Feature | Handball

Sander Sagosen - so good even scientists want to know why

With a transfer to a new club and the chance to qualify for the Tokyo Olympic Games, the Norwegian is ready to prove that he's the best handball player in the world.

By Ken Browne ·

In Norway, they call Sander Sagosen "King in the North" for leading his national handball team to new heights.

Game of Thrones - where the nickname comes from - may be over, but Sagosen has barely begun.

Born on 24 September 1995, he has handball in his DNA, big dreams, and the time to make them happen.

Sagosen hit the headlines recently with a shock move from Parisian giants PSG, where he played with Nikola Karabatic and Mikkel Hansen, to Germany's THW Kiel.

The Norwegian playmaker has signed with Kiel for three seasons, and his arrival comes with great expectations.

"I am aware that expectations are big, pressure is big," he told 'The Zebra's' website in July, "but the bigger is the one which I put to myself. I believe in my qualities, roster and THW Kiel. THW Kiel are the biggest team in the world and in the moment has maybe the best roster in the world of handball."

He is hugely ambitious for his team and for himself.

“I hope that we can win five or six trophies in the first season," he said. "I want to be the best in the world and for everyone to agree on that."

Just don't expect this grounded Norwegian to act like he's the best ever.

"I don't want to act like a superstar. I want to be a nice guy who does great things on the handball field and maybe does good things besides." - Sander Sagosen

Norwegian national coach Christian Berge is one of a growing chorus proclaiming him the best player in the world already, along with Croatian star and new THW Kiel team-mate Domagoj Duvnjak.

Now Sagosen is ready to prove himself again in perhaps the toughest league in the world.

"I will give everything to win the Bundesliga trophy. That was my dream, to play in this League. Now, dreams have come true."

"A fairytale time"

Sagosen left Paris St-Germain after three years with a sackful of 'Coupes' and domestic titles but without the one they really wanted: the EHF Champions League.

“[It's] a shame that I am leaving Paris without being able to complete our joint mission,” Sagosen said, adding “this gives me the opportunity to get the best possible start with Kiel.”

PSG finished fourth in the Champions League in his first season at the club and in the 2018/19 campaign, Les Parisiens crashed out to Polish outfit PGE Vive Kielce in the quarter-finals.

Things were looking good this term as Sagosen helped PSG make the Champions League final four. Then the coronavirus pandemic struck.

The final four has been delayed until December with Sagosen cleared to play in it with new club THW.

So the Norwegian gamechanger, who qualified for the tournament in Cologne with PSG, could win it with Kiel.

Only in 2020.

The Norwegian star says he is looking forward to "a fairytale time" at THW Kiel which could see him in a Champions League final against his former PSG teammates Karabatic and Hansen.

"I can feel the love for handball on every corner"

The 'King in the North' could help Kiel become 'Kings of Europe' once more after their triumphs in 2007, 2010 and 2012.

Sagosen remembers watching the German team back then, and wants to bring joy back to a city that lives and breathes handball.

“I've seen a lot in my career, but the THW jersey gives me goose bumps. I come to the club that has the greatest handball history in the world. That makes me proud,” he told German paper Frankfurter Allegmeine Zeitung.

From day one in the seaside city of Kiel in the north of Germany, close to the Danish border, Sagosen felt right at home.

"Kiel is much more peaceful and greener than Paris," he said, “I enjoyed living in Paris, but in the end I was really tired of being in such a big metropolis. When others talked about Kiel, I thought that would be an exaggeration, but here I can really feel the love for handball on every corner, and the whole organisation breathes handball."

He has moved to Kiel with his partner Hanna Bredal Oftedal who also played handball for Norway until injury ended her promising career.

Sagosen continues, "Everyone I've met has been friendly. Everyone has offered to help us, and my partner and I have been received with open arms."

Another huge help in their settling-in period is that team-mate Rune Dahmke - a Kiel native - goes out with Hanna's older sister Stine, with Dahmke helping him to learn German in exchange for Norwegian lessons.

It all sounds like the perfect fit.

'King in the North'

On the international stage Sagosen is already a national hero, and his every move is closely followed.

The 'King in the North' nickname came during Sagosen's ridiculous displays at Euro 2020 in January.

After five games he had already scored 42 goals, assisted 33 others, was involved in 49 per cent of Norway’s goals, and led the team to five consecutive wins - including a huge 23:20 win against Sweden which left them top of the group. Sagosen scored 8 goals.

