Mikkel Hansen - The best handball player there's ever been?

Olympic gold medallist, World Champion, European champion, for many Mikkel Hansen is handball's G.O.A.T.
By Ken Browne

Mikkel Hansen will go down in handball history as one of the greatest players, if not the greatest player, ever.

A quick glance at his top three achievements will give you one reason why.

In 2016 he led Denmark to their first ever Olympic handball medal (gold), and in 2019 to their first ever World Championships victory.

Now Denmark's golden generation has won their second World champs final in a row at Egypt 2021.

Hansen was leading the way scoring 12 goals and engineering five assists in the 35-33 victory over European champions Spain in the semis and adding another seven goal in the thrilling 26-24 win in the final against Sweden.

He's also won the IHF World Player of the Year three times, a feat only his friend and PSG teammate Nikola Karabatic can boast, perhaps the only other player who could also lay claim to being handball's G.O.A.T.

Denmark's superstar baller has a long list of accolades next to his name, but beyond the awards he's given so much more to his game.

And at 33 he still has a lot left in the tank.

Hansen's ability to suspend the laws of physics and reinvent the possible on a handball court puts him in a class of his own, and that's why so many think he's the best there's ever been.

Early life: A handball heritage

Born on 22 October 1987, Hansen's father was a handball player and an Olympian.

Flemming Hansen played for the Danish national team 120 times, scored 240 goals, and represented his country at the Los Angeles 1984 Olympic Games.

Three years later, Mikkel was born in Helsingør, wide out on Denmark's eastern coast.

While he grew up as Flemming Hansen's son, it wasn't long before Flemming became better known as Mikkel's father.

"I don't mind if they dwell on the fact that I am Fleming's son. He is Mikkel's father " - Hansen to Jyllands-Posten

Mikkel's extraordinary talent was clear from a young age in a country that puts handball first.

At 1.92m (6ft 4in) in many countries Hansen would have been drawn to basketball, volleyball, or stuck in goal in football.

Not in Denmark.

Handball takes pride of place and the likes of Hansen and Danish teammate Nikolaj Markussen (2.11m tall) are initiated into the sport early.

Dedication: National champion 2005

A young Hansen's journey began in Helsingørhallen, in the days when the local team was still a top side in Denmark.

At youth level he cut his teeth playing against teams from Denmark's 'handball belt' in Central Jutland: Holstebro, Randers, Skanderborg and Ikast.

But it was at GOG on the island of Funen, one of Denmark's great talent factories, where Hansen made his breakthrough in the Danish league.

And there he coincided with Claus Hansen on the under-18 team where Mikkel's physical strength, understanding of the game, and dedication took him to the next level.

Even in those early days it was clear he had that something different about him: that wrist wizardry, the elbow pumping like a piston, powering unconventional shots taken at inappropriate moments for defenders. It was said of him that he had the ability to 'play in the space that doesn't exist'.

Gifted by nature, Hansen knew that it was nurture that would take him to the top. His dedication to training and personal improvement are legendary.

"Mikkel is unique, not only when it comes to his skills, but also when it comes to his training efforts," says Peter Bredsdorff-Larsen who worked with this handball prodigy as assistant to the Danish national coach.

It's easy to say that Hansen was born with his ability, that it was genetic, that his artistry is innate.

That's what the people who don't know him think.

"I know very few players who train as much physically on their own as Mikkel does" - Peter Bredsdorff-Larsen

Hansen's success owes as much to blockchain brilliance as it does to being born a phenomenon. He's earned what he has repetition after repetition.

One of the most telling stories from his youth development is when he was in his late teens.

Hansen found a quarter-size hall in Gudme with a handball goal where he could just shoot, and shoot, and shoot again.

So much in fact, that he broke the goal, tuning that outward rotation of his shoulder, honing that twist of his wrist and flick of his elbow that has the ball leaving his body like it's been fired through the barrel of a gun.

Under Claus Jansen at GOG, Hansen was already a Danish national champion in 2005 at 18 years of age.

His Denmark debut in the national team came soon after in June 2007 with a victory over Sweden under Ulrik Wilbek.

He scored seven goals in a 34-33 victory.

Beijing 2008 - THAT Hansen goal

Fast forward another year and Hansen is in the Danish Olympic squad for Beijing 2008 scoring a goal so spectacular that suddenly everyone in Denmark knows his name.

A goal good enough to be included in the top Olympic men's handball goals of all time (above).

It's 14 August 2008 and Denmark are locked 24-24 with Russia in their Group B round-robin match.

The pressure is on because Denmark drew 23-23 with Egypt in their first match, and lost to South Korea 31-30 in their second.

Their hopes of making the quarter-finals are hanging by a thread, and they simply have to beat Russia.

Time is nearly up with 30 minutes already on the clock, but Denmark have one last chance, a free from the left wing, Hansen's position.

Coach Ulrik Wilbek doesn't call top scorers and established stars Lars Rosling Christiansen or Jesper Nøddesbo to take it, he gives it to the relatively unknown 20-year-old Mikkel Hansen.

The long-haired upstart lets fly a right handed shot with a swirl of his wrist that sends the ball whistling over the Russian wall and perfectly, precisely into the top corner.

The whole of Denmark, glued to its TVs, erupts.

It's a goal etched into the Danish collective conscience, "delicious," said one journalist afterwards, trying to deal with his phone burning up with missed calls and dozens of texts.

Five years later one Danish handball fan even recreated it digitally, still struggling to explain it in the language of computer design software, but the original Danish commentary is a delight.

Hansen was suddenly hot property, a 20-year-old prodigy that everybody wanted.

