The day that I received the confirmation of my presence in Macedonia for the European Women's U-17 Handball Championships, I rushed on the Romanian Handball Federation's website to see recent posts.
Although I played handball myself professionally for about one year, as a journalist the sport didn't reach me as much as football or tennis did, so it was natural for me to want to learn more about the current state of the game here in Romania, and fast.
I knew that the Carpați Trophy, a pretty well-known friendly tournament held in Romania almost each year, was this year going to take place in Cluj, the city where I currently live. It was only a few days away. I also knew that Romania had just employed a new coach. A foreign one - which is in itself newsworthy.
The man in question is Tomas Ryde, who thus came back in the sport which he loves after a period in which he was contract-free. He had guided Danish team Viborg to lifting the Women's EHF Champions League trophy in 2006, as well as winning a couple of Danish Championships and Cups with the same team. "He is world-class", I thought. "This is big. A Champions League winner coaching Romania."
So as I was saying, while I was scrolling down the FRH website, my eyes caught a glimpse of a post made a few days earlier. "The Romanian Handball Federation is launching a new invitation to all bloggers and journalists interested in a training session with one of the biggest coaches of the world, Tomas Ryde," it said. "The new head coach of the Romanian National Team has happily accepted our proposal to meet Romania's handball loving journalists."
At first, I thought "oh, how nice; if only I could be there as well..." Then, I figured, why wouldn't I be? Well, there were a few small technicalities. I had no blog for a while, I was just a freelance, unemployed journalist. The second thing was that the training was about ten hours away, scheduled the next morning.
With this in mind and thinking that my chances were slim, but highly excited, I wrote an e-mail stating my intention to participate in the event, and went to sleep. In the morning, I was happy to find a reply had arrived, simply saying "we are looking forward to meeting you this morning."
That is how I managed to meet Tomas Ryde in person. After the girls finished their training session, Ryde tried to teach us silly journalists some tricks with the ball, but also made us test Paula Ungureanu, Romania's world-class goalkeeper, from the 9 and 7 meter lines. It was great.
The following days, I attended a few of the National Team's training sessions and watched Romania's two games at the tournament, following Ryde as much as the actual players. I listened to him talk in the organized press conferences and also listened to what the girls had to say about their new and unusual coach.
What staggered me most back then was one of the girls saying that it was the first time that she enjoyed coming to Romania's training sessions without dealing with constant fear and pressure. The team's former coach, Gheorghe Tadici, was well known for having temper issues, yelling frequently at his players and building up an image of a kind of dictator over the years.
Things have changed drastically since the time Ryde joined. Even from outside the team, one can sense that he brought a breath of badly-needed fresh air to the squad. This is the point where I would have said "I can only assume that the atmosphere inside the team is even more remarkable," but I don't need to. It can clearly be seen each and every time the girls play, train or talk to the press.
Ryde is slowly teaching the girls how to enjoy what they do, building their confidence in a fun, modern way. At the Carpați Trophy Brazil, the current World Champions, agreed to have a unique training session together with the Romanian team. Witnessing this was special. The players seemed to be over the moon with how things were going. The girls from Romania and Brazil hugged each other, shared laughs and ideas, and the coaches shared their plans and made it a training session to remember. Romania even won against Brazil the following days, surrounded by an unseen-before atmosphere created by 7,200 souls.
Every coach on the planet should know how to teach his players basic things regarding the sport they play, but it takes some special people to change things for the better when you already have world-class players in your team. This is what Ryde has done to Romania. He showed the girls a new, altogether different way to train, to enjoy themselves and each other's company.
Compared to his predecessors, Ryde had - and still has - a huge disadvantage. He barely knew his players. Of course, he has managed to learn a whole lot about them and knew some things to start with about our special players like Cristina Neagu just by watching European handball, but he pretty much had to start from scratch with everything. In my opinion this could have actually helped. He carefully watched each and every contender play and picked the best team to face Serbia for the World Championship Play-Off. "I don't know these players so well - what's happening in their mind, in their heart in these games. I think it takes about 25 games before you are really connected with the other players," he said.
He shows the girls how handball is being taught up in Northern Europe, where it thrives and has done so for quite some time now. Ryde is constantly insisting that the girls should talk more. On the court, in training, communication between the members of the team is held in high regard. He told them to offer their team-mates feedback as much as they can, putting them in their coaches shoes.
