Handball’s Tough Dog Becomes Soft: The Remarkable Transformation of a National Coach
The German national handball coach has made a name for himself as someone who spares himself, his players and certainly not his opponent. But after a stroke of fate, the tough dog from Iceland discovered his soft side at the age of 63.
As a player and later as a coach, Alfred Gislason was the epitome of the type often called the “tough dog” in handball circles. Who does not spare himself or his opponents and rules his players with an iron fist. In his “Hölleluja!” , former national player Stefan Kretzschmar recalls how he suffered a herniated disc at the start of the millennium during their time together in Magdeburg, when the left winger and successful coach brought the Championship trophy and Champions League trophy to Borde he labored, making him suffer from hell. A discovery that Gislason quickly denied. He nominated Kretzschmar despite the pain and even replaced him.
Icelanders certainly wouldn’t allow themselves such a harsh approach these days. At the age of 63, the strong dog discovered his soft side, and the man who managed the German national team appeared as a national coach three years ago, during the World Cups in Poland and Sweden, where the German national team is present. They meet France in the quarter-finals in Gdansk (8.30pm on ZDF and in live tape on ntv.de), which is fantastic in every respect.
“Working closely with young people keeps you on your toes”
His tenure as national coach began in complex sporting fashion, Gislason has operated almost constantly in crisis mode since taking over in 2020, and the pandemic has made it nearly impossible to build a team for long. Secretly, the Icelander suffered a cruel blow of fate. In March, after qualifying for the Olympics, he published a letter in which an angry right-wing president threatened a “visit” if Gislason did not leave his post for a German national coach. “After nearly 30 years in Germany, it was the first time I had ever been threatened in this great country,” Gislason wrote, and the solidarity from the sport was overwhelming.
In May 2021, his wife, Kara Gudrun, died of cancer. The two have known each other since he was 12 and have been married for 40 years. His first reaction to the doctors’ diagnosis that chemotherapy was no longer producing any results was: “I’ll call Axel Kromer, quit – and then we’ll go to Iceland and spend the time that Kara has left together in Iceland,” he told Sport Bild, reflecting on the devastating diagnosis. But his wife prevented him. “The players knew Kara was sick. Over time, they also heard that she was getting worse.” When she died, Gislason said on RTL: “It was a shock how quickly things went.”
Just a few months later he traveled to the Olympic Games in Tokyo and finished sixth with the team. “During this time, handball has been very important to me,” he told the Sports Information Service. “Especially when you work closely with young people, it keeps you alive and on your toes.” “It makes life beautiful when you can help young people progress in their sport and on their path in life. Everything worked out differently than I thought, but life goes on.”
He got through tough times, extended his contract with DHB and found new love. In fact, author and director Hrund Gunstensdottir only asked him for an interview, and it turns out, “Her father was my assistant coach on my first international trip with the senior national team,” he told Welt earlier this week. They met for dinner, “that’s how it began.”
Still under power on the sidelines
In Poland at the World Cup, the media are now witnessing a completely renewed Gislason experience. He no longer behaves tersely and abruptly, but smiles and answers questions with eloquence and authority. That did not change after the first bankruptcy against Norway, although the defeat was annoying because it could have been avoided. Gislason said with a wide smile to his Norwegian colleague Jonas Wille that he hoped “we will see each other again in this tournament.” There can only be a reunion in the final.
The national coach described the next match against the French national team, which is nominated for the title, as “the most difficult match ever. We must have a great day to survive.” But even retirement will not throw a veteran off balance. His players and those close to him speak in unison about how relaxed Gislason has been in his task and how much it affects everyone involved. Erik Wudtke, who as an assistant coach works closely with the coach on the bench, experiences the national coach as “relaxed and calm.” At least when there are no upcoming games.
In 60 minutes, Gislason can keep turning into the Icelandic volcano he erupts from if things don’t go his way. “It’s energetic, but it goes without saying,” Wudtke says. The ease he radiates the rest of the time “isn’t played. He’s happy with the things players succeed at.” The dominance of aging is reflected in “a tremendous self-confidence. And that in turn reflects on the team.” “Alfred, with his incredible experience, managed to give us a certain composure,” adds goalkeeper Andreas Wolf.
“play what you want”
It is this mutual give and take that, according to Waldtke, “is key to the team’s performance so far”. The interaction culminated during the match against Argentina in the second round, when the German national team blew its opponents to pieces with every trick in the book, in a striking declaration from the coach during the break: “Play what you want,” Gislason told him. players. An anarchist approach that could never have been thought of before. “But I forgot there was a microphone. It doesn’t happen to me often,” Gislason says in one “felt” that not everyone should have heard. In that moment, with such a relaxed lead behind him, it was “the greatest possible expression of confidence,” according to Wudtke. True to the motto: “You guys are in the flow and you play so well that you succeed in everything anyway.”
As backfield player Paul Draux noted “Alfred is having his first big tournament as a national coach here, which is really just about handball.” No matches in front of empty lines, no days of chaos like last year’s European Championships in Bratislava, when a total of 18 corona cases in the team threw all plans abroad – only defense, attack, counterattack and the second wave. “It’s good for all of us,” says the professional from Füchsen Berlin, and his manager exudes the levity of being present “at every training session.” In the fall of a long and highly successful coaching career, Gislason noted that he was “better at letting go and enjoying things”.
“A very, very happy national coach.”
The coach’s center of power is outside Magdeburg: Wendgräben, a place where only 32 people live. Here, more than 20 years ago, Gislason and his wife, Kara Gudrun, bought an abandoned farmhouse that was so dilapidated that trees had grown through the roof. Today, the house in the English country house style is a real gem and also a vital that Gislason retreats to to recharge his batteries: “Here I have peace, like Iceland,” Welt am Sonntag reports. “The area around the farm is a nature reserve, everything is so beautiful. Just as I want it to be.”
At the World Cup, too, things have gone almost according to plan so far. The loss to Norway upset Gislason, as he would have preferred to play against Spain in the quarter-finals. It is not certain if this game will actually be any easier. Now the DHB team has to stand up to the Olympic champion and record world champion France. It remains to be seen if his newfound composure will stick. Before he said, “I am a very happy national coach.”