Olympic handball teams preview: Can anyone dethrone Mikkel Hansen and the Danes?

HERNING, DENMARK - JANUARY 27: Captain Niklas Landin of Denmark passes the trophy to Mikkel Hansen (center) after winning the 26th IHF Men's World Championship final between Norway and Denmark at Jyske Bank Boxen Arena on January 27, 2019 in Herning, Denmark. (Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images)
HERNING, DENMARK - JANUARY 27: Captain Niklas Landin of Denmark passes the trophy to Mikkel Hansen (center) after winning the 26th IHF Men's World Championship final between Norway and Denmark at Jyske Bank Boxen Arena on January 27, 2019 in Herning, Denmark. (Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images)

From 24 July to 8 August we'll see the best handball players on the planet gunning for gold at Tokyo 2020, so who to watch? When and where will it be played? Tournament preview? Looking for a schedule? Get all that and more...

It feels only a few weeks since we watched reigning Olympic champions Denmark retain their handball world champ crown at Egypt 2021 in January led by superstars Mikkel Hansen, Niklas Landin, and next-gen updates Mathias Gidsel (21) and Magnus Saugstrup (24).

Having successfully defended their World title, the Danes are now out to repeat the feat at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

But it's a brand new day in Japan and victory is far from assured for Denmark.

And there's no shortage of pretenders to the throne:

Sweden, emboldened by their run to the final at Egypt 2021 have a balanced and hungry side determined to prove themselves. France have the talismanic Nikola Karabatic back for a fifth Olympics and an incredibly exciting new generation around him that, if they click, can be unstoppable.

Then there's an Egyptian team driven by a sense of destiny and history, Sander Sagosen's Norway out to cause a scene on their Olympic return after nearly 50 years away.

And a Germany side at full-strength under much-loved Icelandic coach Alfreð Gíslason, Brazil and Argentina bringing the Latin American challenge, and a Portugal team that is as thrilling as it is unpredictable.

Take nothing for granted in Tokyo.

Tokyo 2020 Groups

The two men's groups at Tokyo 2020 are:

Group A

Norway, France, Germany, Brazil, Spain, Argentina. 

Group B

Denmark, Sweden, Portugal, Japan, Egypt, Bahrain.

Format

The top four teams from each group qualify for the quarter-finals.

Olympic handball schedule at Tokyo 2020

Handball Tokyo Olympics will happen from Saturday 24 July, to Sunday 8 August 8, 2021.

Here's a basic schedule:

Preliminary Groups: Sat 24 July - Mon 2 August

Men's Quarterfinals: Tue 3 August

Women's Quarterfinals: Wed 4 August

Men's Semi-finals: Thu 5 August

Women's Semi-finals: Fri 6 August

Here's a full schedule.

Preview: Mikkel Hansen to do it again for Denmark?

At 33 you might think Mikkel Hansen could be slowing down having won everything there is to win in international handball.

But he isn't. Arguably the greatest to ever play the game, Hansen hasn't just maintained ridiculous levels of physical strength and resilience, he's stayed mentally strong and full of desire for more too.

When you match that to coach Nikolaj Jacobsen and the Danish management's brilliant planning and handling of their superstar's minutes on the court you get a potent mix.

At Egypt 2021 the Danish team had their star man on the bench at the beginning of the tournament, allowing the younger players like Gidsel, Saugstrup, and Magnus Landin to do some heavy lifting early on, keeping Hansen fresh.

It worked.

Hansen was a flame-thrower in the semi-finals scorching 12 goals against Spain and seven goals and five assists in the final against Sweden, earning a third world champs tournament MVP award.

Denmark must guard against complacency though, as handball expert Rasmus Boysen points out, after every big win comes a disappointment, like when they won their first ever Olympic title at Rio 2016 only to follow it up with at 10th place finish at the 2017 Worlds.

Can they break the cycle in Tokyo?

Karabatic to lead France to glory?

Karabatic is the other candidate for handball's G.O.A.T. and has another shot at Olympic immortality as he vies for a third gold medal in Tokyo in what will likely be his final Olympic Games.

