Gislason champing at the bit after delayed debut with Germany
On 6 February, Alfred Gislason (61) was presented as the new coach of the German men’s national team. After finishing fifth at the EHF EURO 2020 in January and a few weeks before the Olympic qualification tournament was scheduled to be played in Berlin, the German Handball Federation dismissed Christian Prokop.
He was succeeded by the experienced Icelander, who had led SC Magdeburg and most recently THW Kiel to countless titles, among others, he won the EHF Champions League three times as a coach. He ended his stint at THW in the summer of 2019 by winning the German cup and the EHF Cup.
On 9 March, Gislason started his new job full of energy with a training camp and on 13 March he was set to have his debut with a test match in Magdeburg against the Netherlands.
Then came the Covid-19 pandemic and all international matches were cancelled. Almost nine months later, his re-scheduled debut is set for 5 November with the start of the EHF EURO 2022 qualification against Bosnia-Herzegovina in Düsseldorf.
The first major challenge will then be the World Championship in Egypt, but Gislason's main goal is a ticket for the Olympic Games in Tokyo, the qualification tournament for which will be played in March.
In this interview, Gislason looks:
eurohandball.com: How have you experienced the pandemic so far?
Alfred Gislason: The time without handball was a difficult time for me. I am very happy that the Bundesliga and the international competitions have re-started and that we have our eyes on the beginning of the EHF EURO qualifiers. At first, I tried to keep in touch with the players via video conferences but I also noticed that some had built a distance from handball. With the start of the pre-season, thankfully, things looked different again.
eurohandball.com: But were you able to distract yourself on your farmhouse near Magdeburg?
Alfred Gislason: I was able to take care of everything that was left behind for 15 years. House, yard, garden - everything is great. No, seriously, I was a Bundesliga coach for 22 years, then stopped in Kiel in the summer of 2019 and planned to have a six-month break to get back on track. Later. This break has lasted for a year and a half and it is really frustrating. In between, I had trained a youth team from the neighbourhood for fun. That is when I realised how much I missed handball.
eurohandball.com: Otherwise, were you more of a national team coach in a home office?
Alfred Gislason: You could say that. I have evaluated a huge number of games from our potential opponents since March, but in the end I could delete everything. First I prepared for the Netherlands, then the game was cancelled. Then I analysed our opponents for the Olympic qualification, Sweden, Slovenia and Algeria, very intensively, then the tournament was postponed. Finally, the World Championship qualification against Ukraine was on my list - I could then throw my preparations in the bin because we qualified automatically. But since August I have been to a lot of games and I am in close contact with the players and their coaches.
This break has lasted for a year and a half and it is really frustrating. In between, I had trained a youth team from the neighbourhood for fun. That is when I realised how much I missed handball.
eurohandball.com: How do you see the chances that your debut will take place on 5 November?
Alfred Gislason: I hope that it finally works and that we will play. I am very well-informed about our first opponents Bosnia-Herzegovina and Estonia, but for the first few days of training, I will focus only on us. The time is short, we only have two days of training until the first game. My greatest wish is, of course. that no other players get injured until then.
eurohandball.com: Also because of the great burden for the top players on club and national team level, the IHF has allowed the 32 participants to travel to the World Cup in Egypt with 20 instead of 16 players. A good measure in your opinion?
Alfred Gislason: Absolutely, because this way we have the chance to rotate from the first day of the competition and spread the load on many shoulders. I think that is an advantage for Germany because we have the necessary depth in the squad. But we also have the players in the strongest and largest league in the world who will be extremely challenged this season.
eurohandball.com: Do you generally feel that the stress in handball is too high for the top players?
Alfred Gislason: Of course, I am worried about the tight calendar for the national team players, because there is a large number of extremely important games waiting for them this season. Currently, two of our line players, Jannik Kohlbacher and Johannes Golla, are out with long-term injuries. For this position, we have two more options, Patrick Wiencek and Hendrik Pekeler, who have a tough schedule at THW Kiel. And if a game has to be postponed, there are hardly any options for rescheduling because the calendar is so full.
eurohandball.com: New faces or well-known names - what will the German squad look like for your international debut?
Alfred Gislason: As in March, I am building on the team's well-established frame. There are also players who were not part of the squad in the last months or years such as Christian Dissinger or Finn Lemke, and some young guns such as Sebastian Heymann. I am counting on 21 players for the preparation on the EHF EURO qualifiers, but you cannot turn everything upside down.
eurohandball.com: Will there be any tactical changes?
Alfred Gislason: Anyone who knows me knows that I count on an offensive defence and a quick transition into attack. The defensive tactics of the national team are almost identical to what I played in Kiel, so it is only about details. In attack, we have to work hard on positional play, but this is a long-term strategy. I do not want to change anything in a hurry, we are now preparing for the way our opponents will play in November and with an eye on the World Championship already.
eurohandball.com: This tournament in Egypt in January should be your first major event as German national team coach. There were voices in favour of a cancellation. How do you feel about it?
Alfred Gislason: I am very sure that the World Championship will take place. The organisers will be extremely strict in Egypt and limit everything extremely well. And I am looking forward to the tournament.
eurohandball.com: What is the goal of the German team in the upcoming month?
Alfred Gislason: When you represent Germany, the goals are never small. We are a tournament team that always wants to go far. But in January I first have to see who can play and who is fit. But at the moment, I am not looking that far ahead, rather I focus only on Bosnia and Estonia.
eurohandball.com: A look at the Bundesliga: You coached the THW for twelve years, are Kiel your favourites to win again this season, also because of the arrival of world star Sander Sagosen?
Alfred Gislason: It is extremely important for the whole league that a player of his class takes this step to Germany. He faces the challenge of having to give everything here in every game, in other countries it would certainly have been easier. When it comes to the league, I see Kiel and Flensburg as the big favourites. Behind them, four teams also have some chances. Rhein-Neckar Löwen, the Foxes from Berlin, Magdeburg and Melsungen. But the same thing applies to everyone, two or three injuries to high performers can shake things up in these teams.
Photo credit: Sascha Klahn/DHB