French hero Karabatic could win a third Olympic gold medal at Tokyo 2020 and have a fairytale ending to an iconic handball career
Nikola Karabatic has won it all and done it all. Many times over.
It's hardly a surprise that he is a French national hero when you look back through his incredible handball career.
Two-time Olympic champion, four-time world champion, three-time European champion, three-time IHF world player of the year.
Karabatic is a beast.
Add a Rio 2016 silver medal to his 14 other major international titles, the 49 club trophies including 17 national titles in 18 seasons.
And the numerous French, Spanish and German league and cup wins, the three EHF Champions League victories, the countless individual awards, and it gives you an idea of what he has achieved in the game.
"Sometimes when I see my record in an article, I don't believe it myself, I almost blush," he told le Parisien.
Already considered one of the greatest of all time, the 35-year-old wants the perfect ending to his career at Tokyo 2020.
"Olympic gold is the Holy Grail!" - Karabatic to Tele-Loisirs
Karabatic was born into handball in Yugoslavia on April 11 1984, to a Serbian father and a Croatian mother.
His father Branko played for the Železničar handball team from the Serbian city of Niš and when he was offered a job coaching in France, the whole family moved, including a three-year-old Nikola.
From an early age his size was imposing and the game of handball was a perfect fit.
He grew up watching Jackson Richardson, Frederic Volle, Denis Lathoud, heroes of the French 1995 world champions.
By the age of 16, in the year 2000, he was already playing for French club Montpelier, by 2002 he had his first league title, still a teenager.
'The Beast' became an obvious nickname as he grew to 1.96 metres tall (6'5") and weighing in at over 100kg.
Besides his imposing size, the French centre-back has uncommon quickness in getting his shot off and pass away, allied to a deep understanding and vision of the game.
It wasn't long before the national team came knocking.
It wasn't long either before international success followed domestic glory.
Losing out by a single goal to Germany in the semi-final of the 2003 Worlds in Lisbon, Portugal, Karabatic won his first medal on the world stage, France defeating Spain 27-22 in the third place final.
Both at Montpelier and in the French setup the young star had the opportunity to learn from the likes of Jerome Fernandez - France's greatest goalscorer of all time - Jackson Richardson - the country's most capped player ever - and 'The Rock' Didier Dinart, master of the defensive arts.
His first Olympic experience came at Athens 2004.
But despite playing in a side packed with talent and experience, France crashed out in the quarter-finals to Russia.
When asked in 2017 what his greatest disappointment of his career was, he didn't hesitate:
"The 2004 Olympics. We finished 5th by losing a single match (That quarter-final vs. Russia). We had an extraordinary team, big ambitions. It was a crushing blow to our morale."
France took hard-earned lessons from Athens into Beijing with them.
Before that 2005 brought another bronze medal at the World champs in Tunisia before Karabatic's finest moment in a French shirt thus far in the final of the 2006 European Championships in Switzerland.
Nikola went into 'beast mode' scoring 11 goals to lead Les Bleus to a stomping 31-23 victory over Spain.
The Olympic cycle before Beijing 2008 suddenly looked very promising until the French were brought back down to earth in January at Euro 2008, losing to Croatia in the semi-finals by a single goal.
They took bronze, but came away with a sense of wounded pride, and a fire was lit before the Olympics in China.
'Les Costauds' ('The Beefy Ones') wreaked revenge on Croatia in the Olympic semi-final beating them 25-23.
The Olympic final provided another stage for Karabatic to shine - he scored 8 (Top scorer) and wore Olympic gold for the first time.
He was 24.
When asked in 2020 what his most memorable title was, he chose that moment in Beijing.
"It's really difficult to choose one title because there were many!" he told French TV, "but it has to be the first time I became Olympic champion. The Olympics represent something special for my sport and me."
Beijing 2008 began a period of total dominance for the team that earned them a new nickname: 'les Experts.'
The Olympic champs became world champs in 2009, defending that title in 2011, with a Euros winners' trophy sandwiched in between.
With Dinart and Karabatic bossing the defence, and Karabatic in particular adding to the goals of Michael Guigou, Daniel Narcisse, and Jerome Fernandez, this was a golden age of French handball.
They became an unstoppable force.
Sweden made them work for it in the Olympic final in London, but the French found a way, taking the gold medal with a 22-21 scoreline.
France became the first team in the history of Olympic handball to retain the title.
Karabatic made the Olympic All-Star team.
But 2012 also brought a low ebb in the French star's career.
On 30 September 2012, he was involved in match-fixing and was arrested along with his wife Geraldine Pillet and his brother Luka, who played alongside Nikola at Montpelier at the time.
Suspicions were raised when Montpelier lost to Cesson-Rennes, a much weaker side, and the brothers were implicated in match-fixing fraud.
A fine reported to be €40,000 for the brothers, a two-month suspended sentence, and a six-match ban for Nikola - two for Luka - was the punishment handed down.
“They are both known guilty of conduct that does not comply with the principles and ethical rules of handball,” read the statement from the French Handball Federation.
Nikola Karabatic met his wife Geraldine Pillet in 2010 and they have two children, Alec who was born in April 2016 and Nora who joined the family two years later..
“Being a dad has completely changed my life as an athlete, but especially as man," the handball star told Le Parisenne in 2017.
"I try to be as present as possible, to play with him and help Geraldine the best I can, my companion. It gives me such energy, such joy”
The brothers completed their sentence, and some community service, and were forgiven.
They were even announced as part of the French Olympic squad for Rio 2016, and could make history together this time.
But the first big blip that proved the French were not invincible came early in the next Olympic cycle.
Old foe Croatia stunned the World and Olympic champs in Spain, dumping them out of the 2013 World Championships in the quarter final stage.
Convincingly too: 30-23
But Karabatic & Co. wrote it off as a freak result, recomposing themselves to win the 2014 Euros and reclaim their world crown at Qatar 2015.
Nikola was once more the man for the big moment scoring 5 goals to help defeat hosts Qatar in the final, finishing as the French top scorer.
All roads led to Rio and another historic feat never-before seen: three consecutive Olympic titles.
But Denmark and Karabatic's PSG teammate Mikkel Hanssen hadn't read the script.
Hanssen is the only man other than Karabatic to have won the IHF's prestigious World Player of the Year three times, and was sublime in the final in the Brazilian capital, scoring 8 goals and inspiring his team to victory.
It was Denmark's first ever Olympic gold medal.
Photographer Sean Haffey captured perfectly just how devastated Karabatic was by the defeat:
To dispel the ghosts of Rio, France have to qualify first.
The 2017 world champions who were heroes in front of a home crowd were taken over by Nikola's ex-teammate Didier Dinart as head coach, and fell into a downward spiral.
They exited the Euro 2020 tournament in January after just two matches.
It was a seismic event in the handball world, France didn't even make it to the knockout stage and now face into a qualifying tournament to earn the right to play at Tokyo 2020.
Their rivals in the qualifiers are Croatia, Tunisia, and Portugal.
It's almost impossible to imagine a tougher group.
This is their lowest point in an entire generation, but should the now veteran Karabatic lead les Bleus to Tokyo and take home that gold medal against all odds, then surely he can retire happily as the greatest of all time.