A little like his friend Hansen, he won't do it alone, there's a supporting cast that look more like protagonists every day:

The explosive Dika Mem (23) led Barça to that 10th Champions League title this season, bagging 93 goals along the way - joint-second top-scorer behind Nantes' Valero Rivera on 95.

Nedim Remili (26) is another established force in the handball world, a PSG game-changer who is out to make up for missing out on Rio 2016:

"I hope to experience it several times and win an Olympic medal, because I think that's the Holy Grail for any sportsman," Remili told PSG's website .

22-year-old matchwinner Elohim Prandi and 21-year-old off-the-wall talent Dylan Nahi are two more reasons why France can give Karabatic a golden goodbye from the Olympics.

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.

Sander Sagosen leads Norway to Olympics almost 50 years later

Munich 1972 was the last time Norway graced the Olympic Games but with the emergence of global superstar Sander Sagosen under the coaching of Christian Berge, they are a force to be reckoned with.

The Norges Håndballforbund have come so close to securing a seat at the top table with World Championship runners-up medals in 2017 and 2019, and hope to make that final leap to the top of the podium in Tokyo.

With some time to rest, Norway will hope that Sagosen has shaken off the injuries that have held him back, and that the squad is refreshed and ready.

“It's 12 teams and 14-player squads and I think that it will fit us good,” Sagosen told ihf.info .

“You have five group games and then go directly to the quarter-finals, so I think the whole tournament structure fits us really good. It’s in the summer and it's a new experience for us as we have never been to an Olympic Games before.

“It's a childhood dream for everybody who is a professional athlete,” he continued.

“It doesn't matter which sport or which nationality, to advance to an Olympic Games is just the biggest thing you can do as an athlete. It's my first time at an Olympic Games and it's our first time in 49 years. I'm just really hyped about the atmosphere going down there [to Tokyo] with this team, with this group."

Key to Norway's hopes are line player Bjarte Myrhol, goalie Torbjorn Bergerud, the essential Christian O’Sullivan at centre back and three Magnuses - Fredriksen (centre back), Gullerud (line player) and Rod (right back) - who missed Egypt 2021.

And Sander Sagosen. Obviously.

Sweden - No sir, no surprises

With Norway's poor showing at Egypt 2021, Sweden seized the moment and made it all the way to the final, defying the soothsayers and online rune readers.

The Swedes have never won Olympic gold and see Tokyo as one of their best chances ever.

With a generation that's been galvanised by that run to the final in Cairo, Sweden 'keeper Andreas Palicka was voted goalie of the tournament ahead of Landin, and young guns Hampus Wanne - who scored 53 goals - and 25-year-old Lucas Pellas proved that this is a team with a future.

Jim Gottfridsson is the soul of the side and they're strengthened by the return of Niclas Ekberg. In Egypt Palicka, Gottfridsson and Wanne all made the World All-Star team, Sweden the only nation with three players selected.

The Swedes are well equipped to mount a siege on the top of the podium.

Egypt: Cinderella story to get fairytale ending?

No non-European side has ever finished on a handball Olympic podium and Egypt believe they can be the first.

The most exciting match at their home worlds in January was without doubt the Egypt-Denmark quarter-final epic which went all the way to penalties. Eventual champions Denmark scraped through that day.

On Monday, July 26, we'll see a repeat of that match - Denmark vs Egypt in Tokyo, and Egypt will be fired up.

Their handball origin story - hieroglyphics appear to show people playing handball in ancient Egypt thousands of years ago - and a talented squad means the belief has been brewing in the Egypt camp and they are aiming at medal contention.

Safe hands Mohammad Sanad, the legendary Ahmed Al-Ahmar and established stars like Yahia Omar and Yahia Elderaa guide graduates from the 2019 junior national side that won the Under-19 World Cup like Ahmed Hesham (21), Hassan Walid (21), and Seif Elderaa (22)

There is a balance to Egypt that few other teams have and their unity of purpose is striking.

"We believe this tournament is the beginning of something big for the current generation... We want to do something big,” Mo Sanad said after that agonising loss to Denmark in Cairo.

That something big could come in Tokyo.

