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This is me: Raul Gonzalez

A former Spain international, Raul Gonzalez was part of the team which took Spain to their first Olympic medal at Atlanta 1996 and their first EHF EURO medal at Spain 1996. After retirement, he spent a decade serving as an assistant coach, only to emerge as one of the top masterminds in handball, securing the Champions League trophy in 2017 with Vardar.

THIS IS ME: Raul Gonzalez

The story starts in the Spanish city of Valladolid, at a school called San Viator. You probably might not have heard about it before this, so I will try and explain it to you. It was a different age, when everybody was playing a sport, when gadgets were not available. Somewhere around the early 1980s.

It was either football or handball here and everybody was having fun playing these sports. Many of my friends were into handball, so I had to make a decision. Despite football being more popular, the attraction of handball was bigger. So, this was the decision that shaped my life and made me who I am now.

I liked it. I liked this sport, I felt attracted to it, I never thought this was going to be my life. Back then, there was no pressure, no problems, it was just about having fun with my friends, just trying to get on the court and play. 

Yes, you will probably ask me: well, in the back of your mind, you probably knew you were going to become a handball player and a handball coach, it was all written down, it was always going to be like this. Let me answer this question: no, I did not think about this when I was in San Viator. It was just a means of having fun, it was something natural, we were just playing as kids and trying to take it one step at a time.

It was not about trying to convert somebody to handball, it was just about having fun and playing handball just helped a young guy fill his time. But just like that, time started to fly, and I was playing more and more handball. Therefore, I just went on with it. I might have noticed it or not, but my destiny was already written: handball was going to be my life.

I spent my playing career featuring for the team of the city I was born in – Valladolid. It is a handball-mad city, the team was always supported by fans and it was quite a good team. In fact, one of my favourite memories as a player – let’s call it the best at club level – was when we won the Spanish Cup in 2003.

It was such a big surprise, we eliminated a powerhouse in Ciudad Real in the semi-finals and then we went on and played against Barça in the final. These were amazing games, with very, very, very strong sides – I cannot even stress that enough – and we still won it, I remember that the final was very close, it was decided by a single goal.

Back then, Spain had the toughest and most balanced league in the world and the level was truly impressive. I am proud to have played there and I even made enough to have my shirt – the number 14 shirt which I wore my entire career – retired at Valladolid.

It is a huge honour and whenever I come back to my home city, the place where I grew and where I have spent many, many years, it fills my heart with joy. I am always fond of the memories, because those have been some of the greatest years of my life, therefore I am always happy to see that.

But bear in mind that I was not one of the best players in the world. I am saying that with a clear head and I am the first one to acknowledge it. In fact, when I got the first call up for the Spain national team, I was a bit surprised. I was 25 years old and I was not scoring a lot of goals, I was a role player – if you want to describe me like this – I was a facilitator, a team player. However, back then, Spain was starting to get really, really good at handball.

But few would have expected to win a medal at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games. Not me, personally, it was a huge surprise. And this is another fond memory, one of the best in my career. Having been part of the team that won the first Olympic medal for Spain was something huge, was something amazing. Something that I never thought would happen to me.

Another medal was the one at the EHF EURO 1996, a silver medal, so here in Spain, we really picked up the pace and started to get even better and better. It was in the national team where I met Talant Dujshebaev, and we forged a great friendship. One of the relationships that really changed my life and made me the coach I am now.

Because, yes, the playing career, albeit 15-20 years for many players now, is quite short. And one day, you find yourself in a conundrum – what will you do for the rest of your life? Some decide to stay in handball, others decide to quit the sport altogether. I decided that the former scenario is the best one for me.

It might be different for everybody, but I just knew I was going to be a coach. I think I was cut for it, therefore I was already planning my moves and setting up the foundation for this since I was in the zenith of the playing career. At 35 years old, I decided to call it quits. But what was I going to do?

I am a believer in doing things the right way and not cutting corners. Therefore, I went back to the basics and starting coaching youth teams. Then, I got an interesting call: Talant, who was the coach at Ciudad Real, asked me if I was going to be an assistant.

Sure, many would have said no and cut their teeth as head coaches as other teams. But with Talant, who was a good friend, and had an interesting project at this powerhouse, it was different. I knew I had a lot to learn and the basics were excellent, it was always going to be an interesting ride.

There were plenty of excellent results there, at Ciudad Real, who later rebranded as Atletico Madrid and I have learnt a lot from that period, working closely with Talant as an assistant coach. It was an excellent experience, a humbling experience, I am very proud of what we achieved there between 2005 and 2013.

But after this chapter ended, it was time to go my own way. So in 2014, I took over Vardar, which proved to be another amazing experience for me, as a coach. This time, as a head coach, because I accepted the challenge, it was time to lead a team.

Well, I have told you that my call up for the Spain national team as a player was a surprise. Therefore, I was a bit used to surprises and things going the right way and in Vardar, in Skopje, this was just something that was clicking. In 2016, we were eliminated just before the EHF FINAL4 by Flensburg.

So next season, we took it up a notch. It was a magnificent performance; it was just something out of story books. We had a very good season and in Cologne, we won against Barça and PSG by a single goal. I do not know how to describe the feeling, even now, six years later.

We were not the favourites, we were a bit of a surprise package, but we had done it. We were Champions League winners. And in North Macedonia? It was bedlam, it was total madness, the share on TV was 90 per cent. Nine in 10 people who had the TV on at the moment of the final against PSG were watching us.

I was also a coach of the North Macedonia national team and I know how much handball means for them. When we came back to Skopje, over 100,000 people were on the streets to greet us and celebrate with us. It was something amazing, I can say with my hand on my heart that North Macedonian fans are the best in the world – the way they support their team, the passion they have for the sport and for their idols, it is unprecedented.

But you know, the life of a coach is quite unpredictable. Things change fast. So, after one more season in Skopje, I had a decision to make. The call came from PSG and it was hard to say no. It is a very well organised club, with big pressure, part of a big family, of a football club, so things are tough.

Being here since 2018 has been a dream and I do not have the words to describe how excellent everything is, really top conditions. It is a coach’s dream, especially when you have so many professional players, it is a lot easier, because all work for the same goal, they know what they have to do, both on the court and in the training sessions.

Of course, we want to win the Champions League again, but it is always very difficult, the opponents are stronger and stronger and handball, well, has changed a lot.

Maybe I got a bit boring with my life story, but I want to tell you one last thing. Remember, I have told you how I started handball and how there were no gadgets, no phones, no tablets back then. Right now, it is different. The world has changed and handball has changed a lot from the time I was in school or at the time I was sealing an Olympic medal.

Everything has changed. The pace of the sport, the schedule, the games, the shirts the player use, everything. I might be a bit nostalgic about those times, but this is just the way life is. We are living in a fast-paced world and it could not have been different with handball. Of course, we all have to adapt.

Mentally, it is a bit more difficult. But I have a belief that wins have to be celebrated with moderation and losses have to be treated the same. Because, you know, the next game comes. Every time, a new game comes and you have to be prepared. Like I have been my entire life.

Because, I must say… Man, it has been a hell of a ride and I would not change it for anything else. I love handball like I used to love it as a kid and it has given me everything. 

Raul Gonzalez
March 2023

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