Heart. Passion. And a gnarly Icelandic next to the record. The fact that the German national handball team is not without a chance in the World Cup quarterfinals against France is also due to the special relationship between the young team and its coach Alfred Gislason.
You could literally see the young man in front of the ARD microphone how much the defeat he had just suffered in the last main round game of the World Cup hurt him. “It’s quite clear that we’re not playing our best game,” said Juri Knorr after the close 26:28 win against Norway. “Of course we live better with the defeat today than in two days. I still think it annoys us all quite a bit,” said the 22-year-old playmaker of the German national handball team. But then to look straight ahead: “I’m sure that we’ll appear with a different face on Wednesday.”
It was the first time that the selection of the German Handball Federation (DHB) left the table as a loser at the World Cup in Poland and Sweden. Before that, she stormed through the World Cup with five wins in five games and won the hearts of German handball fans. On Monday, almost 7 million viewers sat in front of the television and cheered on the German seven around playmaker Juri Knorr, captain Johannes Golla and goalkeeper Andreas Wolff. Today, on Wednesday evening in the quarterfinals against France, it could possibly be ten million.
The game against Norway was classified as an indicator of the actual quality of the German team. The squad around top star Sander Sagosen was the first world-class team that met the DHB selection at this tournament. The question was in the room: How good is the young German team really?
The answer was: not good enough that evening. On the one hand, because – with the exception of Knorr and goalkeeper Andreas Wolff – hardly any German played at his performance limit. And on the other hand, because Norway’s goalkeeper Torbjörn Bergerud mutated into a monster between the posts with his saves in the second half.
“We dreamed of this game”
The question now is how much the damper against Norway will throw the young team around coach Alfred Gislason out of rhythm. Because to be honest, you have to say that the tournament schedule meant well for the Germans and was possibly also responsible for the flow that captain Johannes Golla’s squad got into. On the other hand, you could feel the heart and passion with which the Germans acted in every game. Quite a pound against the six-time world champion and current Olympic champion France. “We dreamed of this game,” said Juri Knorr before leaving for Gdansk, where the quarter-finals will take place on Wednesday (8.30 p.m. / ZDF). “It may sound martial, but we have to play for our lives because of course we want to get through.”
France as an opponent would have saved the national coach. “In my opinion, that’s the toughest possible opponent. They’re in great shape, especially across the board,” said Gislason after the Norway game. “I would have preferred to win the game today and play against Spain.”
But despite the seriousness with which Gislason analyzed the defeat (“our weakest game”, “defense too permeable at first”, “missing too many free balls”), you can see every second of the 63-year-old in the Katowice days how much he enjoys his office right now. For the gnarly Icelander it is the third major tournament as national coach – but the first where it’s really all about handball. Before that, at the World Cup in Egypt and the European Championships in Slovakia and Hungary, the corona pandemic raged and caused absurdly high numbers of failures, especially in the German team.
Gislason took over the post of national coach with a reputation like Donnerhall. For the DHB it was almost a blessing to be able to present a presumed guarantor of success after the phase with the hapless Christian Prokop. In club handball, Gislason has won almost everything there is to win as a player and coach. He has won several German championships and won the Champions League with two clubs (Magdeburg and Kiel). Ambitious. hungry for success. Attributes that make Gislason a coach are clear in the speech. And made him appear a tad too authoritarian in his early years as a coach.
From grinder to communicator
“There would definitely not have been a break like against Argentina at the beginning of his coaching career,” says Adrian Wagner. The former handball professional (Kiel, Dormagen, Bad Schwartau) knows Gislason from his time at VfL Gummersbach. “He’s a down-to-earth guy. Grumpy. Grumpy. But also honest and open,” says Wagner, describing the management style of the former grinder, who has long since turned into a communicator and sometimes lets himself be leashed. Like at the gala against Argentina, when Gislason just shrugged his shoulders in view of their flawless performance: “Play whatever you want!”
The irrepressible joy that Gislason has with his boys is also evident during coaching on the sidelines, where he follows every action of his team, sometimes bending like a tree in the wind. Or in contact with young players like Knorr or Julian Köster, whom he sometimes puts his arm around the shoulders when addressing them personally. Like a father who cares about his children.
“Like handball, Alfred has also evolved,” says Wagner. The meticulousness, the hunger for success is still there, for example when Gislason withdraws before each game to prepare his team for the next opponent with video sequences. “Each team has their first attacking actions, which are repeated. There are always types of players who do something special,” says Wagner. “At meetings like this, it’s about creating a sense of security in the team’s mind.” And when there is such a veteran who has already fought all battles (“Alfred was there when noses were still broken in handball”), as a 22-year-old you might listen a bit more attentively.
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Where the common path of Gislason and his young wild ones leads will be decided tonight in the first knockout game against France. “If we can manage a stable defense with Andi Wolff as support and use our chances better, then we can beat any opponent,” said captain Johannes Golla. “And maybe they underestimate us a bit,” hopes pivot Jannik Kohlbacher.
If things go well, the fans may experience one of those dramas that make this sport so unique: “20:20 and two more minutes to play, it’s so intense, this nerve strain. Nobody can imagine what then happens in the heads of the players,” says ex-pro Wagner, who admits to getting sweaty hands even in front of the television in these moments.
It would be nice if Wagner and the millions of handball fans cheering on ZDF from 8.30 p.m. needed a lot of towels tonight.