Doha 2024: Great Britain set for first World Championships in 11 years amid hope for a brighter future (part two)

Credit to: European Aquatics

In the second of a two-part series, European Aquatics looks at the achievements of the Great Britain’s senior women’s water polo team at the 2024 European Championships and beyond to Doha.

Read part one here.

There was a real buzz back home as the squad flew out to Eindhoven for the 2024 European Championships and although expectations were relatively low, there was a growing feeling that Great Britain could trouble the top eight.

With a core group of players – Annie Clapperton, Katy Cutler, Kathy Rogers, Toula Falvey and Lily Turner – playing professionally overseas, it enhanced the squad’s strength and gave them a real chance of upsetting the fully-funded teams they would face in Eindhoven.

“My vision for this squad of players has always been to provide opportunities for them to play in international competitions, and for them – individually and collectively – to progress in the sport,” said Buller, who, along with assistant coach Peggy Etiebet, has actively encouraged his team to seek opportunities at clubs abroad or in the American college program.

Credit to: European Aquatics

Great Britain began their first European campaign in a decade with three impressive wins – against Slovakia (7-12), Bulgaria (6-19) and Germany (6-12).

It was the perfect start, but in the crossovers, Great Britain faced the daunting task of taking on Israel, who have emerged as one of the most up-and-coming water polo nations in recent years, and finished sixth at the 2022 European Championships in Split.

“Israel’s performances have been amazing and they’ve achieved so much,” said Buller.

“I’ve visited their High Performance Centre in Netanya and seen the great work they are doing.

“All the Israel squads are working together for around 22 hours per week and their 2003 team recently beat Italy, which was just huge for them.

“So we knew the crossover game was going to be incredibly difficult, as they have that professional set-up and have been training with top teams like Greece.

“I have tremendous admiration and respect for what they’re achieving and think they’ve got the right model for countries like ourselves to follow.

“In that crossover game, I knew we couldn’t let them get more than two goals ahead, as their confidence would just get bigger and bigger, so that’s why we called the time-outs at 3-1 and 7-5.

“Our biggest advantage was to keep it nervy for them and to keep in the game, keep it close, so when we forced an exclusion at 3-1, we had a set play we’d been working on and managed to execute it perfectly.

“We’d developed confidence within ourselves and we’d started to have some success – not against the superpowers like Hungary, and the Netherlands, but at our level – so we’d talked a lot about those kind of situations, about having the belief to overcome setbacks in games.

“Trailing 7-5 late on, we needed to weather another storm and go again.”

Credit to: European Aquatics

And go again they did, with the tournament’s overall top scoring centre Falvey eventually firing in midway through the fourth quarter for 9-9 to force a dramatic penalty shootout.

“We were never ahead in the game, but everyone – the whole team – showed great resilience,” beamed Buller.

“We’d prepared for penalties back home, so we were ready, but one problem we had was two of our chosen shooters – Katy Cutler and Katie Brown – had been wrapped up and were on the bench, so we had to rethink.

“I said to all the players not to worry, as the world’s best player could miss, it’s a lottery, so I told them to just go out there and be proud of what you’ve already achieved.

“When we scored the winning penalty it just brought everything home – just how hard and difficult it had been to qualify in the first place – and then the realisation we’d now also qualified for the next European Championships in Belgrade.

“We knew how much this meant to all the players in the squad, all the players back home, and the future of the women’s game in Great Britain, and I think that showed in all our celebrations.

“It’s hard to judge how successful our performances have been so far, as you need to be judged over a series of European Championships, and that’s what we want to achieve next, we want to return and keep competing at this high level and have that consistency.”

Credit to: European Aquatics

For Great Britain, the celebrations didn’t stop there, as three days later, there were more jubilant scenes when they beat Croatia 9-11 in the 7th/8th classification final.

That result saw them secure their ticket to the World Championships, but there was uncertainty whether the team would receive support from British Swimming – and also if the players could get more time off from their day jobs – in order to compete.

“Most of the national teams we face all have professional players, whereas ours all aren’t, and they have other commitments,” said Buller.

“We’ve got teachers, architects, solicitors, who all have minimal annual leave, so it’s very difficult for them to keep having the time off, but thankfully all of their employers have been hugely supportive and understanding.”

British Swimming’s full support was also forthcoming and his team will now head to Doha to take on Canada, Italy and South Africa in Group D.

It’s a tough group and although no one expects them to upset Olympic hopefuls Canada and Italy, the bigger picture is that Great Britain are back on the world stage for the first time in 11 years and this is just the start of their return to the top table of international water polo.

Credit to: European Aquatics

Great Britain’s outstanding performance in Eindhoven hasn’t gone unnoticed around the world, either.

“I saw them during some training sessions in Zeist before the European Championships and the staff and players seem so determined to achieve more and more,” said the Netherlands coach Evangelos Doudesis.

“I’m glad they’ve managed to get over the various challenges they’ve faced and look forward to seeing them in Doha.”

Elsewhere, USA’s three-time Olympic champion head coach Adam Krikorian commented: “I think people forget that before the 2012 Olympics, Great Britain were a reputable international team with wins over a couple of traditional water polo powers. 

“I can even recall feeling relieved that our team was able to win by only a goal (5-6) in the 2012 test event in London.

“It just shows you that when the resources invested meets the passion of the program, great things can happen.

“So, I think we are all excited for them and their future program after seeing the results from the European Championships.”