Seven things we learned from Egypt 2021 Handball Worlds

The hosts, Landin, Hansen, Sweden, Mvumbi, Japan, France: The Handball World Championships in Cairo was a unique and unforgettable tournament, here are seven takeaways before Tokyo 2020

By Ken Browne

It's all over. Denmark are 2021 handball world champions, winning back-to-back titles under the gaze of the Sphinx in the Egyptian capital.

Over 600 handballers from 32 nations played over 100 games scoring more than 5,500 goals in the biggest tournament ever, the sport showcased farther and wider than ever before.

Let's take a look at what we learned and what it all means before the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Here are seven talking points from the tournament held in North Africa.

1. Egypt prove themselves on and off the court

Let's start with the hosts who delivered a tournament many said was impossible in the grip of a global pandemic.

When the USA handball team were forced to withdraw from Egypt 2021 the evening before they were set to fly to Cairo many said the competition simply wasn't viable.

But thanks to the protocols, testing, and the bubble setup in hotels, the worlds went ahead and the attention was focussed on the spectacle on the court, avoiding a potential debacle off it, much credit is due to the organisers and players for getting it right.

And the Egyptian team weren't just there to make up numbers on the court either.

Extremely impressive performances saw the 'Pharoahs' win two of three preliminary group games - losing only to finalists Sweden by a single goal - then win two and draw with Slovenia 25-25 in the main round.

Egypt beat North Macedonia, the Russian Handball Federation, and Belarus on their way to making the quarter finals where they gave us arguably the most exciting match of the tournament.

Local fans went crazy as eventual champions Denmark were forced into two periods of extra time before Egypt lost by a single goal in a dramatic penalty shoot-out.

Steady hand Mohammad Sanad, and young guns like Yahia Omar and Yahia Elderaa coming through from that youth team that won the 2019 Under-19 world title shone at home.

Much is yet to come from Egyptian handball.

2. Mikkel Hansen: Still the man

Does he really care anymore? Is he still the player he was at 33? Will he stand up when it really matters?

Those were just some of the questions asked about Denmark's superstar before the tournament and he did all his answering on the court.

Mikkel Hansen was the hero once more banking 12 goals and five assists in the semi-final against Spain and seven goals and five assists in the final against Sweden, earning a third world champs tournament MVP award.

The final was his 219th appearance in the Danish red and white and he's now scored over 1,100 goals.

No-one can do what Hansen does.

And if anyone's wondering whether he's has lost any of his desire, just look at the way he celebrated.

While the golden confetti was still falling to the floor of the Cairo Stadium Hall Hansen was already training his focus on the Tokyo Olympics Games:

"Next up is the Olympics and for us it's very important to show that we're able to play at a high level for the next tournament," he said post match.

"I think we've had some not so good show-ups at championships directly after being champions so hopefully at the next championships which will be the Tokyo Olympics we'll show up and play at a very high level too."

With Hansen playing the way he is, and young stars like Mathias Gidsel (21) and Magnus Saugstrup (24) proving themselves, the Danish juggernaut will be hard to stop in Japan.

3. Niklas Landin: The Danish dam

"We had a great opportunity to win, we played good handball, but the Danish goalkeeper was too good today," was how Sweden's top scorer Hampus Wanne summed it up.

The Danish captain Niklas Landin made 15 saves in the final.

The 32-year-old was awarded his 2019 IHF Player of the Year award in Cairo and it won't be last if he carries on like this.

Like Hansen, Landin can deliver in the most important moments and sets the tone for the team, sending waves of confidence through the court.

Denmark's success starts with Landin in goal, and while we knew that already, in Egypt we learned - like Hansen - that the captain's desire hasn't been dulled by all the success.

4. Sweden the surprise package

But Landin wasn't chosen as All-Star goalkeeper at Egypt 2021, Swedish 'keeper Andreas Palicka was.

Palicka was part of the surprise of the tournament: Sweden, who were after a fairytale ending, looking to win their first world championships since 1999 - when they last won it in Egypt.

