Mission Impossible?

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Mission Impossible?

April 7, 2016

By Joachim Schutz & Peter Bruun

“It’s the best for German women’s handball, to provide clarity and to guide fundamental processes back in the desired direction.  Now, we are called upon setting the proper course for the way ahead,” explained DHB vice-president Bob Hanning back in January 2015, following the split with Germany’s women’s national handball coach, Heine Jensen.

A few weeks later, Jensen’s countryman, Jakob Vestegaard, was presented as his successor.  Then DHB president, Bernhard Bauer, stated: “With Jakob Vestergaard at the helm, we will bring our women’s team back on track for a successful World Cup 2017. ”  As is known by now, it turned out to be a wishful thought.

After losing the two qualification matches against Russia in June, Germany’s handball women only reached the 2015 World Cup through a wildcard placement – receiving the same favorable IHF treatment as Germany’s men one year earlier, after having missed EURO 2014 in Denmark and failing to qualify for the 2015 World Cup in Qatar.  But unlike their male counterparts, who managed to reach 7th place in the desert state after entering the tournament through the back door, Germany’s women could not do better than registering 13th at the World Cup, in December of last year, missing the qualification for the Olympic Games in Rio.  It was the beginning of the end of the “era” Vestergaard.

On March 28, 2016 the German handball federation and Jakob Vestergaard, officially announced the end of their cooperation.  It was the final act of a relationship that had gone sour some time ago.  The two parties had reached mutual agreement to terminate Vestergaard’s contract that otherwise would have run until December 31, 2017.

DHB’s vice-president Bob Hanning stated: “We had to recognize that our paths’ for the success of German women’s handball are no longer aligned.  Reasons are manifold and both parties share responsibility.”  Vestergaard reiterated that both sides “were in agreement that there was no basis for further cooperation anymore, unfortunately.”

Poor Cooperation

Following the separation with Germany’s handball federation stregspiller.com caught up with Jakob Vestergaard, who was quick to point out that disgruntled players were no factor in the decision.

“It has nothing to do with the players.  In fact, I have written to all of them to explain that it has nothing to do with them,” Vestergaard said after the announcement to split ways with DHB.

Instead, he stated poor cooperation as his reason to quit.

“We disagreed on the way of how to run the team in the future.  They (the DHB) wanted to do it one way, and I wanted to do it another way.”

“That cannot work and in that situation, it is better for them to find another head coach and for me to find another job as a coach,” he added.

Jakob Vestergaard absolutely did not want to elaborate on it much further.

“I have said more than enough already,” said Vestergaard who has signed an agreement with DHB not to say anything more about the reasons that led to the premature termination of his contract.

Fast forward – April 2, 2016 – Cologne.  On the fringes of the friendly match between Germany and Denmark, the former leader of Poland’s men, Michael “Beagle” Biegler, was formally introduced as head coach of Germany’s handball women.  Following the dramatic collapse of Poland at EURO 2016 on home soil, Biegler had resigned and taken on a (handball) development project in Africa.  But already in an interview with “Hamburger Abendblatt” in early March did he mention evaluating other engagements.  Finally, he accepted the challenge of guiding the German women’s national handball team to the semi-finals at World Cup’17 – the stated near term objective according to the president of DHB, Andreas Michelmann.

No Comment on Biegler

When asked about his successor, Jakob Vestergaard categorically refuses to comment on Michael Biegler, but he was willing to provide his view on Germany´s chances to shine at the World Championship on home court in December 2017.

“I cannot see why Germany should not be able to do well at home by then.  When you look at the players they have, and the talents who are on their way, I see a lot of potential for German women´s handball on the national team level.”

“On the left-back-, the line- and on the playmaker position, Germany is particularly well equipped, and as we all know, they have great goalkeepers – and young, talented goalkeepers coming up.

“It would be really hard for me to understand, if Germany does not manage to do well at home in 20 months,” said Jakob Vestergaard who is looking forward to being a club coach again.

“One thing I did miss while being German national coach was the daily contact with the players.  I understand Denmark´s coach Klavs Bruun Jørgensen´s wish to coach a club team beside the national team very well.”

