Gergo Zalanki and Roberta Bianconi named water polo players of the year in the 2023 European Aquatics Awards

Photo: Istvan Derencsenyi / European Aquatics

Hungary’s Gergo Zalanki has landed his first European Aquatics individual award after being named top male water polo athlete, while Italy’s Roberta Bianconi triumphs for the third time, winning top female water polo athlete, in the prestigious 2023 European Aquatics Awards.

Hungary’s Gergo Zalanki claimed the accolade for the first time in men’s water polo, while among the women it’s a big return for Italy’s Roberta Bianconi, who was recognised twice earlier, though that dates back to 2015 and 2016 when she won in back-to-back years.

Gergo Zalanki’s success comes as no surprise as he enjoyed a brilliant season, himself admitted “the best ever so far”.

Whatever he touched with his lethal left hand turned to gold – he won all possible titles with his club side Recco, including a third straight Champions League triumph, the European Super Cup and the usual home double, the league title and cup in Italy.

However, what propelled him to the top in almost all of the season-ending voting was his out-of-this-earth performance at the World Championships.

He was unstoppable and ruthless in attack while leading Hungary to the nation’s fourth world title.

Just in the knockout phase, he hit six against the US in the quarter-finals, two against Spain in the semis and the same again against Greece in the final, as well as burying both his penalties in the shootout to secure the gold.

Photo: Istvan Derencsenyi / European Aquatics

This earned him the MVP award in the championships, so not surprisingly, he was named the world’s best player by World Aquatics and now he can add the European Aquatics Award as well – and he was also extremely popular in the public votes.

While in these Awards he was competing with fellow international water polo stars, back home in Hungary he even made the top three in the national male athlete of the year contest, ahead of several medal-winning athletes from individual sports (while the world champion team was also in the hunt in the team category).

Zalanki is only the second leftie to be awarded the title since the inaugural 2008 edition, though Serbian legend Filip Filipovic already bagged five victories.

Also, Zalanki is the first Hungarian to finish on top in 10 years, as back in 2013 Denes Varga won under the ‘same conditions’, he was MVP at the Worlds where Hungary came first.

Gergo Zalanki was a clear winner ahead of his Recco team-mate Francesco di Fulvio, who was also part of their club’s outstanding season and he added a World Cup silver with the national team.

Greece goalie Emmanouil Zerdevas is ranked third – his heroics, which were instrumental to the Greeks’ silver medal winning performance at the World Championships, made him a popular choice among the fans, indeed he got the most votes and that put him ahead of Spain’s World Cup winning and World bronze medallist pair of Felipe Perrone and Alvaro Granados.

Photo: European Aquatics

While Zalanki’s win was on the cards, Roberta Bianconi’s award is somewhat stunning – and highlights the importance of popularity among the fans.

The world-class Italian was propelled to first place by the huge number of votes she received from the supporters, indeed almost as many as the other four shortlisted players received.

Though it weighed 30% in overall, it was still enough to finish on top, even though the federations and voting experts preferred Spain’s Judith Forca and Netherlands’ Laura Aarts.

However, there is no doubt that Bianconi’s award is well-deserved, as she was pivotal in Italy’s outstanding run at the World Championships.

In Fukuoka, the Italians accomplished what no other side had been able to in the previous 10 years – beat the mighty USA team in the knockout phase of a major championships.

After eliminating the reigning Olympic and world champions in the quarters, they ended up in third place.

Photo: European Aquatics

This is the third triumph for Bianconi, who has also been awarded top spot in 2015 and 2016.

Spain’s Judith Forca was denied to claim back-to-back awards and her country’s streak of winning three awards in a row among the women was also halted.

The brilliant leftie, who bagged another Champions League victory with Sabadell, followed by a World Cup bronze and a World Championship silver, came runner-up like her national team in Fukuoka.

The best goalie of the World Championships, Laura Aarts from the Netherlands ranked third.

She was sensational while the Dutch returned to the throne after an agonisingly long wait – previously, they had triumphed in 1991 at the Worlds.

She was also part of the show when the Netherlands claimed a World Cup silver in the summer and was the leading figure in Dunaujvaros’ unrealistic Champions League run which saw the underdogs reach the Final Four.

A bit surprisingly, Elena Ruiz, MVP of the Worlds, was ranked fourth though she had the same results as Forca (plus the individual merit), ahead of Netherlands’ world champion scoring machine Simone van der Kraats.

WATER POLO PLAYER OF THE YEAR
ALL-TIME WINNERS

Men
2008: Peter Biros (Hungary)
2009: Filip Filipovic (Serbia)
2010: Vanja Udovicic (Serbia)
2011: Stefano Tempesti (Italy)
2012: Miho Boskovic (Croatia)
2013: Denes Varga (Hungary)
2014: Filip Filipovic (Serbia)
2015: Dusko Pijetlovic (Serbia)
2016: Filip Filipovic (Serbia)
2017: Marko Bijac (Croatia)
2018: Filip Filipovic (Serbia)
2019: Francesco di Fulvio (Italy)
2021: Filip Filipovic (Serbia)
2022: Unai Aguirre (Spain)
2023: Gergo Zalanki (Hungary)

Women
2008: Danielle De Bruijn (Netherlands)
2009: Iefke van Belkum (Netherlands)
2010: Sofia Konukh (Russia)
2011: Alexandra Asimaki (Greece)
2012: Anni Espar (Spain)
2013: Jennifer Pareja (Spain)
2014: Maria Garcia (Spain)
2015: Roberta Bianconi (Italy)
2016: Roberta Bianconi (Italy)
2017: Laura Ester (Spain)
2018: Sabrina van der Sloot (Netherlands)
2019: Laura Ester (Spain)
2021: Beatriz Ortiz (Spain)
2022: Judith Forca (Spain)
2023: Roberta Bianconi (Italy)