A ticket to Cologne as a farewell gift?
When Raul Alonso was a kid, he was ball boy for his club TEKA Santander and witnessed a magician on court at home matches: Talant Dujshebaev, who was the key to Santander becoming the first ever winner of the Men’s EHF Champions League. Alonso’s youth team coach was Manolo Cadenas — and decades later, Alonso, Dujshebaev and Cadenas were part of the same competition again: the EHF Champions League.
At the age of 16, Alonso’s family moved to Germany, and at 25, he became coach of a second division team in Germany, Obernburg — the home club of triple EHF Champions League winner Dominik Klein.
Alonso and Klein ended up crossing paths for many years: After coaching a women’s Bundesliga club, Alonso went to THW Kiel to become youth coordinator, youth coach and then assistant to Alfred Gislason. “Alfred was my teacher. I learnt so much from Alfred,” Alonso says today.
After some years at Austrian club HC Tyrol, Alonso received a call from Cadenas. The former coach of the Spanish national team, Leon and Plock had taken the reigns at Meshkov Brest in 2018 — and his mission was clear: bring the Belarusian side closer to the top of Europe.
When Cadenas announced to return to Spain, where he is now coaching Ademar Leon again parallel to the Argentina national team, Meshkov promoted Alonso from assistant to head coach. After some time to adapt and missing the knockout stage of the halted EHF Champions League 2019/20, Meshkov has put the pedal to the metal since last summer.
“We are in the middle of the most successful season in the club’s history, and we dream on and on. We have made a tremendous progress over the past three years. This season we can boast of historical results — victories over the best clubs in Europe and getting into the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Meshkov is part of the elite in the world of handball,” says Alonso.
This season, Meshkov became national champions for the 13th time, beat teams such as PSG in the group phase, drew with group winners Flensburg and then defeated their neighbours Motor from Zaporozhye to make it to Brest’s first ever quarter-final in the EHF Champions League.
“The victory against PSG and the play-offs against Motor were perfect examples of the development of the team. In previous seasons we would have lost or get eliminated, but now we are stronger, thanks to some exceptional players such as Stas Skube and Mikita Vailupau,” says Alonso.
“We lost the first leg at Zaporozhye, but you could see that we were already the better team. Finally, the first 10 minutes in the second leg were enough to proceed to the quarter-finals. On home ground, everything is possible for us.”
Alonso will face his country-fellows from Barcelona in what is his first venture among the top eight teams in Europe.
“I was born in Madrid, so there is a special relationship to Barcelona, and my assistant coach Sebastian Salvat was even born in Barcelona. But to be honest, this club has imprinted handball like no other. Barça were a class of its own when I was young. We, at Santander, always fought hard with them, but from a certain point, they had been better. I have full respect for this club and mainly their outstanding coach Xavi Pascual — but still, we can hope for the icing on the cake: the ticket to Cologne, to the EHF FINAL4.”
Alonso believes that the team can cause a surprise, though Meshkov will have to replace two crucial players: left back Alexander Shkurinskyi and defence specialist Artsiom Selvasiuk. Both are ruled out with torn cruciate ligaments. “They are extremely important on both ends of the court, but we will have to fight even more if we want to have a chance.”
Alonso and his team hope for the ‘Victoria effect’, as the Victoria arena will be almost full of spectators next Wednesday against Barcelona. “Our fans cause a very special atmosphere. Though the arena only fits 3,700, it sounds like 8,000. They stand as one behind us, but first we have to deliver as a team before we get the reward of the fans,” the Spanish coach says, who combines German-Spanish handball with a multicultural team.
If Meshkov do not make it to the EHF FINAL4, the quarter-finals will be Alonso’s international farewell from Brest. “After three very stressful and difficult years away from home in Belarus, it is time to go back to my family, to my wife in Germany," says the Spanish coach. “Meshkov wanted to extend my contract, but it was clear to me that after three very successful the time had come.”
Alonso does not unveil the secret of what his new job will be, only saying, “the time has come to see handball from a different perspective.”
But before leaving, the aim is to continue Meshkov history — and Alonso praises his club and the leadership for giving him the chance in 2019: “I have to thank Alexander Meshkov for the opportunity to lead such a unique project. I say thank you for believing in my ideas and ability to manage a team of the highest level. Now I am looking forward to the final stretch of the season. There are still a few big matches ahead and we want to give our best.”
And maybe the circle will close in Cologne, where Alonso won the EHF Champions League twice as assistant coach with THW Kiel.
We are in the middle of the most successful season in the club’s history, and we dream on and on. This season we can boast of historical results — victories over the best clubs in Europe and getting into the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Meshkov is part of the elite in the world of handball.