-field success. He described the emotion’s between the tribes as hatred the like of which he had never seen before, and quickly assembled a team consisting of half Hutu and half Tutsi players. Early in his time in Rwanda, Gutendorf spoke to his players around a camp fire following training, in an attempt to convince them revenge and violence was not the answer.

This was easier said than done, when talking to two groups of people who had murdered each other on a mass scale only five years earlier. Yet his message seemed to get across, and Rwanda began to play good football. He took them from the doldrums to very credible wins against Uganda and the Congo. Gutendorf describes the feeling of seeing Hutu and Tutsi supporters hugging one and another within the national stadium when Rwanda scored as the proudest moment and the greatest achievement of his lengthy career. In many ways, Gutendorf had succeeded where countless politicians and diplomats had failed before him. Despite the success, Gutendorf’s time in the job was as brief as ever, and feeling his job was done, he left Rwanda after less than 12 months.

This departure marked the beginning of a four year absence from the game, before taking over as manager of the Samoan national team in 2003. Once more, Rudi spent less than a year in Samoa, the last official managerial post he has held. Over his 48-year managerial career, Gutendorf won only two pieces of silverware. The first came with Sporting Cristal, in Peru, where he won the National Cup. It was this success which saw Gutendorf offered the Chile national team job, which he took in 1972. Typical of Rudi, he arrived in a country on the verge of an uprising. He had become a great friend of the countries beloved president Salvador Allende, even serving in an ambassadorial role for Chile in Allende’s absence on occasion, opening bridges and buildings and even crowning Miss Chile on one occasion.

On their relationship, Gutendorf commented, “I spent a lot of time with the president on his estate outside of Santiago. We often times drank whisky at his place, and afterwards we’d return to Santiago by helicopter.” On the footballing side, all was well, Chile were playing well under Gutendorf, with packed out crowds of over 100,000 people for most home games. Off the field though, Gutendorf suddenly found his life under threat when Augusto Pinochet overthrew the elected government by coup d’etat. Friends, supporters and associates of Allende’s were in-prisoned or killed without a seconds thought, and Gutendorf found himself well inside that bracket. On the immediate danger he faced, Gutendorf said, “I was a friend of president Allende, so I had to fear for my life! The Chilean army wasn’t playing games back then.”

The German ambassador advised Gutendorf to flee the country immediately, but despite the turmoil, Chile’s return leg against the Soviet Union was still scheduled to go ahead. The Soviet Union refused to play the game in Chile, on the grounds of the power seizure and the national team stadium actually being used as a concentration camp. Despite this, the game went ahead, in front of 15,000 people, mostly army, without a Soviet Union team, in one of the most bizarre football matches in history. Chile went 1-0 up and the ref ended the game, given that the Soviet Union could not kick-off, as they had no players. Gutendorf described the whole thing as a “scandal”, confirming that prisoners were being held at the stadium and adding that his players did shooting practice against a wall in which Chilean prisoners were executed.

Eventually the threat to Gutendorf became too real, and he left Chile prior to the 1974 World Cup, and never went on to coach a team into a World Cup. Another legendary tale of Gutendorf’s managerial career came whilst he was at the helm of the Tanzania national team in 1981, prior to a match against Zambia in the Africa Cup. Rudi’s players hatched an ingenious plan to pour a layer of animal’s blood onto the lines of the penalty area, to put the Zambia players off entering the area, but it backfired as the Zambia team simply refused to enter the field of play, believing it was now bewitched. After a large delay, Zambia finally agreed to take to the field after a layer of sand was poured over the pitch.

Rudi Gutendorf was undoubtedly a fine coach. Having guided one of the least fancied sides in the Bundesliga to a second place finish in his 30’s, Gutendorf could have gone on to great things in Germany or in Europe at least. Yet he chose a life of uniting murderous tribes, fleeing from Pinochet and dealing with players who believed football pitches were bewitched. His second piece of silverware came in 1984, when he became the first foreign coach to win a title in Japan. His trophy room is far from the most decorated in history, but aged 89, few can tell the tales Gutendorf can. During the 2012/13 season, with MSV Duisburg languishing in last place in 2. Bundesliga, aged 86, Rudi applied for the job he had held half a century earlier, but he was not offered the position. Gutendorf spoke of his disappointment that his age restricted his job prospects, but has since worked as an ambassador for the German FA.

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