Handball

Mads Mensah Larsen: Denmark handball's creative force 

Olympic and world champion, Mensah is standing on the shoulders of Danish giants at new club Flensburg-Handewitt

By Ken Browne ·

Everyone remembers Mikkel Hansen monstering the Rio 2016 Olympics, but few recall it was Mads Mensah Larsen who scored the goal that clinched gold.

With one minute left on the clock Denmark led Nikola Karabatic's France 27:25 and Mensah was in possession, Denmark passing it around, keeping the ball, running down the clock when he spotted the gap, ghosted by three French defenders and bounced a brilliant shot in under French keeper Olivier Nyokas.

That goal was a snapshot of Mensah Larsen's career: Always unpredictable, ever unfazed, and at times simply unplayable.

His goal unleashed the chaos of a team celebrating their first ever Olympic gold medal, Mensah grabbed the person nearest - goalkeeper Niklas Landin - and let the tears flow freely.

25 the day he wore gold in the Future Arena in Rio, now he's 29 and still at the top of his game, making big noise in the Bundesliga moving from Rhein Neckar Lowen to SG Flensburg Handewitt.

With the Tokyo 2020 Olympics now set for 2021, Denmark's explosive playmaker is hungry for more club success in a new season and says that Denmark's disappointing Euro 2020 in January will fuel the fire for an Olympic title defence.

Men's Handball gold for Denmark

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

Mads Mensah to Flensburg

Mensah's transfer to Flensburg is a signing up there with the most high profile moves this season along with Sander Sagosen to THW Kiel and Dainis Kristopans to PSG.

Mensah will continue a rich Danish tradition at the northern German club, following in the footsteps of greats like Lars Christiansen, Thomas Mogensen, Erik Veje Rasmussen, Anders Eggert

That tradition continues as Mensah joins Danish players Lasse Svan Hansen - captain of the team and fellow Olympic champ, Simon Hald - Danish World champ, and 24-year-old Lasse Møller in the current squad.

November 2019 was when news lit up social media confirming the rumours: Mads Mensah was leaving Rhein Neckar Lowen, where he'd won the Bundesliga in 2016 and 2017 to join fierce rivals Flensburg who won it in 2018 and 2019.

"When the offer came, it quickly became clear to me that I would like to join the SG," he said at the time, "here Danish handball legends have proven their skills. It is a great honor for me to continue this story."

At his new club Mensah will help fill the Holger Glandorf-sized hole in the squad as the club legend steps upstairs into a management role after nine years of service on the court, Mensah will also join forces with Norwegian talent Goran Johannesson.

"The SG lives a big handball culture, the whole city loves handball. Of course, I have been following the SG in recent years, also because of my colleagues from the national team. I’m ready to engage with passion and win titles with this great team," he said.

Motivated to win what many say is the toughest handball national league title on the planet again with his new club, he also has his eyes on a first Champions League winners' medal and keeping Denmark at the top of the world.

Mensah plays with the same passion for the game that he did as a kid growing up in the small town of Holbæk in the north of the country.

The beginning

Born in Denmark to a Danish mother and a Ghanaian father, Mensah uses his dad's surname to show his pride for his African heritage.

He discovered handball at just five years of age, watching his brother play.

"I wanted to do what he did, that's why I started," he tells Kolding Storcenter in an interview.

"Then our grandfather started helping us train - it was cool. I love the sport’s many man-to-man actions and that there are so many elements to the game.

"There are many different ways to be good at handball, and then I love the whole dynamic and pace of the game. I have always dreamed of making a living from it, and I got my first contract as a 17-year-old.”

Gifted technically and physically, that contract came with AG København in 2008, and he was loaned out to Nordsjælland for a year in 2010-11.

"It was very important for my future career," he told the Rhein Neckar Lowen site in an interview back in 2014.

"Since Nikolaj Markussen was injured, I was on the court a lot. And that's exactly what a young player needs. There is no question about it: it would have been much more difficult for me to get gametime in Copenhagen if I hadn't taken this step."

