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Ralf Rangnick is always the pioneer, never the winner – but he made Euro 2024 better

Sometimes in football, the great thinkers are not the great winners. They can show everyone else their ideas, but not their medals. It is why they attract disciples but also dissenters. Ralf Rangnick is the godfather of gegenpressing, but Jurgen Klopp has borrowed from his methods and won the Champions League, league titles in two countries and a host of cups. Some four decades into his managerial career, Rangnick has won the Intertoto Cup, the German Cup, the German second division and the German third tier.

There are managers with bigger trophy cabinets and far less influence. Rangnick’s reputation instead is as a Mitteleuropean Marcelo Bielsa: a pioneer, an evangelist, a man who altered the game but didn’t win the defining matches. For Rangnick, Euro 2024 had promised the belated reward, the historic achievement, the undeniable proof of excellence. He had started to admit that, yes, Austria could win it.

Until they were ejected from it. Leipzig, where Rangnick built both a club and a multi-club model, was where a dream was demolished. By an extraordinary intervention from Mert Gunok that Rangnick felt bore comparison with Gordon Banks’ stop from Pele in the 1970 World Cup. By a first-minute goal from Merih Demiral. By, rather prosaically, Austria’s inability to defend corners. By a Turkey team Austria had hammered 6-1 as recently as March.

Ralf Rangnick could only watch as Austria crashed out of Euro 2024
Ralf Rangnick could only watch as Austria crashed out of Euro 2024 (Getty Images)

“I cannot imagine that we are going home today,” said Rangnick. “I thought we would continue our journey here and get ready for the next few games and the players thought the same.” But the journey was not back to Berlin, scene of stirring wins over Poland and the Netherlands, but to Austria. The expressions at the end told tales of disbelief: Marcel Sabitzer stood staring at the bank of Austria fans, in the ground that used to be home turf for him, too. Christoph Baumgartner, a star of Leipzig’s present, had his head in his hands when Gunok denied him. Michael Gregoritsch looked on the brink of tears.

They all had reasons to believe, reasons to reflect with pride, but also a sense of what might have been. Sabitzer could have been the first Austrian to lead his side in a semi-final since Ernst Ocwirk in 1954: it is now 70 years of hurt for them. Baumgartner has been one of the players of Euro 2024, forever dynamic and dangerous. Gregoritsch tormented Turkey as a second-half substitute, scoring Austria’s goal. He had delivered a hat-trick in March’s 6-1 evisceration. Maybe Rangnick erred in not starting him again. He insisted he had no regrets.

Merih Demiral’s goal helped send Austria home at the last-16 stage
Merih Demiral’s goal helped send Austria home at the last-16 stage (AP)

Perhaps the eventual verdict will be that Austria peaked too early: in beating Germany in November, in destroying Turkey in March, in being, along with Spain, the most compelling team of the group stages. But that can be the nature of knockout football: the sides who dazzle initially do not always last the distance. In Austria’s case, the collective energy could not always compensate for an inability to keep clean sheets. Possibly some of their unexpected stars – Alexander Prass and Philipp Mwene, Gernot Trauner and Romano Schmid – played above themselves in earlier matches. Maybe there was only so far a schooling in the Red Bull ethos and the Bundesliga that made this group very suitable for Rangnick could realistically go.

But briefly, they were glorious: the early-tournament revelations, the exciting antidote to some of the more gifted, more sterile sides. “They were four very entertaining games, very intense,” said Rangnick. “I have seen other games where it was difficult to stay awake and that was not the case with ours.”

And if there was a dig at England and France there, it was justified. Austria have been a boon to neutrals. They have also been brilliant for Austrians, re-energising the footballing public, rebranding the national team, reviving traditions of excellence that had been dormant since the days of Hans Krankl and, before him, Ocwirk.

Turkey were left celebrating a memorable win
Turkey were left celebrating a memorable win (AP)

They might not quite merit the tag of the Wunderteam, the description afforded to the side of the 1930s. But Rangnick’s team of the 2020s have a new goal. “We are in pot one at the moment and we want to stay there and have a good chance to qualify for the World Cup for the first time in many years,” he said. While Euro 2024 will shake up the world rankings, Austria’s improved results position them to be top seeds in qualifying; a first World Cup since 1998 could beckon.

It would be another achievement for Rangnick: if not the sort that brings the ultimate accolade. But he has always been an architect: with Hoffenheim, the Red Bull clubs and now with Austria. His importance isn’t always apparent in finals and league tables.

For now, he is the man who has transformed Austrian football, even if Austria ultimately did not become the outsiders who gegenpressed their way to glory. But maybe Rangnick has remained true to himself by not winning Euro 2024, or even coming close.

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