Saga Shop Winter 2019

32 Icelandair Stopover BY EINAR LÖVDAHL. PHOTOS BY BJÖRGVIN FRANZ BJÖRGVINSSON . “If you say goodbye on good terms, you’ll always be able to return,” says Guðmundur Guðmundsson, who earlier this year began his third spell as the manager of the Icelandic men’s national handball team. When we speak in November, he’s eagerly awaiting the IHF World Championship, taking place in Denmark and Germany in January 2019. Despite Iceland’s recent football frenzy, the island has a much more successful history when it comes to handball. The men’s national team has competed in over 30 major tourna- ments since 1958, and many have considered handball to be Iceland’s national sport. Watch- ing “Our Boys” compete at a major tournament during the winter darkness in January has been a constant in Icelandic culture for years—like eating fish for dinner on Mondays. It’s fair to say that no Icelandic handball coach has been as successful in men’s international handball as Guðmundur Guð- mundsson. In 2008, he led the national team to a silver medal at the Olympics in Beijing. Two years later, the team got a bronze medal at the 2010 European Championship under his guidance. On top of that, he even led the Danish national team to a glorious gold medal victory at the Olympics in Rio 2016. “My job now is to rebuild the Icelandic national team,” Guðmundur explains. “We have a young and inexperienced squad and we expect the process to take about three years. I hope we get the time we need.” Proving Yourself Over Again Guðmundur is aware that success raises expectations, but he doesn’t let it get to him. “Every new beginning calls for you to prove yourself all over again, which is a fun chal- lenge,” he says. “Some people say that coaches don’t have any future, they only have the present. There’s a lot of truth in that, because people always demand success now .” The key to success, according to Guðmundur, is passion. And going into his 30th year of coaching, handball is still a true passion of his. “One of the main challenges you face as a top-level coach is staying up to date. After all these years, I’m still a student of the game—I’m still a handball nerd.” Striking Gold Before Guðmundur, Þórir Hergeirsson—coach of the Norwegian women’s handball team— was the only Icelander ever to have earned a gold medal at the Olympics. The achievement will be difficult to repeat, Guðmundur admits. “The Olympics are the world’s biggest sports event. Regarding the handball tournament, qualifying is tough enough, and when it comes to the main event, you can’t afford a single mistake,” Guðmundur says. “Every single decision has to be 100% right during the preparation phase and during the Olympic games. That’s just how competitive the Olympics are. There’s no margin for error. It might sound hard to believe, but there’s no doubt about it in my mind.” Guðmundur refers to the 2012 Olympics as an example, where his Icelandic team went unbeaten through the group stages but got knocked out in the second round after a double-overtime thriller. “I honestly thought we would win a gold medal that year.” Nothing Easy Icelandic handball has never had the luxury of a vast pool of players or large budgets. None- theless, the Handball Association (HSÍ) has maintained a professional standard through the years. “The association has done a terrific job, thanks to its selfless and ambitious staff,” Guðmundur explains. However, the main concern today is the team’s facilities, the 50-year-old sports hall Laugardalshöll, which doesn’t fully fulfill the standards of the International Handball Federation. “I would like the Icelandic authorities to answer our call for a new sports hall,” he encourages. Whatever the future holds, it was in the out- dated Laugardalshöll that Iceland clinched its seat in the 2019 World Championship. They did so by beating Lithuania 34-31 in the second leg of a playoff tie, after having drawn 27-27 in the first leg. And Guðmundur sounds excited for the upcoming journey. “I feel good about it. It’s a new situation, I think Icelanders haven’t seen such a drastic reconstruction of the team in 30 years. Therefore, this will be a special World Championship.” He points out that a brand-new team comes with some uncertainties. “We don’t really know where we stand in comparison with our opponents. We will have to strive for every win. There’s no such thing as an easy game for Iceland nowadays.” The team will face two handball powerhouses in the first two games at the Championship: Croatia, two-time Olympic gold medalists and 2003 World Champions; and Spain, two-time World Champions and reigning European Champ- ions. “It will be extremely exciting to lead this young squad to a World Championship. I can’t wait,” says Guðmundur, never one to shy away from a challenge. Icelandair is a proud sponsor of the Icelandic national handball teams. “THIS WILL BE SPECIAL” Once again, Guðmundur Guðmundsson faces the challenge of coaching the Icelandic men’s handball team, leading them at the 2019 World Championship. Top: From Iceland vs. Lithuania in the playoffs: Arnór Þór Gunnarsson (left) aiming for the goal during a seven-meter throw; and Aron Pálmarsson (right) trying to break through the defense. Bottom: Guðmundur Guðmundsson demonstrates his passion for the game.