For a long time now, Russian men’s handball has been synonymous with Vladimir Maksimov, but after the ‘modest’ results in EURO 2012 the 66-year old decided that it was time to retire permanently. After a good career as a player, which included the gold medals in the 1976 Olympics, he was coaching the men’s national team during a very successful period. Indeed, one could say that the Russians were a dominating team in the 1990s, becoming both World Champions and European Champions, with the gold medals at the 2000 Olympics as a culmination.
But thereafter the Russian machine sputtered, despite bronze medals in 2004 and the insertion of several talented younger players. In fact, Maksimov already gave way briefly for other coaches twice, but he was almost immediately brought back again. In recent years, it was common to hear Maksimov get the blame for the decline, and there was whispering to the effect that he had ‘outlived himself’ as a coach at the top level. But I think it is also fair to say that many international critics were misled by the earlier successes and have not realized that handball is in fact not really a major sport in Russia, with unlimited resources and a steady supply of large numbers of players at the youth level.
If anything, Maksimov probably got too little credit for getting so much out of a difficult situation. He was heard lamenting that the promised support had not been forthcoming despite the many successes that he and his teams had brought to Russian sport. And he had a personal image of a ‘big grunting bear’ who was not very approachable, and this may also have brought him less appreciation than he deserved. In my experience, he was always very serious and respectful in dealing with people around him. It may have seemed he was tough on his players, but he was always sportsmanlike and never got into the habit of provoking or complaining in a conspicuous way. At the most, a resigned gesture or a wry smile could be seen, when he wanted to get agreement with his opinion of a decision from the referees.
Several former top players had been mentioned as candidates to replace Maksimov. One of the most familiar faces (or should I say wing spans) was that of Dmitri Torgovanov, the former world-class pivot who is now coaching St. Petersburg HC. Other rumors suggested that Alexander Rymanov or Nikolai Tsigarev might be the anointed one. But a few days ago it was announced that the Russian Handball Union had voted in favor of Oleg Kuleshov as a narrow winner over Rymanov. Apparently, as is the process in Russia, what is now missing is the formal endorsement by the Ministry of Sports.
The 37-year old Kuleshov had a strong career as a player, doing no less than 123 international matches for Russia. He was on the Olympic team in 1996 and 2004, but he missed out on being part of the gold medal squad in 2000. At the club level he spent many years playing for SC Magdeburg, including the season when they won the EHF Champions League. He has recently been a coach for HF Springe, a top team in the 3rd Bundesliga. He would be expected to bring in a new group of coaches and managers to work with him, creating a new leadership generation in charge of the Russian men’s team. Let us see of this will turn the recent decline around!