This is Me: Tobias Karlsson
Nothing in Tobias Karlsson's youth indicated he would become one of the best defenders the sport of handball has ever seen. Coming from a family where handball played no role, 'Tobbe' only dedicated his life to the sport relatively late. But he went on to build a fantastic career in Sweden, Norway, and most notably Germany, topped by the EHF Champions League triumph in 2014 as team captain of SG Flensburg-Handewitt. Here is Karlsson's story, told in his own words.
THIS IS ME: Tobias Karlsson
In contrast to many handball players, my family did not have anything to do with this sport. When I was four years old, I started playing football, three years later, I added hockey to my hobbies. Only when I was 11, I fell in love with handball. Many boys from my class played handball at the same club, they told me how cool it is, they spoke about the team spirit and the fun, and that I should give it a try. So I cycled with them to the training hall in my home Karlskrona. And they were right, it was really a huge fun to belong to this team. I wanted to be part of it – and I stayed.
So, I played three team sports until I was 16: handball, hockey and football. Then I had to decide. First, I quit playing hockey, then football at the age of 19, but I could still not realise how far handball would bring me. I was a late bloomer. When I focused on handball, I played in the fourth Swedish league and relegated to the third division when I was 20.
Most of ‘my’ boys left Karlskrona and our team for job or university – but I was still there. But when I was 21, my (handball) life changed completely. I applied at the Norwegian club Stavanger, yes, it was a real application. I went there for a trial session, they signed me, and my big handball adventure was about to start. I learnt a lot for life and for my handball career, but unfortunately after one year the club went bankrupt.
So, I went back to Sweden, joined the famous Hammarby club in Stockholm, parallel to handball I first studied business management, then I worked for an assurance company. And at Hammarby I met one of the most important persons for my career: Staffan Olsson. First he was a player, later my coach.
As a coach, he brought this team and every player extremely forward by his highly innovative coaching. Everything was different, was new for us, he was a great teacher, he opened my eyes for handball. We trained extremely hard and intense, he always gave new challenges for us in terms of tactics and moves, he lifted our performing level, and almost all those young lads from this team, like Mikael Appelgren, Patrick Fahlgren oder Lukas Karlsson, became professional players. And we won the Swedish championship three times in this era.
In the 2006/2007 season, I even was Swedish and German champion. As Nikola Karabatic had elbow surgery in November 2006, THW Kiel was looking for an interim solution for the left back position, and they asked their former player Staffan Olson, if he knew someone. And this is why they choose me. At that time, I was not that pure defence specialist I would be in my last 10, 12 years. I was a regular left back, I even had started as a centre back. So I went to Kiel, played eight matches for THW, and returned to Hammarby even earlier as expected, as Nikola’s recovery went quite quick.
At the end of the season, Kiel became not only Champions League winners, but also German champions, and the German regulations say that if you have played at least eight matches for the champions, you receive a gold medal. After returning to Hammarby we took another trophy in Sweden.
Being at home I talked to my wife about our future. I was eager to go abroad again, my favourite destination was the German Bundesliga. In 2007, my phone was ringing, famous Swedish player and coach Ola Lindgren wanted to sign me for his club HSG Nordhorn. My wife agreed – but only if we left Sweden for just one year. And I was sure, I wanted to try it.
Nordhorn were the perfect place to start: a small city with great handball fans, a strong team, but not the highest ambitions, therefore not the biggest pressure. And of course a great coach, Ola Lindgren. Unfortunately for me, after only one season, the club went bankrupt. I had to leave, but in contrast to what I agreed on with my wife, I stayed abroad.
I had an offer from SG Flensburg-Handewitt, a completely different world of handball compared to Nordhorn. A bigger city, huge expectations and pressure, a much higher public and media interest. And an outstanding support from the stands, simply incredible fans. After my first season at Flensburg, we had finished fifth, I had never seen a handball party like that before after our last match. The fans provided us with such a huge energy and boosted the ambitions. And I thought for myself: How will a party look like if we win a trophy?
Three years later, when we won the EHF Cup Winners’ Cup, I got to know it for the first time.
For seven years, Ljubomir Vranjes was my coach at Flensburg. He did everything for the club, the team, and every single player. He developed the team, he lifted us as players and as human beings. Thanks to Flensburg, I could reach new heights, I experienced the greatest handball days of my life. And therefore I really have to thank ‘Ljubo’ and SG for this very special relationship. The whole club, the whole city, all people I owe so much. My kids were born in Flensburg and I had 10 brilliant years there, nine of them as their captain.
