While Ivano Balic was not always on the world's greatest teams, his flashy attacking presence caught the eyes of handball fans around the world.
Balic is best known for his play with the Croatian National Team, where he captured five straight MVP trophies at five major tournaments. After winning the World Championships with Croatia in 2003, Balic was MVP of the 2004 European Championships, 2004 Olympic Games, 2005 World Championships, 2006 European Championships, and 2007 World Championships. This incredible run solidified Balic as one of the best to ever play.
Despite these individual accolades, Balic remains a team player, downplaying his own success to that of the team.
His teams still had success, though: Croatia captured gold medals at the 2001 Mediterranean Games, 2003 World Championships, 2004 Olympics, and 2006 World Cup; silver at the 2005 and 2009 World Championships, as well as the 2008 and 2010 European Championships; and bronze at the 2012 Olympics and 2012 and 2016 European Championships.
In 2010, the International Handball Federation (IHF) held an online poll asking who the greatest handball players of all-time were. Balic was one of the three male nominees, alongside Nikola Karabatic and Talant Dujshebaev. Balic won 48.7% of the overall vote, giving him the title of Best Male Handball Player of All-Time, although many might argue that Karabatic has passed him in recent years.
In recent years, Nikola Karabatic has made his case for being the greatest handball player of all-time. His third IHF World Player of the Year award in 2016 gave him the most ever (at the time) after winning it previously in 2007 and 2014. Apart from these, he also has 36 other individual awards, including MVP of the 2011 and 2017 World Championships and 2008 and 2014 European Championships.
Karabatic's club record is simply stunning. He began his club career with Montpellier HB, where his team won four French league titles in a row from (2002-2005) and won the European Handball Federation Champions League in 2003. He then went to Germany and won four straight German titles with THW Kiel (2006-2009) before returning to France and winning three straight titles with Montpelier again (2010-2012). He then won the Spanish league twice with FC Barcelona Handball (2014 and 2015) and the French league (2016-2018) with Paris Saint-Germain Handball.
Karabatic has also been a part of successes at the international level. Despite being born in then-Yugoslavia, Karabatic's family relocated to France when he was a child, and he plays for the French National Team in international handball. With Karabatic on the team, France won gold at the European Championships in 2006, 2010, and 2014; the Olympic Games in 2008 and 2012; and the World Championships in 2009, 2011, 2015, and 2017.
Karabatic is a different type of player from Ivano Balic in that he is a bigger and more imposing figure. Karabatic uses his strength to get shots off and distribute the ball on offense and is a physical wall on defense. His game is often likened to LeBron James in basketball.
Karabatic gets the second spot on this list because of his involvement in a match-fixings scandal, though that shouldn't take away from his dominance on the court.
Magnus Wislander was a Swedish handball player who played club handball for Regberdslid Goteborg in Sweden and THW Kiel in Germany. At Regberdslid, Wislander won the Elitserien (Swedish league) five times, including four seasons in a row (from 1984-85 to 1988-89). Wislander helped Kiel win the Bundesliga (German league) seven times: every season from 1993-94 to 2001-02. He was also voted as the best player of THW Kiel every year from 1994-1999 and the best foreign player in the Bundesliga from 1994-1996.
Wilsander also had a great international career, winning gold at two World Championships (1990 and 1999) and four of the first five European Championships (1994, 1998, 2000, and 2002). Sweden came tantalizingly close to earning gold at the Olympics, too, but instead brought home three silver medals (1998, 1992, and 1996).
In 2000, Wilsander was elected Best Male Handball Player of the 20th Century by the IHF. He was also selected as the Best Player of the 20th Century by Sweden.
While there have been better players after him, it's arguable that Talant Dujshebaev was the best player of his time. He certainly has the hardware to back it up; Dujshebaev has won 62 trophies, 37 as a manager, over his long career.
Dujshebaev played for the Unified Team (recently the Soviet Union's team) in 1992, winning a gold medal in the 1992 Olympics. He scored the most goals in the entire tournament, with 47 in seven matches, and was also voted Best Center Back of the tournament.
Dujshebaev also won best center back awards at the 1995 World Championship, 1997 World Championship, and 1998 European Championship. He was MVP of three different tournaments: the 1996 European Championships, 1997 World Championships, and 2000 Summer Olympics.
Dujshebaev went on to play 133 matches for the Russian National Team in the next year, scoring 726 goals. He then became a Spanish citizen and scored 569 goals in 158 matches.
At the club level, Dujshebaev played over 20 years for five different teams in the Soviet Union, Spain, and Germany.
Dujshebaev's performances on the domestic and international levels earned him one of three spots on the IHF's Best Male Handball Player of All-Time voting ballot in 2010. He also finished second to Magnus Wislander in the IHF's Best Player of the 20th Century voting. Dujshebaev earned two IHF Player of the Year awards as well, in 1994 and 1996.
It is not often that a left back is heralded as a top player, but Mikkel Hansen undoubtedly is. Similar in build to his Paris Saint-Germain teammate, Nikola Karabatic, Hansen is a powerful shooter and a proven goal scorer.
Hansen was the top goal scorer of the World Championship twice (2011 and 2019), EHF Champions League (2012 and 2016), and the LNH Division I (French league) (2015, 2016). He brought home All-Star Left back honors in the 2016 Olympics; 2011 World Championships; 2012, 2014, and 2018 European Championships; and 2017 EHF Champions League. Hansen was the All-Star Playmaker of the Champions League in 2014 and 2015 too.
Milkkel Hansen plays for the Danish National Team. In six major international competitions, Hansen's teams have brought home three gold and three silver medals. His club teams have brought home a combined 24 trophies throughout his 20-plus year career.