2020 vs. 20 Months

Twenty months to go until the opening match at the women’s 2017 handball World Cup in Germany – it still sounds like a long time to make the necessary changes and advance the cause of women handball in Germany.  Yet, coach Biegler’s reality looks different – very much different.  From the official date of his introduction to the German handball public, he will have exactly 64 days to qualify his squad for EURO 2016 in Sweden.  It’s a “Must-Do”, considering the quality of the opponents (Iceland and Switzerland).  And by December 18th of this year, “Beagle” will have steered team Germany into a position that will generate some enthusiasm at home, allowing for the launch of a somewhat meaningful marketing campaign and media interest.  Failing to reach these milestones will make his mission next to impossible.

The 54-year old Biegler, who has never trained a women’s team is looking forward to the demanding task, “The World Cup at home is a huge responsibility. I love this challenge. ”

“I like the high intensity for the project “World Championship 2017” that all of us have to show immediately.  But there is also another dimension to it: aside from achieving the desired performance and results, we further want to develop the structures of women’s handball as well as support measures for its overall development.”

No doubt Michael Biegler is a man who does not shy away from difficult assignments.  His most recent engagements at now defunct HSV Handball and Poland’s men national handball team speak volumes.  But while he may be the right individual at the right time to guide Germany’s handball women into medal contention by 2017, succeeding in correcting the structural deficits at DHB as far as they concern women handball, is a lofty goal that requires more time, commitment and leadership from the top.  Time that DHB’s vice-president Hanning appears to be unwilling to grant.  “This is the last chance for (German) women’s handball.  If that does not work, then you can “lock the door “,” said Hanning.

It’s no secret that Hanning’s priorities firmly reside with Germany’s handball men, next to his ongoing responsibilities at Bundesliga club Fuechse Berlin.  And while he declared the Olympic Games 2020 as the development goal for the men’s squad, Germany’s handball women apparently will not benefit from a similar vision nor will necessary time be given to adjust structural obstacles at DHB.  It will all have to happen within the next twenty months.  To what extend miracle man Biegler can be helpful in solving that part of the equation remains to be seen.  For now, it’s all about catching a “falling knife” before it’s too late.

At last year’s World Cup in Denmark, 12 other national teams ranked ahead of Germany (Norway, Netherlands, Romania, Poland, Russia, Denmark, France, Montenegro, Sweden, Hungary, Brazil and Spain).  Biegler’s crew will have to do better than nine of those mentioned, by the time IHF president, Hassan Moustafa, will open the 23rd edition of the World Women’s Handball Championship.  Right now, the only constant factor in women’s handball is Norway – representing world class on the pitch and on the bench – closely followed by The Netherlands, Romania, Russia, Montenegro and Spain.  Behind those a number of teams currently struggle for different reasons (i.e. Denmark, Sweden, France Hungary and Brazil).  At least with some of the latter candidates, coach Biegler’s squad will have to catch up with quickly.

A daunting task given the relative strength of the domestic women’s league (HBF) and the role that Germany’s two top teams have been playing in Europe’s premier club competition over the past few years.  By the time, the EHF Champions League enters elimination rounds, no German squad has been playing a major role in the near past.  Neither Thueringer HC nor HC Leipzig has the cast of characters or financial resources that are necessary to compete at the highest level at crunch time.  And it does not look like this picture will change any time soon.

Some hope is based on DHB’s “Elite Program” (Elite Kader), a recently introduced youth development initiative, similar to the one in operation on the men’s side.  That program produced a number of Germany’s freshly minted European champions (i.e. Finn Lemke, Julius Kuehn and Jannik Kohlbacher to name a few).  Can Dinah Eckerle (Thueringer HC), Jennifer Rode (Bayer Leverkusen) or Isabelle Hurst (HC Leipzig) – all three are members of a select group of 15 elite players – step it up and repeat the unexpected and premature success of Germany’s handball men at EURO 2016?

While the year 2020 appears to be an unrealistic long time frame for Germany’s handball men to reach their peak (especially after the triumph in Poland), twenty months look unreasonably short to achieve the proclaimed objective at the Women’s World Cup 2017.  Precious time has been wasted and while Germany’s new coach, with the assistance of sport director Wolfgang Sommerfeld, might be able to correct a lot of things in a very short time, Biegler won’t be able to walk on water.

In the meantime, for the sake of women handball in Germany, can someone grab Hanning’s key before he “locks the door?”

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