By the end of the tournament he was top scorer with 65 goals, led the assists table too, and was chosen as left-back for the All-Star team - ahead of Mikkel Hansen.

Sagosen at the Olympics?

Norway made it to the semi-final and the country stopped to watch, only Croatia stood in the way of their first ever Euro final.

Sagosen scored 10 and Norway looked final bound at 26-25 until Croatian giant Domagoj Duvnjak stepped up to score a last second penalty that sent the game into another period of extra time.

Croatia squeaked through 29-28, but went down in the final to Spain who joined world champions Denmark in qualifying for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Norway took home bronze, their first ever Euros medal, after defeating Slovenia 28-20.

While that wasn't enough for an automatic spot, all is not lost as Norway have a playoff chance in the Olympic Qualification Tournaments (OQT) to make it to Tokyo next summer.

Two from Norway, Brazil, Chile and South Korea will go to Japan and home advantage in Trondheim could prove significant with the competition taking place from 12-14 March 2021.

If Sagosen shows the form he did at Euro 2020, then Norway could be set for their first Games since 1972.

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Sagosen: Born to play handball

Sagosen was born into a handball family with his father Erlend playing 14 times for Norway as a goalkeeper.

And a youngster he showed natural ability but he also excelled at football and was picked for his regional side at 13.

Erland coached him in both sports with Sander eventually gravitating to handball.

As a child who was smaller than his peers, he had to use his speed and agility to work out ways to score.

This has turned him not only into one of the game's great players, but also one of its great thinkers.

And now at nearly 2m tall and weighing 95kg, Sagosen has the physical attributes to match his mental capacity.

Sander Sagosen: Family "teamwork"

But while there's no doubt that he was talented by nature, nurture has also played a huge part in Sagosen becoming the player he is today.

“Mum and Dad have meant everything,” he says. “Dad has taught me what he can, and he has also taught me our values. He’s the one who knows me the best, and he’s also the best coach I’ve ever had," he told the EHF.

“Mum can sometimes be forgotten, but she’s the one who makes it all work. It's teamwork.”

He grew up with an astroturf pitch in the garden and a gym in the basement, perfect for endless hours of practice - he even used it during the coronavirus lockdown with handball put on hold.

Just as importantly, he studied and learned the game with his family from a young age.

From eight or nine years old, he sat with his father and studied video of the best teams and players in the world.

When young Sander played matches, mum Monica was happy to bring the video camera and record. "Then it was straight home to watch the movie while we had dinner, so we sat and analysed together. It was just something we liked to do, and it was great for me," Sagosen told Norwegian public broadcaster NRK.

They wore out the pause and rewind buttons, questioning every pass, every move, every shot. Was that the right thing to do? Should he have held on another second? Did he have a teammate in a better position? A young Sander soaked it all up and then put the theory into practice in training and during matches.

"I think it helped me become more analytical, able to recognise as many different situations as possible when I’m out on the court," Sagosen says.

Sagosen's sixth sense

Anyone who watches the Norwegian play comes away with the sense that he can see events on the handball court before they unfold.

And being that split second faster gives him the edge, allowing him to cut teams open with quick and decisive actions.

Stand off him? He'll fire a shot into the top corner. Double team him? He'll unload the perfect pass at the perfect time for a team-mate.

It's the physical and cerebral double threat that makes Sagosen almost unplayable at times.

In fact, his 'sixth sense' became such a fascination in his home country that scientists even decided to study him in July.

They fitted the player with a pair of glasses equipped with five cameras to see what he sees.

One recorded what he was looking at, and four more captured every movement of his retina which meant it was possible to see what he was focussing on at all times.

So what did they find?

An uncanny ability to search, scan, read, and interpret spaces, a hyper awareness in his peripheral vision - the scientists compared him to football's Italian midfield maestro Andrea Pirlo - all of which allows him to foresee movements and act on this information in milliseconds.

"I’m a better handball player when I don’t think." - Sander Sagosen

Sander Sagosen takes on the Croatian defence in the EURO 2020 semi-final in Stockholm

But there's so much more that you simply cannot measure: The endless hours of training and dedication over the past two decades, the self-belief, the brilliance in his muscle memory earned through endless repetition.

Sagosen himself likes to keep it simple and let it happen: "The thing is, I’ve always played by intuition... I know that I’m a better handball player when I don’t think."

That's what's got him this far, now THW Kiel and Norway fans can't wait to see how far he can take them.