Two global stars, one gold: Hansen vs. Karabatic in one last clash of the handball titans

TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 05: Mikkel Hansen of Team Denmark celebrates after winning the Men's Semifinal handball match between Spain and Denmark on day thirteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Yoyogi National Stadium on August 05, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
TOKYO, JAPAN - AUGUST 05: Mikkel Hansen of Team Denmark celebrates after winning the Men's Semifinal handball match between Spain and Denmark on day thirteen of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games at Yoyogi National Stadium on August 05, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Denmark and France are set to deliver another iconic Olympic handball final with the greatest rivalry in the history of the game going head-to-head one last time.

It was the 21 August 2016, Nikola Karabatic stood on the Olympic handball podium, silver around his neck, head down.

He wasn't even trying to hide his profound disappointment that France had missed out on a golden opportunity to win a third straight Olympic gold medal.

His alter-ego Mikkel Hansen was a mirror image, standing tall and proud at the top of the Olympic podium having scored eight goals to lead Denmark to their first ever handball gold medal.

Five years later they'll go at it once more in an Olympic final, two players from a different planet, two superstars going for one gold medal, likely the last time it'll ever happen.

Between them they have won three Olympic golds, six World Championships, four European titles, three IHF Player of the Year awards each, the only ones with three.

Hansen, 33, has been unplayable this year when it really counts, like the semi-final of the Egypt 2021 World Championships in January when he scored 12 v Spain, then seven in the final against France to secure the title for Denmark.

He's been causing a scene at Tokyo 2020 too, scoring 12 against Spain again in the semi-final to set up a Rio final repeat against France.

Sick of the sight of him, Spanish TV commentators said "Hansen is abusing the Spain goal."

He's now the top Olympic scorer in history with 156 goals in 28 games, while Karabatic is third, tied with Talant Dujshebaev on 123 goals in 37 games.

But while Hansen has been adding layers to his legacy, the 37-year-old Karabatic has had a different kind of year going through painful rehab from a ruptured anterior knee cruciate ligament he suffered last October.

He managed to work his way back to fitness and back into the Olympic squad for his fifth straight Games against all odds.

No wonder they call him 'The Beast.'

Men's Handball gold for Denmark
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Denmark's team win gold over France in men's handball in Rio 2016.

Hansen vs. Karabatic: Handball's historic duel

France's legendary centre-back isn't just at Tokyo 2020 for the nostalgia either.

He's delivered in clutch moments, scoring four goals from five shots in the semi-final thriller against Egypt and he had 5/7 in that group stage loss to Norway.

No big deal to him, he's been doing it for a long time.

Karabatic won a 2005 World Championship bronze medal alongside the legendary Jackson Richardson, now he's out to win a third Olympic gold with Richardson's 24-year-old son Melvin.

All in all, France's living legend has won three European Championships, four Worlds, three Champions Leagues, two Olympic gold medals and one silver.

His experience and leadership give France something different beyond the physical presence he brings.

Surrounded by a new generation led by Hugo Descat who's having a stellar Games scoring from 29/30 attempts in Tokyo, and PSG players Dika Mem and Nedim Remili who are stepping up, France have a legitimate shot at gold.

In their fourth straight Olympic final, France made a little bit of history, no other nation has ever done that

At Tokyo 2020 Karabatic can achieve something no-one else has either by becoming the first player to win a golden treble of three Worlds, three Euros and three Olympic gold medals.

Nikola Karabatic fighting for one last hurrah
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France's handball icon Nikola Karabatic has won everything there is to win in his sport many times over. The PSG superstar is hoping for one more shot at Olympic glory after teariing the ACL in his right knee in October of last year. The tiring rehab is worth the pain. "I want to be ready to prepare for the Games and have the chance to fight for a place in the team. That will be tough as there are only a few spots," he tells us.

Mikkel Hansen's red hot streak to continue in the final?

Karabatic isn't the only one surrounded by stars.

22-year-old Mathias Gidsel has emerged as one Hansen's greatest allies. He was superb at the Egypt Worlds and scored five from five against Spain in the Olympic semi-final, despite carrying an injury from the quarters.

Mads Mensah Larsen is another stalwart of the team, a 29-year-old Olympic champion with a second straight gold medal in sight He had 4/5 against Spain.

Add superstar stopper Niklas Landin, his brother Magnus, the other Magnus, Saugstrup, Jacob Holm, Henrik Moellgaard and Morten Olsen to the mix then you can see why Hansen has all he needs to do what he does.

Hansen's 12 goals against Spain in the semi-final was the most anyone's ever scored in semi, overtaking Olympic legends like Uwe Gensheimer, Talant Dujsehbaev and Ivano Balic.

Balic played at the Beijing 2008 Olympics where a 20-year-old Mikkel Hansen announced himself on the global stage in spectacular style, scoring that goal.

A last-chance, nothing-on-the-clock free throw against Russia to win the match, a goal so spectacular that the whole of Denmark was talking about it.

They still do.

Since then he's won two straight World Championships, two World silvers, one European Championships, one runners-up medal and Olympic gold, with a second straight Olympic gold one win away. But Hansen is far from finished.

Just don't be surprised if both Karabatic and Mikkel Hansen break more records in the final as they continue to take the sport of handball to a different dimension.