Despite that brilliant goal that helped his country into the quarter-finals, it was disappointment for Hansen and the Danes as they lost to Croatia in the quarter-finals and were out of Beijing 2008.

The new Olympic cycle brought much change for their young breakout star.

A move to handball giants Barcelona, where he would play understudy to Sharhei Rutenka at left-wing, materialised.

There was no doubt that Hansen was a disruptor, he just didn't hadn't fully realised it yet himself.

Rutenka was the top goalscorer at the 2006 European Championship for Belarus, and Hansen played in his shadow at Barcelona.

"When he (Rutenka) plays well, he plays really well, so I am content with playing 40 per cent of the time," the Dane said.

But words like that aren't unheard of from Hansen, the local lad brought up in a small town with that Scandinavian sense of the collective and community, where the whole - the team or society - comes before the individual.

He said this to Danish media as recently as 2018:

"Just because I can throw a ball, I am by no means more important than anyone else in this country." - Mikkel Hansen

After just two years with Barcelona he went home to play with Danish powerhouse AG København, and then onto Paris Saint-Germain to play alongside Nikola Karabatic.

Mikkel Hansen vs. Nikola Karabatic

Their friendship and rivalry would come to define the following years of handball, devastating to watch together in Paris, fascinating to watch compete against each other internationally.

The mutual respect clear to see, regardless of the heated battles they had.

"Nikola Karabatic is the best teammate and opponent I've ever had." - Mikkel Hansen

"I've always been fascinated by him. He is a great leader that everyone on a team can lean on, and he is best in pressure situations. He knows it all, and he has had a huge impact on French handball for many years."

These two giants of the game have ushered in a new era in handball, and one of sport's great rivalries is far from finished.

London 2012: Disappointment for Denmark

Denmark, the reigning European champions in 2008, were favourites to retain their title in 2010 but could only place fifth.

But Hansen and Karabatic would have a classic showdown in the 2011 World Championships final. It was a breakout year for Hansen; he emerged as the player Denmark needed to take them to the next level.

Hansen laid down an early tournament marker scoring 11 against Serbia in a 35-27 win in the group stage, and in the semi-finals he netted nine against Spain, helping Denmark to their first Worlds final in 44 years.

Billed as the 'Karabatic vs. Hansen' final, it didn't disappoint - they scored ten goals each but France's golden generation were too much for Denmark, winning 37-35.

Defeated but undeterred, the red-and-whites took away the positives, and Hansen was chosen as the IHF Player of the Year for 2011.

In 2012 the team bounced back by regaining their European Championships title. Hansen was again on fire when it really mattered, scoring nine in the final to lift Denmark to a 21-19 victory over Serbia.

That was January 2012 and things were looking good for the Olympics in London, but things did not go to plan and while Karabatic led France to gold, Hansen and Denmark finished sixth.

Great things were still to come.

Rio 2016: Hansen and Denmark's finest hour

Testing times led up to 'King Mikkel' and Denmark's crowning moment in Brazil.

Losses in the 2013 World Championships final to Spain and the 2014 Euros to France made the team all the more determined and disciplined to make it count.

At the 2016 Euros Hansen scored a goal so audacious that you wouldn't believe it if it hadn't been caught on camera.

But again the Danes fell short, placing sixth behind France.

They went into Rio 2016 as underdogs but Hansen went into beast mode: top scorer in the group stages, the quarterfinal, the semi-final, and the final.

He notched eight in the semi-final and 10 in the final, destroying Karabatic's dreams of a French Olympic three-peat.

It was Denmark's first handball Olympic medal, and it was gold.

Hansen scored 52 goals in a flaming hot summer in Brazil and was chosen as Rio 2016 MVP.

The boy from Helsingør had conquered the world.

2019 world champions

The Danes didn't stop there though.

A first ever Worlds triumph came in 2019, and it was made all the sweeter by winning the final in front of a home crowd in Herning.

Hansen once again finished the tournament as top scorer on 72 goals and was named tournament MVP.

Mikkel Hansen wife and son

That January was also another big moment as he and his girlfriend Stephanie Gundelach welcomed baby boy Eddie Max to the world.

It's meant big changes for the quiet superstar, ever the family man.

In March 2019, he and Stephanie got engaged, but with coronavirus turning the world upside-down, they decided to leave Paris and go back to Denmark.

“We were in Paris and thought about how long it would last, and what would be the best solution for us," he told Danish media.

"But to sit in Paris in an apartment without an opportunity to get out for a long time, would be heavy in comparison to be here in Denmark, where we can come out and be near family. We are happy with our decision,” said Mikkel Hansen.

“I usually like to sleep late, but now I have got a son who wants to be up at 5 am, he keeps me on my toes!"

Now with PSG back in action Hansen and family are based in Paris once more and he's leading the line for the Danes at Egypt 2021.

12 goals against Spain in the semi-final has brought Denmark to their second Worlds final in a row and Hansen looks in rude form, the team managing their superstar well, resting him in the earlier stages of the tournament against the likes of DR Congo and Bahrain.

With fellow battle-hardened stars Niklas Landin, Mads Mensah-Larsen, and next-gen talents Mathias Gidsel and Magnus Saugstrup, Denmark is world-class team arguably stronger than they were at Rio 2016.

Hansen may have won all there is to win in handball, and while he doesn't say much, inside burns the same fierce competitor who has taken Denmark to the summit of the sport.

Champions like Hansen always want more. For the 33-year-old, more starts with Sunday's final against Sweden and then defending Denmark's title at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in summer 2021 on the horizon.