A humiliation now appears in Mikkel Hansen’s CV. It was 8:15 p.m., prime time, the arena in Malmö, Sweden was darkened, loud music boomed out of the speakers, each player was greeted individually in the spotlight. This reception is standard in handball. Even on this special evening, the organizers of the European Championship did not deviate from the protocol. Not even to protect the Danish world champion around star player Hansen from pitiful looks.
Just 20 minutes earlier, something had happened in the Malmo hall that was considered an unthinkable scenario a week ago. There was no such scenario. Hungary had beaten Iceland in their last European Championship group duel and (Warning, now the really unexpected is coming) kicked Denmark out of the tournament. The title favorite of this finals had failed, the current world champion and Olympic champion, the team with Hansen and world class goalkeeper Niklas Landin can no longer intervene in the race for the EM title.
The Danish players saw on the side how Hungary got stronger in the second half and played into a frenzy. They saw a performance of powerful and fast-paced handball, which was what the many Danish fans had expected from them. Then there was the final whistle – which was practically synonymous with the start of the evening program: the defeated world champion against Russia, who had been eliminated for a long time. To be a professional again and to endure the humiliation, only after that were Hansen and Co. allowed to go home.
Favorite falls like that of Denmark are actually rare in handball. In the current finals, he seemed a little less likely for one reason, since the increase to 24 teams also increased the number of preliminary round groups from four to six. The risk of kicking a tough opponent in the group stage had been reduced. At the same time, however, only two instead of three teams move on to the main round. Denmark would have progressed in the old mode, as would France, which also failed in the preliminary round. The event connects the handball nations, but there are different reasons for their departure.
France in transition
The fact that France lost its opening game against Portugal was surprising. The loss in the second group duel against Vice World Champion Norway, you had to reckon with that; the EM mode was already sealed with the bankruptcy due to the new mode.
But the whole truth also belongs: France’s golden age (four World Cup and two European Championship titles from 2009 to 2017) is over. With Nikola Karabatic or Luc Abalo, both 35 years old, there were still stars from the winning years in the squad, but now they have passed their zenith. The many talents in the squad like Dika Mem or Melvyn Richardson still need time to be among the world leaders. The early end is a consequence of the upheaval, which can happen, especially since other nations have caught up in handball.
Denmark’s fall weighs differently, more heavily, it was not foreseeable and also happened under different circumstances. Denmark’s EM squad is no longer among the youngest, but in international comparison it is even more in its prime, albeit at the end of this period. Even the experienced stars Landin, 31, and Hansen, 32, could still play at top level for a long time. Before the European Championship, there were many experts who said that Denmark has become even stronger since the World Cup a year ago.
Denmark is amazing for another reason as well. The team came under pressure after the opening loss to Iceland and France, but no top team like Norway was waiting for them. The next enemy was Hungary; a handball nation with big goals, but in the past it failed again and again.
That Hungary was the decisive stumbling block can be explained with an astonishingly weak evening from Hansen. At least partially. He changed only three out of eight attempts in that match, which is unusual for the world handball player, but it is crucial when a game is on the brink – the game ended 24:24.
In the 30:31 defeat against Iceland, the performance of the defense and goalkeeper was crucial; Landin and his representative only got five saves in 36 shots. It is difficult to win when the defensive is not a factor; At this European Championship, in addition to the Iceland game, it only happened in two other games that a team scored 30 goals in one game and still went off as loser.
Hansen’s golden hour from Herning
The Danish team was also considered so strong in the past because it didn’t just seem to depend on the performance of its two key players. But maybe that’s it. To explain that, you have to go back a little further. Anyone who saw the Danes’ final against Norway in Herning, Denmark in January 2019, witnessed a dismantling. Norway lost 22:31. It was a frenzied endgame. This team is unbeatable for years, one thought. But this evening was the temporary end of a long journey, which is now becoming apparent a year later.
The big handball nation has often been in a World Cup final in recent years, but that always ended in disappointment. The final defeat in 2011 was particularly dramatic when Denmark lost to France only in extra time. Mikkel Hansen and Niklas Landin were already the stars at that time, and in the years after that hopes continued to rest on them. They remained the heroes when Denmark won big games; their faces were shown when Denmark went empty-handed.
It’s hard to get to the top in sports. But it is even harder to stay at the top of the world. Hansen and Landin did it for years, but after January 27, 2019 and the first World Cup title in Danish history, their mission was accomplished, their careers gold-plated. However, the tension of years of efforts may have abated. Perhaps the team really lacked the famous last percentages of superstars this year. You can’t prove that, but it wouldn’t be unusual.
Towards the end of the game against Russia, Mikkel Hansen did a Kempa trick. Denmark won the insignificant game 31:28. Hansen scored seven goals, Landin fended off another 31 percent of the opposing throws. It was her last message on the EM stage. At least this year.