“In this aspect, Scandinavian players are three or four steps ahead”
February 4, 2022
By J. Schuetz
He is one of the best handball coaches in the world and certainly the most successful coach who has worked at Gyoer AUDI ETO KC to date. For a second time in his career, Ambros Martin (53) is leading the Hungarian handball power house – the premier address in women’s handball.
Martin is widely considered a defense afficionado and the club’s recent hirings for the 2022/23 season – Line Haugsted (back-court) and Sandra Toft (goalkeeper) – are testament to his approach.
During his first stay (2012 – 2018), he took Gyoer to four EHF Champions League titles, in addition to five national championships and as many cup wins.
After a spell in Russia where he coached Rostov-Don and the Russian women’s national handball team, he opted for Gyoer again.
In this interview Ambros Martin talks about the ongoing challenges during the Covid pandemic, which teams he expects to see in the EHF Champions League FINAL4, in June of this year, what motivated him to sign with the Hungarian record champions for a second time, coaching a men’s handball team in the future, the impact of club legend, Anita Goerbicz and what distinguishes Scandinavian handball players from their Spanish colleagues?
stregspiller.com met with Ambros Martin after an intense, yet successful week of Champions League handball, including three Gyoer wins against Metz, Krim and Odense.
How do you cope with the challenges during the ongoing Covid pandemic?
“We experienced some very difficult moments right after the New Year, in January. We didn’t start 2022 in a good way because the Covid virus hit the team and almost all the players, staff and coaches were infected. Not only did it create an unusual situation, but stress as we were about to compete against Savehof (in the Champions League ed.) in early January. At the time we just did not have enough players.
“We decided to stop the team trainings to “save” some of the players who were not infected, yet. The staff worked with them on an individual basis and after one week or so, we saw a light at the end of the tunnel. The staff did an excellent job during this very difficult time.
“Slowly, but surely players returned – no additional players got infected – and we were in a position to return to team practice sessions.
“Back then, we also isolated some of the junior players from school. This way we were able to prepare for the important Champions League game against Metz. Even though we practiced only four or five times as a team.
“Looking back at this period, I have to say that the players did fantastic work, especially mentally. In the game against Metz we had a lot of focus and the team wanted to show that all the work would pay off.
“Then we played the Champions League match against Krim, who were in a similar situation like us. In this game we had some tough moments in the beginning, but the girls did a good job to get a better handle on the opponent and we won, eventually.
“The last Champions League game of that week was the most difficult one. First of all, it was the third match within one week. Although, we tried our concentration level was not the same. We almost had the full squad back on the court and it may have contributed to this condition – a somewhat normal reaction.
“On the other hand Odense did a great job and played a very good game against us.
As the current Covid wave has not reached its peak yet, it will create further disruptions (i.e. cancelled matches, tight travel schedules etc.) – how do you make sure the players stay focused?
“Obviously the current situation is anything but easy – not only now. It’s like this for the past two years already. You just don’t know what will happen the next day.
“Towards the end of last year many people thought Covid would become a thing of the past soon. But, then it came back with a new variant – apparently less dangerous for most people, but the virus spread quicker and affected everybody, irrespectively of vaccination status.
“Right now, it’s probably the worst. Every time you get informed that someone close to the team has been tested positive, anxiety shoots up. You have to test again and again and wait for the results. While all of this is happening, it’s very hard to maintain focus and practice handball like you’d normally do.
“It’s extremely difficult to concentrate on the next game, especially now that we experience the same conditions for a second season.
“We need to live with it, adjust accordingly and not worry about catching it (the virus ed.) too much. We cannot hide in a hole, but we have to try and live a normal life and protect ourselves as much as we can.”
Which other teams do you expect to see at the EHF Champions League FINAL4 aside from Gyoer?
“Right now, you have to factor in Covid. You can’t leave it out – it’s part of reality.
“For example, by the time we play the quarterfinals some teams may experience issues because of the virus and as a result they may have a problem to reach the FINAL4 just because of it.
“There are several Champions League teams who play real good handball no matter if at home or on the road. And, then there are squads who have the ability to rise and perform exceptionally well over the course of two games, in a quarterfinal.
“I take all teams, which end up in the top four positions in each one of the two Champions League groups very serious, and I consider all of them strong contenders for the FINAL4.
“The differences between the various teams may not be as big after all. We got a taste of it in the recent match against Odense, but also when we played in Metz or against Vipers.
“That’s why I don’t want to narrow down the group of competitors – there are more than five teams that can reach the FINAL4.”
Would you consider the past two seasons as the most challenging ones in your career or have you dealt with similar difficulties as a coach before?
“I do recall a time, when we had several players injured at a critical point during the season – I just don’t remember the year, right now. The difference now is that Covid can affect the entire team from one day to the next, no matter if you’re vaccinated or not.
“I am of the opinion that national- and international handball federations have to pay close attention to how we operate because of the virus. Today, it’s no longer as lethal as in the first year and the federations should take this into account.