Recently, the girls were literally turned into coaches for a practice game in one of their training sessions. „The players are really cooperating very well in these tactical ways. This has happened on the court. They take great decisions and they have to practice to take the decisions," he said.
Right now, the decisive game against Serbia is two days away. Romania has won the first match of the tie by a difference of six goals, and is just 60 minutes away from qualifying. Today, a press conference was held, and Ryde standing there in front of all the Romanian journalists was a joy to listen to.
To start things off, he was as confident as one can be in such a moment, with a match just around the corner and expectations set very high. His confidence, in turn, gives the players confidence and the necessary ambition to succeed. You don't always hear coaches, when asked by their own PR man what the match will be about, say "I know clearly what it's going to be about - we are going to win the game," and then just casually wait the next question. He afterwards started discussing tactics - Romania's and Serbia's too - and as he was talking away for what appeared to be 4-5 minutes without any kind of interruption, one had to sense that this was a man that knew what he was talking about.
I asked him what the squad problems he is facing are and if there are new injuries besides Paula Ungureanu's. "I am not thinking about problems. I am thinking at new solutions," he told me without actually taking too much time to think. Eventually, in his nordic-accent, he told me how the lunch meeting went today: "The lunch meeting is three players, they have announced for me that they are not going to play Saturday. Some of these players will not play, and these 19 players I have are really, really good. I have some problems with Oana [Manea], I have some problems with Melinda [Geiger]. If I'm thinking about problems..."
"We have people, physios, that are working with them. Then, I have a squad. I just play with them. Give me seven players from this country and I shall play with these seven players against Serbia. That's the way to handle it, because we cannot focus on who cannot play. It's about who can play, and I prepare these players the best way that I ever can."
Now that's an answer!
A further insight about his way of thinking can be grasped from this remark that he had, regarding Ungureanu's injury in Serbia: "What happened when Paula was injured was that the whole team was taking care of Paula. But our mission was taking care of the game. We have two people that are responsible of taking care of injuries. It's about keeping focus. Try to keep the focus all the time."
Ryde's contract with the Romanian Handball Federation will end after the return game against Serbia. The delicate subject was touched in the press conference as well, and Ryde's reaction was once again a great one.
He said: "Going to this arena and playing against Brazil... This arena was filled up with people. The feeling I had that night with the spectators, with you and the players, it was... We're talking about pride, about fair-play, about a sport that is very attractive to people. It's a great feeling. I want to be in that area. When I went into the arena in Serbia, once hour before the game, we had 400 fans. They didn't. I got some goosebumps on my hand. I thought 'handball is so great in Romania.' We should continue to do this trip."
I have no idea what Ryde's salary is, but I'm pretty sure the Federation emptied much of their pockets to get this deal done. They shouldn't regret it, and it looks as though they don't.
President Alexandru Dedu, also present at the press conference, had this to say: "The arena here in Cluj, the biggest in Romania, will be filled up by 7,200 spectators for the third time. We are getting used to this, but these things are not the kind that are done just like this... Behind them there is hard work, a strategy and people who are making sure these things happen. You will see what 7,200 people mean Saturday, and also a full arena on Sunday at Reșița [where the men will play against Italy]. Tomas has touched on the fact that we had a lot of supporters in Serbia. These things happen because we are beginning to organize ourselves."
"I will say this loud and clear: Romanian handball has everything it needs to achieve great things. We have players, we have coaches, we have fans, we have talent. We only need to organize better and I think we can have much better results in the near future. We mustn't get used to these things, because they are not normal things you come across everyday here in Romania."
"For me, Tomas Ryde is a certainty."
"I have no problem in risking as long as I know that I only tried to do good things. You all know that bringing Ryde to the Women's National Team was a big risk. It is highly important to qualify, in order to make a name of this team."
Well, that's settled, it seems. Ryde will extend his contract. Or is he? I hope he is, because this man has brought something new and invaluable to the team and at the same time Romanian sports. In a perfect world, everyone should profit from the lesson he is teaching us.
Did you know that Romania is the only team in the world that has participated in all the World Championships held to date? Sure is a nice statistic. It would be a pity to stop now. But the girls, and Ryde, will make sure that will not happen.