Interview with Irish Olympic Handball captain Alexander Kulesh
By Gerard Mulreaney (@gerardmulreaney)
The Irish Olympic Men’s handball team will be participating in the 3rd edition of the IHF (International Handball Federation) Emerging Nations Championship, which will be held in the Georgian capital Tblisi, from the 8th to the 16th of June.
This is the third time that Ireland will participate in the competition, having finished 13th in 2015 and 12th in 2017. When the draw was made Ireland were drawn in Group B, along with the hosts Georgia, Bulgaria, Malta, USA and Nigeria.
When Irish people think of handball as a sport they conjure up images of two players running around a 40x20 alley hitting a small ball off a wall, however on this occasion it’s Olympic handball that we’re talking about. Olympic Handball is played by two teams of seven players who pass the ball using their hands with the aim of throwing it into the goal of the other team. A standard match consists of two periods of 30 minutes, and the team that scores most goals wins.
The Irish team are coached by Russian native Roman Abramenko, since March 2015. Abramenko played for numerous clubs in Europe throughout his career.
Ireland took part in the EHF (European Handball Federation) Euro Qualifiers in Luxembourg in January, where they faced the hosts along with Bulgaria and Great Britain. They lost the opening encounter 35-18 to Luxembourg before a heart-breaking defeat to neighbours Great Britain 32-26 the following day. Unfortunately for the Boys in Green they also fell to a defeat in their final game to Bulgaria, by a scoreline of 35-28.
This week I spoke to Ireland captain Alexander Kulesh (pictured above) after the draw was made and he said, “We’ve been put into a very tough group with the hosts Georgia, who are the favourites for this competition, and a USA team that has recently gotten a big push to become competitive for the Olympics in Los Angeles in 2028. I think Bulgaria and Malta are games to target, and we really don’t know what to expect from Nigeria.”
Kulesh has being playing handball since he was a child, and currently plays the game in Denmark, for 3rd Division side Nørrebro. He explains the journey, “I started playing handball when I was 12, because at that age you just play every sport you can to burn off energy. Luckily I got involved with North Kildare Handball Club, which has been a factory for Irish handball players over the last 10 years. They currently have 5 senior team players and the bulk of the under 18, and ladies national team players coming from the small catchment area in Maynooth, Celbridge and Leixlip.”
“After North Kildare I played, and ran the UCD handball club. Last year I moved to Denmark for work and personal reasons, the country of the current world champions, and traditionally seen as the home of handball. Now I play for Nørrebro in the 3rd division.”
In Ireland, the Dublin International Handball Club have dominated the local scene, and have recently claimed their 10th domestic title. I asked Alexander how big a step up is it to International level?
“International handball is a huge step in competition where we regularly play teams filled with fully professional players based around Europe. Thankfully our national squad also has a lot of players playing in top handball playing countries around Europe. In some cases players like me, who grew up in Ireland and moved abroad, but also players with Irish citizenship who grew up in countries like Denmark and Germany. This mix of Irish based players and foreign based players really helps us compete at a higher level.”
Alexander spoke about the highlight of his career in the green jersey, “The highlight for me has been seeing how this team has grown. We’ve reached a completely different level of professionalism, along with physical ability and handball ability, and that change has been almost fully driven by the players.”
“The results we achieved in the last couple of years, winning games against Malta and Albania in the last Emerging Nationals competition, were real signs of progress. And competing against semi-professional set-ups like Luxembourg and Bulgaria would have been wild dreams for us 8 years ago. The fact that we were disappointed with our results in January speaks volumes about the ambition and capability of this team.”
He’s extremely passionate about his role as leader of the team,
“I lead the team with my heart, and I put my body on the line every time I go out. Knowing that the players beside me are doing the same really motivates me.”
After the disappointment of the EURO qualifiers in Luxembourg Kulesh is thankful for another opportunity in Georgia, “The January results were a set back for us especially because we could have achieved results against both Bulgaria and GB but thankfully we get another bash at it this June.”
“I think a top 8 result is not out of the question for us, but in tournaments like these more often than not it is the team who survives the physical onslaught of playing 7 games in 9 days that does best. Two years ago our squad was decimated with injuries as the tournament went on, including a dislocated shoulder for me, but we are definitely prepared much better this time around. I think it’s important for us to continue our improvement and back it up with results this time around.”
It will be interesting to see if that will be the case.
Picture Credits: Irish Olympic Handball Association