Gustavsson: “Icelanders will never lose their work ethic”
Back in Iceland with his wife and their three children, Björgvin Pall Gustavsson has been using the ongoing handball break caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to build his own gym at home.
His Olympic jersey from the 2008 Beijing Games is hanging on the wall, as an additional motivation for the goalkeeper when training.
“It’s a good memory. During workouts it is good to be remembered of the past,” Gustavsson, who turned 35 recently, told Chris O’Reilly in the latest star player interview on the EHF EURO Instagram page.
The Olympics in 2008 and the EHF EURO in 2010, which has been in the spotlight on the EHF EURO social media channels this week, mark a glorious period for the Icelandic men’s national team - and Gustavsson was a key part of it.
He was just 23 when he starred at the Olympics in Beijing.
"Silver at the Olympics was a pretty good start"
“That was my first tournament. To start off with a silver medal in the Olympics is a pretty good start,” Gustavsson said about his first major event in the national team dress. “I was still very young for a goalkeeper, but I came into an awesome team which made it easier.”
Started only as outside contenders, Iceland worked their way through the tournament until they suddenly were in with a chance to win a medal.
Part of the success were new tactics applied by the team.
“We played a training game against Poland before the tournament and we developed a new kind of defence strategy,” Gustavsson said. “When we got the medal by beating Spain in the semi-final, that was our biggest victory, of course.”
Only tournament favourites France managed to keep Iceland away from the gold medal, winning the final 28:23.
"Our work ethic is above normal"
But just tactics could not fully explain how a nation with less than 400,000 inhabitants managed to take a handball medal home from Beijing.
“We Icelanders don’t live from being the best handball players, but our work ethic is above normal. We stick together, we work hard,” Gustavsson said. “We are always optimistic. It’s not only about the talent but also about the emotions and the work ethic and we will never lose that.”
In the summer of 2008, up to 90 percent of the people back home got up in the middle of the night to watch the Icelandic team in action in China.
“The national handball team was a big role model in Iceland,” Gustavsson said. “When you know that people got up at four in the night to watch our handball games, it gives you more energy for the upcoming games.”
The team didn’t waste much time to follow up on their Olympic achievement. While they failed to qualify for the Word Championship in 2009, they were back at the very top the following year.
Iceland arrived in Austria at the EHF EURO 2010 with high expectations - not just from the team itself.
However, the start to the preliminary round was rather disappointing, with two draws against Serbia and Austria in their first two matches and the toughest opponents, Denmark, still waiting.
"For the first time in history we were favourites in a handball game"
“We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. For the first time in history we were favourites in handball games: we should win, we should go for a medal...,” Gustavsson said. “But after two draws, we were with our backs against the wall with the big game against Denmark coming up.”
Especially the 37:37 draw against the hosts turned out to be an unforgettable experience for the goalkeeper.
“Against Austria we were three goals in front with one minute left but still managed to get only a draw,” Gustavsson said. “This game is always on mind. It keeps me on my toes, even in games where we are leading by 10 goals with five minutes left. It keeps me thinking: everything is possible in handball.”
Iceland successfully navigated their way past Denmark (27:22) in the final game of this group and went on to finish the main round as runners-up to Croatia to make it to the semi-final again.
Unfortunately, they ran into France once more, 17 months after losing the Olympic final to them.
“If you look at that French squad, they were just unbeatable at that moment, also at the 2008 Olympics,” Gustavsson said. “It was hard to compete against them on the same level. We felt that France were probably the best team of all time.”
Iceland went down 36:28 against France but returned to the court in Vienna the next day to beat Poland 29:26 in the EHF EURO 2010 bronze medal match.
“That was one of our best games,” the goalkeeper said. “We knew before this game that it was going to be in the history books: two medals at two tournaments in a row, we built a legacy for Icelandic handball players for upcoming years.”
"At the moment I am in a better place than I have ever been"
While Gustavsson has remained a part of the Iceland national team and is enjoying a successful international club career, with stints in Schaffhausen, Magdeburg and Skjern among others, he has not just developed as an athlete.
Recently he published a book about his personal struggle with mental health issues over the last couple of years, and he has studied the impact of breathing on one’s well-being.
“This book is about my hard past and how I fought back. At the moment I am in a better place than I have ever been,” Gustavsson said.
The goalkeeper isn’t considering retirement yet, but for family reasons (“I want to be a perfect dad”) he won’t add another 10 years to his professional handball career.
“I am still a young goalkeeper, I still have a few more years,” Gustavsson said. “I think I can still become a better goalkeeper, and a better person, every single day.”