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The national team of Japan. Picture: Federation

Group C: Japan - Thinking creatively

„I’m still a bit jet-lagged. But someday I’ll probably get used to it”, says Ulrik Kirkely, who commutes between Denmark and Japan. Since June 2017 the Dane is coach of the Japanese national team which participates in the World Championship in Germany in December. But his deployment in Far East is nothing new to him. “I’ve been men’s coach in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia between 2009 and 2012. We played against the Japanese at the Asian Championship every time. Since then, I have a good connection to their federation which I maintained during my time as Danish co-trainer. When I quit at the national team of Denmark, Japan made me an offer. My contract runs until 2020 and a lot of exciting projects are lying ahead”, so Kirkely.

The World Championship in Germany is meant to be only the first step in a long and hopefully successful journey for his Japanese team. “We are hosting the World Championship in 2019 and only half a year later the Olympic Games take place in Tokyo.  This will be a spectacle for sure”, says the 45-year-old.

The first training session with the best Japanese players happened a long time ago and he his biggest goals are clearly defined: “First of all we need to train our physique. We are physically inferior to the European teams. In addition, I want my players to come to Europe to play handball. But most important is for the players to drop the Japanese politeness in international matches, otherwise we have no chance”, laughs the coach.

Handball is quite popular In Japan. “Of course the martial arts are coming first. But there are a lot of handball players and quite a strong league. The best teams are able to compete with the lower third of the German league. Almost all the players are semi-professionals. There are a lot of company teams where the players are working in the morning and training in the afternoon. The training level is very good. They often train harder than in Europe. But the physique of the Asian women thwarts our plans, explains Kirkely.

The Dane has a strategy for the World Championship and the following tasks: We don’t need to focus on what we can’t do, instead we need to know our opportunities. We have to try to create a different handball which can take the better teams by surprise.”

Even though he has quite a young team, the federation demands results. “Everybody in Japan knows that we compete as an underdog. But if we can win the tight games and maybe beat one of the European teams, we have hopes to reach the round of sixteen. That is our goal. But in contrast to the other teams we can’t compensate an “off-day””. The Japanese are playing a rough group with Russia, Denmark, Brazil, Montenegro and Tunisia. That’s why the preparation in Japan starts at the 9th November.

“In Japan we are a bit spoiled with regard to training courses. We have 100 days a year on average. We only need to use them properly”, so Kirkely.