A big asset to Mensah's game is his personality too: Fierce and fearless on the court, you rarely see him without a smile off it.

He has an ability to fit in and feel good and put everyone around him at ease, the ultimate team player.

Bankruptcy and big wins

2012 was his first taste of national senior success with Copenhagen, but also of adversity.

After winning the Danish league title and qualifying for the Champions League final four, the ambitious project led by Jesper Nielsen fell apart, the club went bankrupt, and simply disappeared.

It "was and is one of the biggest disappointments of my career," Mensah told rhein-neckar-loewen.de.

"Everything was perfect, some of the world's best players were my teammates... the atmosphere at the home games was excellent, friends and family of mine lived in Copenhagen."

But he didn't let it stop him, Mensah joined Aalborg and won the Danish league again the following year.

The bigger clubs around Europe could no longer ignore the talents of this dynamic, free-scoring centre-back and the Rhein-Neckar Lions took him to the Bundesliga where he grew into one of the best players in the German League.

Denmark's golden generation

Success with the national team ran parallel to his rise in the club game, a silver medal at the Junior Worlds in 2011 wet his appetite, he was voted to the tournament All-Star team in the centre back position in Greece.

Soon the greatest Danish generation ever started to come together, led by one of greatest to ever play the game, Mikkel Hansen, but there is much more to this Denmark team.

They came close to topping the podium at the 2013 Worlds and the 2014 Euros, winning silver, but gold at the Rio 2016 Olympics was the crowning achievement. It was followed by the world title in 2019.

Hansen was unbelievable and undisputed MVP, but without Lasse Svan (the other) Hansen, the brilliant Niklas Landin in goal (Both selected to the Olympic All-Star team), Casper Mortensen, Mads Mensah Larsen and others, Denmark wouldn't leave Brazil with gold.

Mensah has the ability to make everyone around him better, and the humility not to need to be constantly in the spotlight.

"It was a very wild experience to win the Olympics!" - Mads Mensah Larsen

"The Olympics is just special because it is only every four years," he said to Kolding Storcenter.

"And it is so difficult just to get to the Olympics. Being part of a larger team of all Denmark's athletes who are sent to the Olympics, it is really a cool and different experience!"

And Tokyo 2020? "I hope we can repeat the success."

Love is a handball court

But there's more to life than handball.

And Mensah isn't afraid to show his soft side on the court either, like when he proposed to his now wife Line Bødker on the court at the SAP Arena, Mannheim in 2018 after a match.

Fast forward two years and they have two kids and a new place in Flensburg, next to a fjord in Northern Germany. Home.

So how has fatherhood changed him?

"It has changed my priorities and what I think is important," he told Kolding Storcenter. " When we have lost a match, it does a lot to my mood to come home and get a smile from my daughter."

"The two at home are the most important thing to me. Family life fits in really well with my career in many ways. Many of my working days are quite short, so I feel lucky and privileged to be able to spend so much time with her.

"Then there are periods when I am very much away. Right after she was born, I had to be away for 4 days, it was not that cool, but I clearly think the pluses outweigh all that. ”

Olympic Fuel

Despite the glittering honour roll next to Mads Mensah Larsen's name, all the professional and personal success, there's still so much more to come both at club and country.

Like all great competitors he hates losing, and when World and Olympic champs Denmark crashed out of the 2020 Euros in January it hurt.

"It was over before it even started," Mensah said to Kolding Storcenter.

Denmark lost their opening match 31-30 to an Iceland inspired by Aron Palmarsson who scored 10, Mikkel Hansen bagging 9.

Then a 24-24 draw with Hungary sealed their fate, despite a win over Russia in the final game Denmark crashed out in the Group stage.

"I hope we take the defeat from the European Championships with us and use it as extra fuel for the Olympics. We are far too skilled not to be a bigger part of a European Championship than we were this time. 

"I hope we all remember what was missing this time and take it with us. I certainly hope it is not something we forget."