“They have to become more flexible with regards to re-scheduling matches that were postponed because of Covid. The EHF have adjusted to this new reality, but when you look ahead towards the quarterfinals of the Champions League, the calendar is more rigid as these dates are fixed and cannot be moved.
“In the Hungarian league the rules during Covid are even tougher. If you can’t put a team together, you will lose the match and if you think this through, you can quickly lose the championship this way. The people in charge need to think about these aspects as well.”
Your first round in Gyoer was extremely successful, what motivated you to come back for a second time?
“For me it’s a different challenge, now. Let’s assume you’re right and Gyoer is the best team in the world. Many other people make this claim as well. Coaching such a squad is a real big, but nice challenge. This is one reason why I returned.
“Secondly, we lost the Hungarian- as well as the Champions League, last year. We were not able to lift these trophies. This also presents a challenge for us.
“Lastly – there is a personal reason. When I left Gyoer some years ago, I wanted to repeat the success with another team. I went to Rostov-Don and we got close – we reached the final match in the Champions League, but lost against Gyoer by one goal in 2019.
“During my second season, Covid hit and the Champions League was cut short. In a way, my time in Rostov was over. Some time later – I was the coach of the Russian women’s national handball team – the Russian Federation decided to terminate my contract during the EHF EURO 2020.
“I thought this was not the best way to finish my career in women’s handball. In my mind, my next step would have been to coach a men’s team and repeat the success I had on the women’s side.
“But, the experience in Russia somewhat changed this plan. I did not want to leave women’s handball like that because it has given me so much in my career as a coach.
“That’s when I decided to accept the offer from Gyoer once again. Today, only three players remain from the team I coached years ago. It’s a new squad and it serves as additional motivation.”
Did I understand you correctly – your intention is to coach a men’s handball team in the future?
“Yes – this is my plan after I finish with my project in Gyoer the way I want to. Originally, I thought I would make the shift after the 2021 Olympics already, but I never got the chance as I mentioned before. That’s when I decided that I did not want to leave women’s handball like that.”
Of all the players who are not part of the current team in Gyoer anymore, Anita Goerbicz (she retired after the 2020/21 season ed.) is a name that stands out. What is different now that she is not a player anymore?
“First of all, let me say that she is an individual who captures you by her mere presence and she is someone who you immediately respect. I know what she stands for and still represents for Hungarian handball and the handball community in Gyoer, especially.
“Before I arrived in Gyoer for the first time, she had reached many finals, but had not won an international championship. At the time, I thought that she is the one who will have to change her approach so that all the other players could feel that we can achieve it (i.e. winning the Champions League ed.).
“Don’t get me wrong – she was not a player who doesn’t let another player shine on the pitch – to the contrary, she wants every player to become better.
“Yet, she was the one who had to help and change the mentality of how to approach training sessions, preparing for a match and live life as a professional athlete. She was the one who had to lead and make it happen around the club. It was tough in the beginning.
“Anita Goerbicz was absolutely instrumental in changing the attitude of everybody. Once she experienced how winning the Champions League felt, she did not want to lose this feeling again.
“It was curious that in her last year, we couldn’t reach the Champions League final. Probably because everybody involved wanted it too much for Anita to lift the trophy one last time. Maybe we were under this type of pressure?”
Of all the players you have coached in Gyoer over the past decade or so, who would you like to bring back if you could?
“I have been really lucky and blessed to work with so many excellent players and personalities, who contributed so much to my own growth as a coach. All of them have pushed me to make them better – every day.
“Let’s start with some of the young Hungarian players, who I worked with in the early days, like Aniko Kovacsics (now FTC Railcargo ed.) or Dorina Korsos (CS Rapid Bucuresti ed.), for example.
“Or take Kathrine Lunde – look how good she still is. Heidi Loke, Andrea Lekic, Jovanka Radicevic, Nycke Groot, Yvette Broch – there are so many players I would like to work with again if I could re-live my life as a women’s handball coach again.”
Right now, there is no Spanish player in the team of Gyoer. Who do you consider the best Spanish players these days?
“At different times there have been three top talented players, who I can think of and two are still active. First there is Marta Mangue, she still plays handball in France, secondly, Macarena Aguilar – she played in Gyoer some years ago and has retired since then, and the third one is Nerea Pena.
“Carmen Martin (right-wing of the Spanish national team ed.) and Silvia Navarro (goalkeeper of the Spanish national team ed.) are also great players in their respective positions, but the aforementioned three have a special talent for handball.
“As I said, Macarena was here in Gyoer, but at the time we experienced a difficult season – Goerbicz and Lunde were pregnant, Amorim was injured and we experienced some other injuries as well. Unfortunately, the performance of the whole team during this season was not as good and she could not shine as much as she was used to.
“Today there are many talented Spanish players around. They don’t have to hide behind anybody, but they need to improve their mentality. Let’s compare them to the Scandinavian players, for example. Their attitude towards the sport is somewhat special – they not only know how to play handball, but also know how to live their “handball life”.
“In this aspect, Scandinavian players are three or four steps ahead of Spanish players, for sure.”