ZVENIGOROD, Russia (Reuters) - Yevgeny Trefilov freely admits he is a throwback to a bygone era when Soviet coaches ruled their players with a rod of iron and helped to make the country a sporting superpower.
As Russia struggle to match the achievements of the former Soviet Union in many sports, Trefilov, coach of the national women’s handball team, has a track record many of his peers can only dream of.
Led by their charismatic boss, the Russians have struck gold at three of the last four world championships, winning the biennial event in 2003, 2005 and again last year, and have qualified for the Olympics for the first time in 16 years.
The 52-year-old Trefilov’s personality and coaching style make him stand out.
Usually shy and unassuming, the 1.90-metre Trefilov, who weighs more than 120 kg, is famous for his verbal outbursts at his charges and has strong views about how to treat them.
“You could say I’m a Soviet-era coach. I was always taught that as coach you need a firm hand to keep players in line,” he told Reuters in an interview.
“For many of our young people the word ‘Soviet’ has a somewhat bad taste and is old-fashioned but in my generation it meant having great pride in your country.
“You must be a dictator if you want to achieve results and working with women you often have to be twice as tough.”
To make his point, Trefilov referred to the two-week world championship, held in Paris last December.
“We had games almost every day plus training and the girls started to complain that they hadn’t seen much of Paris aside from the hotel and the stadium,” he said.
“So when we finally had a day off, I let them go sightseeing, do some shopping. But you know what? The next day we nearly lost to (rank outsiders) Brazil. It just shows you can’t be too soft on women, especially Russian women.”
He models himself on great Soviet-era coaches such as basketball’s Alexander Gomelsky and ice hockey’s Viktor Tikhonov who won numerous world and Olympic titles in the 1970s and 1980s.
“Tikhonov, Gomelsky...I’ve always looked up to them because they did our country proud,” said Trefilov, who has criticized the influx of foreign coaches to Russia in recent years.
“They’ve come here to make good money but I don’t think they’re willing to give their heart and soul for Russia.”
Trefilov also coaches Russian champions Zvezda Zvenigorod and is just as successful at club level.
He led Lada Togliatti to five consecutive national titles before joining Zvezda in 2006.
Starting almost from scratch, in one season he has built them into a major force both domestically and in Europe, guiding them to their first Russian title and the EHF Cup, handball’s equivalent of the UEFA Cup in soccer.
This season, the big Russian wants to do even better by capturing the prestigious European Champions League.
Despite Trefilov’s stern demeanor, the players love him.
“He does have a fiery temper, so when he’s angry you don’t want to be on the receiving end. But he’s a forgiving coach if you make an honest mistake,” Zvezda captain Irina Poltoratskaya told Reuters.
Team mate Oxana Romenskaya agreed: “He really cares about us and is always there to help out.”
Romenskaya and Poltoratskaya, who played for Trefilov in Togliatti, have followed him to Zvenigorod, a small town about 40 km northwest of Moscow.
Zvezda players live in a nearby sanatorium, converted into a training centre, almost year-round away from their families.
“That’s the price you pay for being an athlete,” said Romenskaya’s husband Yevgeny, who was visiting his wife in Zvenigorod during the New Year holidays.
“I had a week off, so I came here from Togliatti to be with Oxana. Of course, I couldn’t just come unannounced, I had to ask the coach’s permission first. He said okay and I’m here.”
Yevgeny, himself a former athlete, defended Trefilov’s coaching style: “He’s the ultimate competitor, he always wants to win. Besides, this is not a ladies’ finishing school.”
Despite successes at world championships, the Russian women had not qualified for the Olympics since 1992 when they won the bronze playing as part of the Unified Team.
They finally ended their long wait by winning the 2007 world title to book a ticket to Beijing.
“The Olympics is our number one priority,” said Romenskaya, 31, who is postponing her retirement until after the August Games when she plans to start a family.
Yevgeny, 35, added: “I don’t know if she’s ready to retire for good but we definitely plan to take a year off after the Olympics. She’s been in sports since she was 14, so it’s time we start planning for the future.”
Editing by Clare Fallon