One of the highlights of course was this weekend in June 2014 in Cologne. We arrived as the underdogs, knowing that under normal circumstances we had no chance against Barcelona, Kiel and Veszprém, the three other teams at the EHF FINAL4, though we had a good team. We travelled to Cologne and wanted to have fun in one of the greatest handball arenas on earth.
After 52 minutes in our semi-final against Barcelona we were down by six goals. Then Sören Rasmussen entered the goal, saved almost every shot, and in attack, Holger Glandorf scored goal by goal. Ljubo went highest risk and we made it into extra time. This is when young boy Hampus Wanne, who played in the second Swedish league one year before, scored the final penalty in the shoot-out: we were in the final!
There, we were down by six goals again against THW Kiel, but ultimately we won this trophy. I still remember this moment, one minute before the end, as we had realised what happened. Later, we threw Ljubo up in the air; no other coach flies higher and better than him. We had nothing to lose when we arrived, and we had won everything when we departed. The classical underdog fairy tale had come true for us.
To win the Champions League is something incredible but in Germany it means much more if you win the Bundesliga. Which, in case of Flensburg, means: leaving local rivals Kiel behind. We won the trophy in 2018, and the party was even bigger than four years before, when we had won the Champions League. It was simply heaven for our fans. One year later, we repeated to raise this trophy after winning the last of 34 league matches against Bergischer HC in Düsseldorf.
It was the last handball match of my career, my last action as a professional player was to receive this trophy as Flensburg’s team captain. What could be better to finish your career? Nothing! I left Flensburg with so many memories, my heart still beats for this club and this city with its huge handball patriotism. I experienced that much in those 10 years. And I know: those fans carry you through the fire, if needed.
I suffered from back pains for almost two years. And from that point of view, my farewell match was a relief for my body. On the other side, it was a sad day. For 17 years as a handball professional, every single day had been structured: you knew when you have train, when you have to eat, when you have to sleep. From one day to the next this structure was gone. I did not know what happened tomorrow, but after a short period of uncertainty I found my way.
Parallel to playing in Flensburg, me and some handball friends had started our entrepreneurship in 2012, an assurance company in Sweden. And even in Flensburg we have a kind of branch, this means, I am still in contact with my partner there.
But my main job is working for a business consulting agency. I am responsible for developing business leaders. And I can use my long-term experience as a sports pro. It is all about forming a team, identify and distribute the tasks, to increase the potential of all individuals to increase the potential of the team. The whole concept founds on the principles of team sports. It is a big fun to project my handball experience to economics.
One year after my farewell match I returned to handball. When Glenn Solberg became coach of the Swedish national team, he asked me to become something like the team manager, who organises the whole staff around the team, which includes up to 13 persons. He wanted to focus only on coaching and needed someone to manage the team around the team, and besides I assisted him in all defence matters. We won the silver medal at the 2021 World Championship and I experienced my third Olympic Games in Tokyo after London 2012 and Rio 2016 as a player.
Of course, my national team career was highlighted with winning the silver medal at London 2012. This period was so special for me, as Staffan Olsson and Ola Lindgren were our coaches - those two, who had imprinted my career the most besides Ljubomir Vranjes. Another outstanding event was the 2011 World Championship on Swedish home ground. After Tokyo, I quit working as national team manager and only focussed on my business life. My only current connection to handball is being in the board of my home club in Karlskrona.
One thing about my career of course I have to mention: why I only focussed on defence since I left Hammarby? After a shoulder surgery I had a long talk with my coach Ola Lindgren in Nordhorn, and he opened my eyes. “If you want to play in attack and defence, you will have difficulties. I can offer you to become the boss of our defence, but I cannot promise any role in attack.” I am really thankful for Ola to speak that openly to me. Because since then I know my strength and how I can help my team the most.
Mainly when I joined big SG Flensburg-Handewitt, I recognised that this is right. If I would have wanted to play in attack and defence, I could never sign for a club like SG, I could never have won the Champions League and the Bundesliga. If I want to win something big, I need to focus on defence – that is what I learnt. And when I was awarded best defender of the EHF EURO 2014 and of the EHF Champions League, this was the biggest honour I could receive, and it proved that my decision was right.
In all aspects of what I have told you about my career I can only say: handball gave me that much, in terms of experience, friendship and skills for my current business life. I profit every day from this experience.
As a family, we have so many friends for life from the time in Flensburg, playing there, and before in Stavanger, Hammarby and Nordhorn, was a school for life. I learnt so much about people, cultures, mentalities. Going abroad means to see the world with different eyes, especially when you play in Flensburg, where usually only one or two Germans are in the team. Our squad was mixed with seven, eight nations, and this was a real challenge, from a sportive, cultural and structural point of view. I learnt a lot how to deal with all kinds of persons.