Despite many of its key players had called it a day in the national team after the Olympic triumph last summer, Serbia dominated the FINA World League European qualifiers last weekend in Podgorica (MNE). The Olympic title-holder beat Italy, the reigning world champion, while Spain downed host Montenegro for the bronze medal and a place in the Super Final. As for the women, the Netherlands topped Spain for the first place in the tournament staged in Tenerife.
In the men’s European final, the top eight sides produced a series of thrilling matches – including three of the four quarterfinals right on the opening day. Italy managed to edge out Croatia (8-6), Montenegro had to dig deep to beat France (11-10) while Spain won an encounter of twists and turns against Hungary (10-9). This was the re-match of the Olympic bronze medal game while the last QF featured the two sides having reached the Olympic final in Tokyo, Serbia and Greece. This contest offered less excitements as the Serbs thrashed the Greeks 13-6, setting the tone for the remaining of the tournament.
Indeed, many thought that the team, which absolutely dominated the water polo scene in the past decade, would be easier to catch now since many players of the golden generation – delivering back-to-back Olympic titles – retired from playing in the national team. Losing Filip Filipovic, Dusko Pijetlovic, Milan Aleksic, Andrija Prlainovic and Stefan Mitrovic would have been a tremendous blow for any team – even one by one, not all at the same time. These magnificent five had no less than 2000 caps among them (!) – Filipovic alone had 660 appearances and Pijetlovic 460 – so head coach Dejan Savic was facing a huge challenge.
However, we also know that the Serbian school is the most productive of all – and we could see a spectacular proof of that in Podgorica. Though the team had some minor drops in playing level, like in the semi-final against Spain (re-match of the Olympic semi and 2018 European final) when their rivals came back from three goals down in the last period, still, the young team prevailed at the end and scored the game-winner for 11-10.
Italy rebounded from its 2021 miseries – lost to the Serbs in the Olympic quarters so missed the medal rounds for the first time since 2008 – and after taking down Croatia, they managed to upend Montenegro in the semis 9-7, despite some brave efforts from the young home side. However, the ‘Tour de Yugoslavia’ ended in a defeat in the final – the third post-YUG country stopped the Italians’ march as the Serbs dominated the game, once again outstanding goaltending helped them to earn a convincing 12-9 win.
Spain ended the Montenegrins’ dream of making the Super Final as the European runner-up crashed the hosts 15-10 (the fourth European country will be host France which finished 8th, a bit disappointing performance, in wake of their upset of Spain in the prelims).
The women had a tournament with six teams a couple of weeks earlier in Tenerife. The meet gathered the traditional powerhouses whose battles never produce the same outcome – final ranks always came down on tiny details, most of the big matches are decided by a single goal at any major events. This time the Netherlands managed to go all the way, beating France in the quarters (18-6), then Italy in the semis (9-7) and host Spain in
The final in a nailbiter (12-11). This was a fine boost for the 2018 European champions after they missed the podium at the 2020 Europeans and then couldn’t make the medal round at the Olympics either.
Reigning European champion Spain had to settle for the silver, just like at the Olympics – though it was still a relief for the host side as they had to produce a miraculous comeback against Hungary in the semis where the trailed 2-8 but managed to produce a strong finish to save the game to a penalty shootout at 12-12, which they won 7-6. The Magyars then lost the bronze medal match to Italy 10-9 (another single-goal difference…) – at least a piece of good news for the Setterosa which had been in ruins after missing the cut for the Olympics at the qualifiers played at home.
Next stop for the national teams is the FINA World Championships in Hungary in June, followed by the respective Super Finals in July, before heading to Split, site of the 2022 European Water Polo Championships on 27 August–10 September.
1. Serbia, 2. Italy, 3. Spain, 4. Montenegro, 5. Hungary, 6. Croatia, 7. Greece, 8. France
1. Netherlands, 2. Spain, 3. Italy, 4. Hungary, 5. Greece, 6. France