Daniel Costantini — not just a top coach but also a model of sportsmanship

Last week the IHF announced the results of the public voting on the question: ‘Who is the best handball coach ever?’ http://www.ihf.info/MediaCenter/News/NewsDetails/tabid/130/Default.aspx?ID=452 This follows voting on ‘the player of the decade’, ‘the best player ever’ etc. The winners often gain rather narrow victories, because most voters have quite personal and different reasons for their choice. So it was rather astounding when it turned out that Daniel Costantini (FRA) got no less than 88% of the votes. The IHF had only four predetermined candidates, but all of them are quite prominent: Bengt Johansson (SWE) who was the runner-up, Igor Turtjkin (UKR) and Ioan Kunst-Ghermanescu (ROU).

Bengt Johansson was clearly a major reason for many years of top performances by the Swedish team, with an emphasis on his ability to create real team spirit. Bengt and I have remained friends since my early years of refereeing when he was still a player. I knew also ‘Jonny’ Kunst from an early stage, and I had many friendly encounters with him over the years, until the hours before his untimely death while a guest at the World Championships in Kumamoto 1997. He was a valued IHF contributor and together with his compatriot, Nico Nedeff, he was the driving force behind a period of Romanian dominance. Igor Turtjkin was a legend at both the club level and with the national team, and his influence on women’s handball was enormous. My personal involvement with Igor included being a referee in the only USA-USSR game ever that USA managed to win, right here in Washington D.C. back in 1988. Igor’s face was not a happy one…

When I was wondering about the reasons for Daniel Costantini’s huge margin of victory, it occurred to me of course that two of his three rivals were really from an earlier generation and might not be so well known to younger voters. But I really sensed that I also knew another reason. There can easily be debates around the technical/tactical skills of coaches and their influence on their teams. But what might be more obvious and undisputed to spectators, media, opponents, and certainly referees, is the personality and attitude of a coach. And Daniel was always the consummate gentleman: calm and supportive, without any provocations or nasty remarks. So I am quite confident that this has contributed in a major way to a wide-spread recognition of his positive influence on the game.

Just a small example from a hectic situation: World Championship final in Bercy, Paris, in 2001, in a tight game against Sweden (with Bengt Johansson). The French team was in the habit of substituting one player every time they went from offense to defense, and it was always the same player going in without having to be told. But on one occasion it suddenly occurred to Daniel Constantini to send in [u]also another player[/u] on defense. As IHF delegate, it was my task to interrupt the game with a whistle and to tell the referees that the French player had to be given a 2-minute penalty. I could already anticipate the crowd reaction and the ‘increased temperature’ in the game. But this is when Daniel showed his class: with a simple gesture he pointed to himself and bowed, acknowledging that it was his fault and that he wanted to apologize to both his team and the French fans. The game continued without any added emotion and France won in the end.

But Daniel Costantini also has a nice sense of humor. During the same World Championship, in the preliminary group where France played, the French cuisine did not live up to its reputation. Almost the entire IHF delegation got food poisoning. On the final day in the group, only two out of four pairs of referees could get out of bed, and we had three matches. So obviously the same couple had to have the first and the last match. Prior to the last match, where France luckily played an easy opponent, I joked with Daniel: “please have some extra sympathy for the referees today, because it is their [u]second[/u] match!” The match turned out to be even more one-sided than expected, so we were quite surprised when Daniel came up to the table right when the clock switched to 15:00. With a smile he put the ‘green card’ on the table, thus requesting a time-out and said: “for the referees!” With these few examples I hope I have been able to underscore that the voters selected a coach, a man, who is really a worthy winner!

P.S. Just a little hint to the IHF, one that I might regret: after all the voting for players and coaches, what about having a vote about the best referee couple ever!!?? (Of course, the risk is that those old friends who do not win will no longer be so happy with me…)