“I didn’t join Nîmes to just enjoy the French way of life”
July 4, 2022
by J. Schuetz
The most successful days of Union Sportive des Anciens du Mont Duplan Nîmes Gard (USAM Nîmes Gard) were in the late 80’s and early 90’s when the handball club from the south of France won the national championship on four occasions.
At the time names like Stéphane Stoecklin, Philippe Gardent, Philippe Médard, Christian Gaudin, Denis Lathoud and the late Zlatko Saracevic took the club to new highs and many of the French players formed the backbone of the national team as well, winning bronze at the 1992 Olympics, in Barcelona.
Such glory days are long gone and in 1994 the club filed for bankruptcy after winning the Coupe de France in the same year for a third and last time until today. What followed was a decade of mixed results and ups and downs.
All of this is about to change. On June 14th, club President David Tebib, officially announced Ljubomir Vranjes as new head coach of the “Green Team” as Nîmes have become known in recent years.
Following his short-term engagement with Rhein-Neckar Loewen, where Vranjes agreed to help out for the second half of the 2021/22 season, the Swede signed a four-years contract with the ambitious French club.
stregspiller.com spoke with Ljubomir Vranjes about the exciting task in France, near and long-term goals, how the Covid break has led to a different perspective on life as a handball coach and embracing a new culture, while learning his sixth language.
A Swedish coach in France
It does not happen often that a Swede finds himself on the bench of a French handball club. Staffan Olsson’s is a name that comes to mind. The four-times European champion assisted Zvonimir “Noka” Serdarušić in Paris St. Germain between 2015-2018.
“Ljubo” Vranjes is well aware of the challenges ahead.
“In general, I don’t think that many foreigners have worked in France as head coach – Staffan Olsson was an assistant coach (i.e. with Paris St. Germain). It’s not that easy not the least because of the language barrier.
“But, I plan to learn the language, of course.”
The plan and vision laid out in Nîmes translate into a long-term project and the objectives are in stark contrast to the aspirations of a European top handball club like Veszprem, where Ljubomir Vranjes was head coach from 2017 to 2018. Still, it begs the questions, why Nîmes and why now?
“The club wants to significantly improve from where they are now and I can be part of this re-building effort. It’s very similar to the situation way back when I started coaching Flensburg.
“Nîmes also wants to invest in the arena and increase its capacity.
“Last season Nimes finished 6th in the Liqui Moly StarLigue, but in three years we want to challenge Montpellier, Nantes and Aix.
“Don’t get me wrong – I am not implying that this endeavor will follow a straight path. Maybe it works out quicker, maybe it will take somewhat longer, but that’s the plan. I am committed to make this a successful project.”
“I didn’t join Nîmes to just enjoy the French way of life”
The new adventure in the south of France did not present itself over night and Ljubomir Vranjes already spent a significant amount of time to prepare for the upcoming season.
“It’s a project which has been long in the making and I already speak a little bit of French. And, the analysis of all matches of the 2021/22 season has been finished. I am well prepared for next season.”
The names on the roster of Nîmes for the 2022/23 season may not role of the tongue as easily as the lineups of some of the more prominent competitors, but “Ljubo” Vranjes does not agree.
“Most people did not know Hampus Wanne or Jim Gottfridsson before they joined Flensburg. Nîmes does have some experienced players on the international level. It’s just that their names may not be as well known outside France.
“Some of the younger players have some great potential, which I would like to develop further together with the coaching staff. It will be a very exciting job – let’s see if we can take the next steps forward?!”
“I didn’t join Nîmes to just enjoy the French way of life. Club officials and the coaching staff have big plans to build something for the long term – not over night but step-by-step. I am really looking forward to the work.”
No exit clause
Vranjes is fully committed to the challenge in Nîmes contrary to certain reports circulating in some German publications.
“I have signed a four-years contract with Nîmes and there is no exit clause in the agreement. As I said, I spent a long time thinking about the project before I decided to sign on.
“I had several offers from other clubs – German clubs as well – but I wanted to take this chance with Nîmes. It feels right to me – it’s the way I like to play handball and how I want to guide a team forward. We will see – it feels like a good decision.”
Family support and curiosity
“My family is in full support of the move to France. Already during my time with Rhein Neckar Loewen I said that 15 years in Germany is enough. Although, I have become more open minded vis-a-vis Germany again, I am now fully focused on the new task in France.
“I am very curious to meet the players, the practice sessions and getting to know the character of the team and culture of the club.
“For sure, once I have done my work in Nîmes, I have either played or coached in most European countries. I am missing Denmark and Poland, but I will know how most of the other handball nations will be “ticking”. After this experience, I will be well educated when it comes to handball.”
What defines success?
“In want to see that every player keeps developing and that the team as a whole will make progress.
“The way the team already plays handball – based on a strong defense and running fast-breaks – is a style I very much welcome and intend to build on.
“From the outset, I’d say that 2022/23 will be a good season if we can qualify for one of the European tournaments. I don’t know if we can achieve it, but in case we do, it will put us in a position to gain experience on the international level.
“If it all works out as planned, I would like to target a title in France by year three. Given the strength of Paris the championship looks very much out of reach, but maybe we can stage a challenge in the Cup (i.e. Coupe de France ed.) – after all the final is only one game you have to win. That’s the direction we want to take.”
The impact of the Covid break
As the pandemic shut down most of the handball activities around the world, how did Ljubomir Vranjes cope with the unexpected circumstances?
“We all got older and maybe we became a bit wiser. That’s what tends to happen as you grow older anyway (laughing).
“Of course, I don’t change from one day to the next. I have my character and I behave the way I do, but when it comes to handball it’s different, now.
“When you are on the bench – but not only there, behind the scenes as well – there are two important aspects that come to my mind: Coaching and leadership.
“In this respect much has changed, in my opinion. During the pandemic, we all had a bit more time to think about life in general and what’s important. The two elements I mentioned before are still relevant, of course.
“But, I came to realize that coaching is my profession and that it’s not always fun. Doing a good job is more important.
“As soon as I step in a handball arena, I am a coach and a leader. That’s my job. But, when I leave the arena, I am a different person. Then I am “Ljubo” and I don’t think about handball.
“Of course, you take your thoughts with you wherever you go, especially after a loss. But, today it’s very important that I separate handball from my other life.
“In the past, it wasn’t as clear cut for me. I was “coach” most of the time and that I don’t like anymore.”
“If you can’t get this done nothing else matters”
One of the skills Ljubomir Vranjes is known for is his ability to motivate teams. It was one of the key factors that landed him the job with Rhein Neckar Loewen, according to Jennifer Kettemann, the managing director of the former German champions.
“In general, it’s a very difficult situation, today. As a coach and as a leader you have to “reach” the players first and then take them with you on a “handball journey”.
“If you can’t get this done nothing else matters.
“Today, a team is impacted and influenced by so many parties and interests – it all makes the coaching job so much more difficult and you can’t say – whatever the result may be – that it’s 100% my accomplishment.”