The wheel didn't quite come full circle for the Swedes but there were so many positives to take away for them.

Palicka was incredible in goal, making one of the greatest saves in handball history against France in the semi-final.

And there were positives all over the court with Hampus Wanne scoring 53 goals to finish as the third top scorer in the tournament behind Frankis Marzo (58) and Sander Sagosen (54).

Jim Gottfridsson was a joy to watch too leading this young team with exciting prospects like 25-year-old Lucas Pellas showing what they can do on the world stage.

Palicka, Gottfridsson and Wanne all made the World All-Star team, as Sweden were the only nation with three players selected.

It promises much for the future and this fearless young Swedish side is just getting started.

5. Japan impress at Egypt 2021

Japan caused an early sensation in Cairo by drawing 29-29 with Euro 2020 runners-up Croatia led by Domagoj Duvnjak.

Many took it as a sign that the rest of the world is ready for a rebellion in a sport historically dominated by Europeans.

As hosts of the Tokyo Games, Japan qualify automatically for the handball competition and the team has come a long way under Icelandic coach Dagur Sigurdsson.

He led Germany to a bronze medal at Rio 2016 and the Japanese team has beefed up and shown a lot of promise by making it out of the preliminary group and advancing to the main round with a victory over Angola and that draw with Croatia.

The 'Samurai Warriors' finished 19th overall which is an improvement on their previous 24th place finish and far from being embarrassed at Tokyo 2020, the local team should put on another show as ambassadors for the sport at home this summer.

Look out for experienced players like captain Doi Remi Anri, Watanabe Jin, Mitoki Hiroki and 27-year-old Agarie Yuto who play leading roles, aided by young risers like Yoshino Tatsuki (26) and Tokuda Shinnosuke (25).

6. France and Croatia reboot for Olympic qualifiers

While Japan will definitely be at the Games this summer, France and Croatia have not yet punched their Tokyo tickets.

At Egypt 2021 Croatia crashed out at the main round stage finishing fourth in the group behind Denmark, Qatar, and Argentina.

It all went horribly wrong for the 'Cowboys' in Cairo and they placed 15th, leading to the resignation of their coach Lino Cervar.

When the team drew 29-29 with Japan Luka Cindric suffered a tournament-ending groin injury, while star man Domagoj Duvnjak was far from his best having just recovered from coronavirus.

France fared somewhat better, losing to Spain in the bronze medal match to finish fourth overall, but blew hot and cold and looked far from convincing against Spain.

Any team would miss Nikola Karabatic but France will have to qualify for the Olympics without him.

From 12 March, France and Croatia will have to play an Olympic Qualification Tournament to reach the Japan Games. Both are in a tough group with an explosive Portugal side and a very physical Tunisia.

Only the top two teams make it through and both France and Croatia have their work cut out.

7. Gauthier Mvumbi wows the world - and Shaq

And finally, we'll finish on the biggest feel-good story of the Egypt Worlds.

In a tournament expanded to 32 teams from 24, Egypt 2021 was all about inclusion and diversity, embracing the global game that handball has become.

The best expression of that idea came from DR Congo's line man Gauthier Mvumbi.

'El Gigante' was an immovable force from the line - a six-metre assassin who scored 4/4 against Argentina, his performance going viral to the point that even Shaquille O'Neal got involved.

The USA basketball legend gave a shout-out to Mvumbi on his social media: "They say you're the Shaq of team handball, what's happening?"

Later Mvumbi had a video-call with the ex-Lakers man and Olympic gold medallist calling the experience a "dream that becomes reality (such) that I do not believe in it."

The big man was inspired, rattling in another four goals against repeat world champs Denmark and was later awarded player of the match twice against Bahrain and Tunisia when he bagged another five goals.

Handball belongs to everyone.

So it's ma’a salaameh مع سلامة to Cairo and Egypt 2021, the tournament that went ahead against the odds.

And while it happened in empty stadiums, the action on the court was full-on, but let's hope fans can get back to supporting their teams soon.

Next up Tokyo 2020.