Egyptian handball’s Cinderella story

The men's Egyptian handball team has been on a remarkable rise over the past couple of decades: can they be the first non-European team on an Olympic podium at Tokyo 2020 this summer?
By Ken Browne

In the earliest known version of the Cinderella story told around 2,000 years ago, a Greek slave girl named Rhodopis is toiling away by the river when an eagle carries off her sandal and drops it in the Egyptian Pharaoh's lap.

You can probably guess the rest.

Fast forward to the 21st century and the current men's Egyptian handball team is trying to write its own modern version by becoming the first non-European team to step onto an Olympic podium at the Tokyo Olympics.

At the Egypt 2021 men's World Championships, the hosts gave home fans plenty of reasons to believe that this could come true.

They came agonisingly close to causing the greatest upset in handball history, seconds from eliminating World and Olympic champions Denmark in the quarter-finals.

The Pharaohs were 35-34 up at the end of the second period of overtime with the clock ticking down and Danish superstar Mikkel Hansen watching on from the sidelines after he was shown a red card.

It all came down to a last-gasp penalty with the ball in Magnus Landin’s hands: Miss it and Egypt are through.

Pharaoh fans held their breath, but it wasn't to be as Landin converted and Denmark won the subsequent penalty throw-off, the final result going into the record books at 39-38 to the Danes.

"We want to do something big" - Mo Sanad

Devastated, the tears flowed, but Egyptian players could hold their heads high for their part in one of the most thrilling games in World champs’ memory. No one else came that close to beating the all-conquering Denmark in the entire tournament, not even finalists Sweden.

And that unforgettable performance was far from a flash in the pan.

Earlier the hosts had beaten Chile, North Macedonia, the Russian Handball Federation, Belarus, drawn 25-25 with Slovenia, and lost out to tournament runners-up Sweden by a single goal (24-23).

The quarter-final performance was another important landmark on a journey that has taken Egypt’s men to where they are now: Contenders at the top table, challenging the European powerhouses with a new 'Golden Generation'.

After that loss to Denmark, the overwhelming feeling was that Egypt deserved more, and despite the post-match devastation, one of their star players Mo Sanad was already setting his sights on the Tokyo Games this summer:

"We believe this tournament is the beginning of something big for the current generation... We want to do something big.”

“We start dreaming again, we are proud of ourselves and Egyptians should be too. We fought till the end to reach the semis, and now we have to start thinking of the Olympics in Tokyo."

Egypt's handball on the rise

The men's national team has had some huge moments over the past couple of decades, and now the side looks as strong as it's ever been.

Crowned African champions in January 2020 before the Coronavirus crisis hit, Egypt booked their place at the Tokyo Games, and the way they exited the Worlds a year later in Cairo has just made them more determined to prove themselves.

Before Egypt 2021, the Egyptian side was dead set on at least matching the 'Golden Generation' from 2001 which became the first non-European team to make the semi-final stage at a World championships, boasting stars like the legendary Ahmed El-Ahmar and Hassan Yousry.

That team inspired the current crop like Mo Sanad to give up squash, football and basketball in favour of handball, and now Sanad is as recognisable to Egyptians as Liverpool's football superstar Mo Salah.

Sanad starred when Egypt claimed arguably their most famous victory ever, stunning Sweden 26-25 in an electrifying match at Rio 2016 - it was their first victory in a sixth appearance at the Olympic Games.

Sanad scored seven goals.

“My best moment was the day we beat Sweden," Sanad told Olympics.com in August 2020, "which was a huge thing for Egypt. We won against Sweden! This game was great. I played well. And that was like the moment for us.”

Another massive milestone for Egyptian handball came in August 2019 when the junior national side won the Under-19 World Cup, the team becoming the first ever non-European team to claim that trophy.

Excitement grew about the future of the sport, and thousands of people showed up at Cairo International Airport to celebrate.

A balanced team

Young players from that junior team filtered through to the senior side at Egypt 2021, like Ahmed Hesham (21) who was MVP in North Macedonia in 2019, Hassan Walid (21), who was top scorer and All-star left back in 2019, and Seif Elderaa (22), who played at the Spain 2019 Worlds.

Now in 2021 before the Tokyo Olympics, Egypt have a blended, balanced team with young guns learning from experienced pros like the legendary Ahmed Al-Ahmar (37) who's played at three Olympics and is looking for a golden goodbye this summer, stalwart Mo Sanad (30), Mamdouh Shebib (32), and Ali Zein (30).

Then there are the players in between coming into their own like star man Yahia Omar (24), who netted 11 goals against Denmark in that quarter-final, and Yehia Elderaa (25) who was also outstanding in January - he scored six goals against Chile in their opening game, and they won by six (35-29).

They even have a nice balance in goal with 33-year-old keeper Karim Hendawy lighting the way for 25-year-old understudy Mohamed El-Tayer.

Crucially, the team also has a core of players that are competing in the top leagues in Europe like Omar who plays in Hungary with Telekom Veszprém, Sanad plays his club ball with Nimes in France, Shebib is at Dinamo Bucharest, and Handawy trades in stops with RK Eurofarm Pelister in North Macedonia.

“We are building a really strong generation, a good mix of generations. The future of handball in Egypt is good. The World Championship is in my country and then we play at the Olympic Games. Hopefully, nothing less than a medal there.” - Mo Sanad

But will it be enough when you look at the draw that Egypt got in their Olympic group?

Egyptian fairytale at Tokyo 2020?

Egyptian handball has another even earlier Cinderella story: Drawings and paintings on 5,000-year-old tombs appear to depict prehistoric Egyptian priests practising an early form of handball.

Thanks to these depictions, many people in North Africa believe that the sport of handball had its origin in Ancient Egypt.

In modern times the game has been dominated by the European teams, but this sense of history and destiny is another factor driving the team on, with momentum gathering before the Olympic Games.

They'll need it.

Egypt have been drawn in a tough looking Group B in Tokyo and will go head-to-head with Denmark and Sweden once more this summer, while also facing a rising young threat in Portugal, hosts Japan, and Asian qualifiers Bahrain.

With only 12 teams in the Olympic handball competition, Egypt face an enormous challenge to make it through to the quarter-finals and beyond to the semi-finals.

Many will fancy them against Japan and Bahrain, and while two victories may be enough to clinch that fourth spot in the group, a Sander Sagosen-led Norway, a rebooted France potentially featuring a recovered Nicolas Karabatic, or a full-strength Germany team may lay in wait in the quarter finals.

This Egypt side, however, have proven they can go throw-for-throw with the best in the world, Sweden beat them by a single goal in January, and Denmark know just how close they came to elimination at the hands of the Pharaohs.

Winning a medal at the Tokyo Olympics wouldn't just be an iconic moment in handball as the first non-European team to make the podium - breaking the spell of European domination over the sport - they would also become the first national Egyptian side to make the podium in any team sport.

The stage is set for a modern rewrite of Egyptian handball's Cinderella story.