ZTwo hours before kick-off, Alfred Gislason’s great suffering begins. He is then completely focused on his upcoming task as teacher of the German handball players, likes to wander around the field to distract himself and circles lonely at the throw-on zone. “For a coach,” he says, “this is the worst time. You can’t do anything anymore and just wait for the game to finally start.”
At the World Championships in Poland and Sweden, the rituals could be observed with great regularity – but they did not always lead to the desired success. After five sometimes spectacular victories in a row, there was an avoidable 26:28 against Norway at the end of the main round and then a 28:35 in the quarter-final duel with France. And yet, after being eliminated in the knockout round, the Icelander can say that after a few damn tournaments that were marked by corona diseases in the German entourage, he put the national team back on the road to success. With the clever national coach on the sidelines, a lot is still possible in the “decade of handball” proclaimed by the association – maybe winning a medal at the European Championships at home in a year.
Because Gislason has now, for the first time since taking office in February 2020, managed to get the team to act as such again: team spirit and the willingness to help each other are so great that the selection around captain Johannes Golla is not missing much to play again to advance to the top of the world. This can also be seen from the fact that, in addition to the 25-year-old captain, two other players used the World Cup stage to fuel the imagination of winning titles in the future. The two 22-year-olds Juri Knorr and Julian Köster are the biggest promises of German handball, Gislason gave them a lot of time at the World Cup and thus enabled the next steps at international level. With them and the reinvigorated world-class goalkeeper Andreas Wolff, 31, there are again important image carriers in the second most popular team sport in the nation.
As a club coach, Gislason won title after title
It hurt that he and his entourage were only allowed to travel to the placement games for places five to eight in Stockholm on Thursday, where Germany won the first game against Egypt 35:34 after extra time, and no longer jumped out in the global title fights in 2023 the ambitious coach nevertheless. Because if the chances had been exploited more consistently, there would have been a sensation against Olympic champions France. At the start of the second half, Germany led by two goals before slumping. “We made more and more mistakes in attack. In the first half we have four misses and in the second 14. We’re making ourselves unlikely problems,” he said after the bankruptcy against the ensemble around three-time world handball player Nikola Karabatic. Nevertheless, he was very satisfied with the overall tournament performance of his selection.
For the coach who is used to success, such insights still take some getting used to. After all, he has had one triumph after another as a club coach and, especially during his time at THW Kiel from 2008 to 2019, shaped an era. He had to wait a long time to be able to apply all the experience of his 25 title wins with German club teams to the national team. Although he was already hired in 2020 for the completely overwhelmed Christian Prokop as national coach, the first planned test match in his adopted home of Magdeburg against the Netherlands was canceled due to the pandemic. After that, he was mostly just a manager of shortcomings, because he was never able to play in the best line-up due to Covid diseases in the squad and the cancellation of important players.
The result was mediocre results at major tournaments: twelfth place at the 2021 World Cup, quarter-finals at the Olympic Games, seventh place at the European Championships in 2022. “It’s amazing how long Alfred has been sitting there, and only now is it the first tournament where he can really work,” said Rune Dahmke during the main round of the World Cup.
Kromer’s song of praise for the coach
The left winger made his Bundesliga debut at THW under Gislason in 2014, together they became champions, cup winners and EHF Cup winners, no other current national player knows the Icelander better than he does. “It’s just really pleasant to work with him,” says Dahmke. “It is really fun. Anyone can get along with anyone, and Alfred fits in well. You notice that in every training session, at every meal or when we sit together.”
They have also noticed such a good mood in the German camp and a considerable increase in performance on the field at the German Handball Association (DHB) – and at the same time attribute it to the routine of the bank boss. “Alfred Gislason is someone who has an incredible experience. And because of the pandemic, he has not yet been able to make full use of this experience. Now we have the first tournament that we can say is going the same way as before the pandemic,” explained DHB sports director Axel Kromer in an interview with WELT AM SONNTAG. “Alfred can, for example, have individual or group discussions again, can train every day in the way he imagines. This is now a phase in which he can fall back on his coaching and life experience.”
However, Kromer does not assume that this could lead to an early extension of the contract, which is still valid until the summer of 2024. “He still has three tournaments in his contract term. From Alfred’s point of view, we don’t have the topic of extending the contract.”
Gislason also found new happiness in his private life
Gislason, who spent 30 of his 63 years in Germany, follows such debates with stoic composure. He knows what he has at the DHB – and vice versa. In 2020, the pragmatist was in promising negotiations with the Russian Handball Association, but he declined, although the offer is said to have been well above the salary of the national coach. Because he is also one thing: extremely close to his homeland. 22 years ago, he bought a farmstead outside the gates of Magdeburg that resembled a ruin. He restored the building himself and turned it into a small piece of paradise somewhere in the middle of nowhere – the village of Wendgräben has just 32 inhabitants.
Wendgräben has become a welcome retreat for Gislason – from the hustle and bustle as a coach and also to cope with strokes of fate. His wife Kara died of cancer two years ago, and for a short time he thought of giving up everything. In handball and on the farm he found the right way to process his grief. And also a new love in Iceland, as he recently told the “Bild”: Hrund Gunnsteinsdottir is a journalist and film director, both came closer after an interview request. “It wasn’t my plan at all, it just happened,” Gislason explained. “It fits really well. I can talk to her about anything.”