The coach of the German national handball team has made a name for himself as a guy who spares neither himself nor his players and certainly not his opponent. But after a twist of fate, the tough dog from Iceland discovered his soft side at the age of 63.
As a player and later also as a coach, Alfred Gislason was the epitome of the guy who is often referred to as the “tough dog” in handball circles. One who spares neither himself nor his opponents and also rules his players with an iron fist. In his book ‘Hölleluja!’, former national player Stefan Kretzschmar recounts how he suffered from a herniated disc at the turn of the millennium during their time together at Magdeburg, when left winger and coach successful won the championship trophy and the Champions League trophy at the Börde worked, which caused him to suffer hell. An observation that Gislason quickly denied. He appointed Kretzschmar despite the pain and even replaced him.
Icelanders certainly wouldn’t allow themselves such a ruthless approach these days. The 63-year-old tough guy discovered his soft side, the appearance of the man, who has led the German national team as national coach for three years, is at the World Cup in Poland and Sweden, where the German team meets France in the quarter-finals in Gdansk (8.30 p.m. on ZDF and in the live ticker on ntv.de), remarkable in every respect.
“Working closely with young people keeps you on your toes”
His tenure as national coach began in a sportingly complicated way, Gislason has operated almost continuously in crisis mode since taking over in 2020, and the pandemic has made it nearly impossible to build a team continuously for long. In private, the Icelander has experienced severe blows of fate. In March, after qualifying for the Olympics, he published a letter in which a confused right-winger threatened to “visit” if Gislason did not quit as German national coach. “After a total of nearly 30 years in Germany, this was the first time I was threatened in this great country,” Gislason wrote, the solidarity of the sport was overwhelming.
In May 2021, his wife Kara-Gudrun died of cancer. The two have known each other since they were 12 and have been married for 40 years. His first reaction to the doctors’ diagnosis that chemotherapy was no longer producing any results either was: “I’ll call Axel Kromer, quit – and then we’ll go to Iceland and spend the time Kara left together in Iceland.”, he told ‘Sport Bild’, discussing the devastating diagnosis. But his wife stopped him. “The players knew Kara was sick. Over time, they also heard that she was getting worse.” Upon his death, Gislason said on RTL: “It was a shock how quickly it happened.”
Only a few months later, he went to the Tokyo Olympics and finished sixth with the team. “During that period, handball was very important to me. Especially when you work closely with young people, it keeps you going and alive,” he told the Sports Information Service. “It makes life beautiful when you can help young people progress in their sport and on their path in life. Everything turned out differently from what I thought, but life goes on.”
He went through the tough times, extended his contract with DHB and found new love. Writer and director Hrund Gunnsteinsdottir actually only asked him for an interview, it turned out “his father was my assistant coach on my first international trip with the senior national team”, he said. told the “Welt” earlier this week. They met for dinner, “that’s how it started”.
Always under power on the key
In Poland at the World Cup, media professionals now experience a completely renewed Gislason. He no longer acts curtly and abruptly, but smiles and answers questions with eloquence and authority. This did not change after the first failure against Norway, although the defeat was annoying because it was avoidable. He hopes “we will see each other again in this tournament,” Gislason said with a broad smile to his Norwegian colleague Jonas Wille. There could only be a reunion in the final.
The national coach described the upcoming game against the French title favorites as “the toughest game ever. We have to have an exceptional day to survive.” But even a retirement would not unbalance the veteran. His players and loved ones report in unison how relaxed Gislason is in his mission and how it rubs off on everyone involved. Erik Wudtke, who as an assistant coach works particularly closely with the boss on the bench, considers the national coach to be “relaxed and at peace”. At least when there are no upcoming games.
During the 60 minutes, Gislason could continue to mutate into an Icelandic volcano to erupt from if things don’t go his way. “He’s full of energy, but that goes without saying,” says Wudtke. The ease he exudes the rest of the time is “not played. He is happy with the things that the players achieve”. The sovereignty of old age translates into “enormous self-confidence. And that, in turn, reflects on the team.” Goalkeeper Andreas Wolff adds “that Alfred, with his incredible experience, manages to give us a certain level of composure”.
“Play whatever you want”
It’s a mutual exchange that, according to Wudtke, “is key to the team’s performance to date.” The interaction culminated in the match against Argentina in the second round, when the German selection tore their opponents to pieces with every turn of the book, in a remarkable announcement from the coach during a break: “Play what you want,” Gislason told his players. An anarchist approach that would have been unthinkable in this form before. One, however, that everyone shouldn’t have heard, says Gislason in the “Welt”: “But I forgot there was a mic. That doesn’t happen to me often.” At the time, with that comfortable lead behind him, it was “the greatest expression of confidence possible,” Wudtke reports. True to the motto: “You are in the flow and you play so well that you succeed anyway.”
Backcourt player Paul Drux also remarked “that Alfred is experiencing his first major tournament here as a national coach, which is really only about handball”. No games in front of empty rows, no days of chaos like at the European Championships in Bratislava last year, when a total of 18 corona cases in the team threw all plans overboard – just defense, attack, counter-attack and the second wave. “It’s good for all of us”, assures the professional from Füchsen Berlin, and his manager exudes this lightness of being “at every training session”. In the fall of a long and immensely successful coaching career, Gislason noted that “he’s better at disconnecting and enjoying things.”
“A very, very happy national coach”
The coach’s center of power is just 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 were growing through the roof. Today, the English country house-style home is a real gem and also a biotope in which Gislason retreats to recharge his batteries: “Here I have my peace, similar to Iceland”, he reports. at the “Welt am Sonntag”. “The area around the farm is a nature reserve, everything is very beautiful. Just the way I want it to be.”
At the World Cup, too, things have gone almost as planned so far. Losing to Norway annoyed Gislason as he would have preferred to play against Spain in the quarter-finals. Whether this game is actually easier is far from certain. From now on, the DHB team must stand up to France, Olympic champion and world record champion. Whether his new composure will last remains to be seen. Before saying: “I am a very, very happy national coach.”
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