Germany: Quietly confident under Alfreð Gíslason

"Handball is a simple game. 12 men chase a ball for 60 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win," said no-one about German handball in recent times.

After a disappointing campaign in Cairo, Germany fly into Tokyo a little under the radar and coach Gíslason may well use this to his advantage.

Gíslason is a German national icon despite hailing from Iceland, the 61-year-old arrived to Germany in 1984 at 24 to play before then coaching THW Kiel to much trophy winning between 2008 and 2019.

He was appointed coach right before the coronavirus pandemic and as a result his attempts to build a team haven't exactly been plain sailing.

At Egypt 2021 many of his best players decided not to travel due to fears of the COVID-19 situation. Germany finished 12th.

Tokyo, however, is a very different story and with his top men signed up he can work on a plan of action with some of the best handball players in the world.

Led on the court by captain fantastic Uwe Gensheimer, a 2016 Olympic bronze medal-winner who's scored over 900 goals for Germany.

And if they get the likes of line player and December 2020 Final4 MVP Hendrik Pekeler and lethal left back Julius Kühn firing, with a ravenous Andreas Wolff in goal, then Germany could easily be in the medal mix.

Argentina v Brazil: A handball Clásico at Tokyo 2020

Argentina and Brazil will face off in Group A at the Tokyo Games on Friday 30 July at 9pm Tokyo time and it'll be a crucial one for both sides, also hopefully a thriller for the neutral.

The other four teams in their group are Germany, Spain, France, and Norway.

“Our aim is clear: we want to win against our rivals, Brazil, and then spring a surprise against one of the favourites of the group," Argentine coach Manolo Cadenas told the Argentinian Handball Federation website.

"It is very difficult, but a huge honour to take part in such a competition,” he summed.

The Brazilians will be thinking exactly the same, and while both have a huge task in making it out of the group stage, they could give us one of the match-ups to remember from this Olympic Games.

Look out for recent Barcelona Champions League winners Haniel Langaro and Thiagus Petrus with line player Rogerio Moraes leading from the front.

Argentine threats include 2018 Champions League winner at Diego Simonet at centre back, and experienced right back Federico Pizarro.

Spain: Last dance for Entrerrios, Morros and Canellas

Spain are tight under top coach Jordi Ribera. A one hundred percent record at Egypt 2020 right up to the semi-finals when they met Denmark, Spain have a system tailor made for their talents.

Tokyo is likely the last chance for veteran campaigners Raul Entrerrios, Viran Morros and Joan Canellas to win Olympic gold and the elation at being at the Games after missing out on Rio 2016 is coupled with a focus to make it count.

The bad news for Spain is that Dani Dujshebaev is out after tearing his anterior cruciate knee ligament (ACL), but his brother Alex is fit and out to repeat his spectacular showing at the Cairo Worlds, scoring 34 goals in nine games.

Los Hispanos will be reliant on their brilliant goalkeeper Gonzalo de Pérez Vargas, the influential Raul Entrerrios, and free-scoring right back Aleix Gómez.

Spain are definitely medal contenders in a field stacked with medal contenders.

Japan ready to showcase handball to the world

The Olympic Games always provide an opportunity to gain exposure to sports that people may not normally watch.

Handball will have a moment in Japan to showcase the sport to the nation and beyond and far from being embarrassed, they may even stun one or two of the top nations.

They have history. Recent history.

At the 2021 Worlds the Japanese caused a sensation by holding Euro 2020 runners-up Croatia to a 29-29 draw, the team led by Domagoj Duvnjak unable to defuse Japan's high-octane handball and hard-working defence.

As hosts in the Tokyo Games, Japan qualify automatically for the handball competition and the work of Icelandic coach Dagur Sigurdsson has been paying off. Training in European camps and pitting themselves regularly against local opponents, the team has learned fast

Sigurdsson led Germany to a bronze medal at Rio 2016 and now is keen to cause a stir with this Japanese team.

Physically the Japanese team has beefed up and proved they can mix it at this level by advancing from their preliminary group in Egypt 2021 to the main round in Cairo 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 will be worthy ambassadors for the sport at home.

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).

At handball's Olympic moment, Japan will be far more than just a spectator on home soil.