‘The biggest handball event of the last decade’: head coach Ricardo Vasconcelos speaks ahead of huge GB vs Kosovo tie

Great Britain Men take on Kosovo next month in the EHF European Qualifier – Promotion Round Phase One, in what’s set to be an historic day for handball in this country.

It’s being described as the “biggest handball event of the last decade”, not least because it’s the first time in history that GB has reached this stage of the competition.

Throwing off on January 13th at Derby Arena, the game sees the British Handball Association host their second international match in a matter of weeks – following on from Finland’s visit to Scotland back in November for the World Championship Qualifying match.

And with January’s game coming after a hugely successful few years for the GB team, we sat down with Head Coach Ricardo Vasconcelos – who is also England Handball Association’s Head of Performance to talk about preparations, the significance of this game – and what’s next for our talented team. 

Ricardo, how much work has gone into preparing for this game?

In a couple of words – a lot! This process has never just been a couple of months. This is a holistic process that started eight years ago. I’d say we’re about halfway through, so there’s a long way to go.

It began in 2016 when we began exposing players to this level of competition. At that time, we also started investing in and ramping up our work in things like better sports science, strength and conditioning, training methods and more.

That’s as well as increased support from the board, and subsequently the incredible development of our talent pathways. 

I also can’t overstate how hard the players have been working in training – for their clubs and country – to ensure the sport in this country is better than it’s ever been. 

But let’s be real – this is an ongoing process. This isn’t an end point – nowhere near, in fact.  It’s just one more step in the right direction. The goal was always to progress to a stage where we could aim to achieve qualification.

What will happen if GB beat Kosovo – and what will it mean for handball in this country? 

If we win the match, which is over two legs, we go to Phase Two of European Qualification, a group stage in which we will be seeded with three other nations. We’ll then play those teams home and away – and the top two from that group will qualify for the European Championships. 

It would mean being seeded alongside the best teams in the world and represents a huge step forward for us. We know Kosovo is one level ahead of us in the rankings, but it’s a level we want to reach. 

Beating them will be tremendously difficult, but these are the kind of games we need to play if we’re going to reach that level and sustain it once we’re there. It’s the first time we’ve been here, but we are hopeful we can deliver a good result. If we play our best, it’s anyone’s game. Being at home will be an advantage and we hope we can get a great crowd behind us.

What’s so important about this game? 

It’s huge – and represents the first time the GB squad has reached this stage of the competition. Getting to the Promotional Round in January in Baku was historic, but now we’re just one step away from Phase Two – it’s so, so exciting. 

It may sound strange to say, but it’s much more important than the handball itself. The result is very, very important of course, but there’s more to it than that. 

This is the kind of event that hasn’t taken place in GB since the Olympics in 2012. It’s a huge opportunity to continue building the legacy of the sport, showcase our progress and bring together our handball family in an event that represents the pinnacle of what our handball development should be and what we’re aiming towards. 

We’re hoping this kickstarts something special for us – and propels us on our way to sustainable, long-term success. 

Are you optimistic for the future of British Handball? 

The sky’s the limit! We must put our situation in the context that we’re different to the so-called main nations – we are a developing nation. But we understand and are excited about the potential we’ve got. We also recognise that with the right support, we can be whatever we want to be. 

We have the demographics; we just don’t have the profile and the awareness that other nations do. 

If we can get those resources, that support, we will be as good as anyone else. Remember, 30 years ago France was a ‘B’ nation. It’s now one of the best in the world. The Netherlands 15 years ago was nowhere to be found. They’re now medalling in the Olympics, getting to finals and more.  

They both have consistent support behind them. That’s what we’re asking for – support and patience. With the help of UK Sport and Sport England, we could achieve that. There is a blueprint there. We can do it as well.

How excited are you for the game?

Extremely excited! Following on from our match against Finland, we’ve now had a taste for it – playing at home with our own fans was such a terrific experience for the team. 

This time, it’s on a Saturday afternoon in a brilliant location, which will hopefully bring many more fans to the stadium. We’re also inviting along all 200 young players from our Talent Pathway to the game. It’s going to be something this crop of players has never experienced before, and we’re super excited to do it! 

How has England Handball contributed to GB’s success? 

Many of the players in the GB squad have come through England Handball’s Talent Pathways, so the success is testament to the great development going on not only here, but also in Scotland and around Wales and the regions. 

As we’re inviting every young person on our Talent Pathway along to the match, it’s also an amazing opportunity for them to see the first team in action, aspire and benchmark themselves – and of course dream about being in the same position at some point in future.

GB vs Kosovo throws off at 1pm on Saturday, 13th January 2024 at Derby Arena.

Tickets cost £10 for adults, £5 for students and free for children. Hospitality packages are also available. 

For more information and to buy, click here.