When the Swedish anthem was played in the Nantes’ Hall XXL before the main round match against Montenegro, there was a person singing it prouder and louder than ever. This might not sound unusual, but there is a small catch: This person was right across from the Swedish bench, with the Montenegrin players.
“It was a big moment for me. Of course, I sang along with the Swedish players and staff for the whole anthem,” says Per Johansson, the Montenegro women’s national team coach, who beat Sweden, 30:28.
48-year-old Johansson is one of six foreign coaches for the 16 teams that take part in the EHF EURO 2018. There is a clear upward trend of national federations hiring foreign coaches, as there were only two teams that ticked that box at the Women’s EHF EURO 2012 and four squads led by foreign coaches two years ago.
Thorir Hergeirsson may have been born in Iceland, but he has coached the Norway national team since 2009 and has been living in Norway since 1986.
Spanish ace Ambros Martin has been leading the Romanian national team since 2016, while Dane Helle Thomsen has been the mastermind of the Netherlands national team for the past two years.
Finally, Dutch Henk Groener is leading Germany in his first official championship at the helm, while Kim Rasmussen, the Dane who won the Women’s EHF Champions League with CSM Bucuresti in 2016, has been preparing Hungary for the past two years.
Both Martin and Groener will face their national teams in the EHF EURO 2018 Main Round. Does that bother the Spanish coach?
“I always play for the win, regardless of the opponent. If that’s Spain? So be it. The game against Spain will not be very special for me. I have played against them before,” says Martin.
A clash of cultures
Problems can always occur when coaching another country in a sport as demanding and fast-paced as handball. They may vary from cultural to language challenges, which both the players and coaches must navigate through with calm and responsibility.
“It is difficult. It can never be easy in such a different environment, because the only language that can help us be together is the handball language,” says Romania coach Ambros Martin.
“But coaching a national team, everything is about feelings. After two years and a half, now I know the players and their mentality, but at first it was probably difficult for them also to understand how I think and how I approach handball.”
Johansson was an avid fan of Balkan handball and culture, but only found himself leading a side from eastern Europe in 2017, when he was appointed coach of CSM Bucuresti. He finished third in the Women’s EHF FINAL4 with the Romanian side twice and has now been plying his trade in Montenegro for the past year.
“I am very proud to be one of the first Scandinavian coaches to train in the Balkan region. I have always been fascinated by this culture and I like how this group fights and lives handball,” says Johansson.
“Surely, there is a big difference between the Swedish culture and what I have found in Montenegro. Yet I am not a usual Swedish coach and I think that a team should create its own culture.”
A language barrier? “We all speak handball”
Many federation presidents have ducked hiring foreign coaches because of the potential language barrier. But as English has become a near must in handball, the trend of working with coaches who do not speak the native language of their players has gone upwards. Many players now understand English and those who do not are trying to learn it on the fly.
“As Romanian and Spanish are both Romanic languages, some of the players understand better when I speak in Spanish than in English. But for me, we all speak the same language – the language of handball,” adds Martin. All Romania’s timeouts are conducted in English and players can always jump in if they feel confusion. The same applies for Montenegro.
“We always speak English, but I urged my captain, Jovanka Radicevic, to throw their language into the mix when she feels to,” says Johansson.
Finding the troubles in this situation
While in past years, coaching for a different country may have proven a huge risk, both Thomsen and Martin won all three matches in the preliminary round with Netherlands and Romania. In fact, all six foreign coaches guided their teams into the next round of the competition.
“There is a big cocktail of emotions in a Balkan team, so this is what I like most. I think that the group is amazing and they do not feel like they are coached by an outsider. We have taken what they do good and tried to eliminate what they did wrong,” says Johansson.
The situation is different for Ambros Martin. The 50-year-old coach was the driving force behind Györ’s four Women’s EHF Champions League titles in the past six years, before leaving for Rostov this summer.
Therefore, the Spanish ace has no break from the bench and could be labelled as a workaholic.
“I am not living in Romania and my staff are doing an unbelievable job to scout players who we think can do a good job and help the national team. I thrive under pressure; the pressure is something that I like. I prefer to live like that, to try and build something good and win every time we play,” concludes Martin.
In Romania, Martin was dubbed as an also-ran after the national side lost against the Czech Republic in the last 16 at the World Championship last year. But Martin bounced back and Romania are playing with ambition and grit. He is widely recognised for galvanising the team behind him and hugely respected by the players.
Ditto for Johansson, who has been dubbed a leader by the passionate Montenegro team. It is clear with the right fit, everything can play out beautifully, irrespective of the cultural differences.