INTERVIEW – Not many handball coaches have managed to qualify two teams for the same World Championship, and within a six months period.
Iceland’s Gudmundur Gudmundsson has a chance to achieve it.
After qualifying Bahrain for next year´s World Championship, he now has the opportunity to do the same with Iceland, and “that wouldn’t be so bad,” as he states in this exclusive interview with stregspiller.com.
By Peter Bruun
Gudmundur Gudmundsson may soon achieve a rare objective – qualifying two national teams for the same World Championship within six months.
Very few handball coaches can boast about it, but after having secured Bahrain’s ticket to the 2019 World Championship in Germany and Denmark, the 47-year-old Icelander is now targeting the same goal with Iceland’s national handball team.
After leading Denmark to victory at the Rio Olympics in 2016 – the only Olympic medal a Danish men’s national team ever won – Gudmundsson stepped down prematurely after Denmark´s disappointing performance at the 2017 World Championship, in France, when the Danes were eliminated by Hungary, in the Round of Last 16.
Next stop for Iceland’s former left wing became Bahrain. He took the team to a second place at the Asian Championship, finishing the competition right behind Qatar. The result bought a ticket for the 2019 World Championship.
“Obviously, Bahrain was something different, compared to Europe and what I was used to, but it was also an interesting and rewarding experience.
“Of course, Bahrain is not the strongest team in the world, and I had to improve everything – defense, attack, fast breaks – you name it.
“However, I was working with some very nice and dedicated people and we managed to improve the team in virtually all aspects of the game.
“In the end, we managed to win the silver medal and qualified for the World Championship, next year in Denmark and Germany,” states Gudmundur Gudmundsson who went straight home to Iceland, taking over the national team for a third time in his career. There he signed a three-year contract valid from March 1.
One might say that handball in Iceland has hit rock bottom, after having exited the most recent European championship following the group phase, already.
However, expectations will run high as Gudmundur Gudmundsson led the nation to its most memorable triumph in handball; winning Olympic silver in Beijing, in 2008.
“It is true – we won Olympic silver in 2008 and then the bronze medal at the European championship in 2010 before finishing fifth at the 2012 Olympics, in London after winning all our preliminary matches.
“I am aware that there are certain expectations connected with my name, but I also feel happiness attached to my appointment, as I have been traveling around Iceland recently,” says Gudmundur Gudmundsson who admits that his decision to coaching Iceland for a third time has something to do with feeling appreciated in Iceland, a sentiment he did not experience as Denmark’s national coach.
“In Denmark, I was under pressure from day one.
“However, I will never forget that I led the Danish team to Olympic gold; the highest achievement in handball and I hope the Danes will never forget it either,” says Gudmundsson who has enjoyed a successful career at club level as well, having coached Danish GOG as well as the German top team, Rhein-Neckar Löwen.
A “Bengan Boy” may do wonders
He feels he is ready for an expecting public in Iceland.
“I told the federation that what we have ahead of us is a long-term process, and that’s what I try to make clear to everyone.
“It will take three to four years to get Iceland back into the “Top Eight” in the world, and that’s where we want to be.
“At the moment we do not know if some of the older players will retire from the national team after the European championship.
“There have been some rumors, but so far, we don’t know for sure.
“Some young and talented players are coming up, but they obviously need to gain experience and we will have to be patient.
“For now, I have made a list of 30 players, who I want to work with,” says Gudmundur Gudmundsson who is happy to have the support of a “Bengan Boy”. Former Swedish national team goalkeeper, Tomas Svensson, one of the stars of Sweden’s legendary “Tre Kronor” team, has signed up to become part of Iceland’s coaching team.
“Tomas Svensson is a fantastic goal keeper coach. He has tremendous experience at the very top level and knows all aspects of the game – he’s a real asset. Having him on board is very beneficial,” says Gudmundsson.
Important matches coming up
Over several decades, handball has become a big sport in Iceland producing some outstanding results. More recently, one might suspect handball being pushed a bit into the background after the success of the national football team, especially after reaching the quarter-final at the European championship, in 2016.
“Football has taken away some of the interest from handball after this achievement, but handball is still very big in Iceland,” says Gudmundor Gudmundsso who claims that he’ll need three to four years to get the country back to the former level. In the short term, his team will have to succeed in two very important matches, coming up in June of this year.
Lithuania will be the opponent in two decisive play-off matches for the remaining ticket to the World Cup in Germany and Denmark, next January. And even though Iceland will be rebuilding, a World Championship without them is something hard to imagine.
“Yes, that would be hard to imagine, and of course, we aim and will try very hard to qualify,” says Gudmudsson who will prepare his team, taking part in the Golden League in Denmark, in April. There his team will be facing the host as well as the world champions from France and the top team from Norway.
“Lithuania may not seem the most frightening opponent in the world, but we have to bear in mind that they defeated Norway, last year in the qualifiers for the European championship. Personally, I recall having had trouble with them during my time as Denmark’s national coach, when we met them in Brøndby, in the qualifiers for the World Championship.
“On that occasion, it took us some time to overcome them – they are an opponent you should never underestimate.
“However, I hope and expect us to go through and if we manage to it, I will have qualified two nations for the same World Championship.
“That wouldn’t be so bad,” smiles Gudmundur Gudmundsson.