By Noelle Theodoulou
This fairytale began in 2017 when the current Israeli women’s water polo national team was a club team of low-profile players who shared a dream. They achieved the first step towards making their dream come true by qualifying for the 2018 European Championships in Barcelona. Since their debut, Greek Head Coach Dimitris Mavrotas and the players have kept their sights on an increasingly brighter future with nothing holding them back.
Israel’s team of young players who lacked international experience arrived in Spain for their first elite tournament with resistance from the Catalan leftist party Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP). The political intervention solicited a diplomatic exchange amongst members of the Royal Spanish Swimming Federation, its Israeli counterpart, and the International Swimming Federation.
After the lengthy discussions, the Israeli women defended their rights and protected their dream of competing at the European Championships. They played against the Spanish team in a postponed match at a relocated venue to commence their tournament. Considering the adversity, the Israeli women finished in 10th place after losing to Serbia in a penalty shootout.
“After 2018, we realized we were not far from the goal of being in the top eight of the European teams. We continued to practice like we’ve always had from the start. Daily practices, two times a day, 11 sessions per week,” Mavrotas explained.
“The girls sacrificed a lot of their lives to come here to the training center to practice for nearly a whole year, year after year. For us, this training was necessary to succeed.”
Since the Israeli women’s difficult start to their elite water polo careers, the players slightly improved their rank, finishing 9th at the 2020 European Championships in Budapest. Israel’s two closest games in Group B were against Germany and France. While the Israeli women defeated Germany 10-3, they narrowly lost to France 6-10. But, with that loss, France became Israel’s targeted opponent in preparation for the 2022 Europeans in Split.
The opening match in Split was crucial for the Israeli women.
“We knew we could get into the top six if we could make a good game with France in the first round. Since we knew Russia wasn’t in the European Championships, we saw the opportunity to finish in the top six to qualify for the World Championships,” shared Mavrotas.
LEN prohibited Russia’s participation in the tournament due to the country’s war on Ukraine. In 2020, the Russian national team earned silver at the European Championships, establishing the players as formidable opponents. Their absence signified an opportunity for Israel to produce extraordinary results.
The Israeli players dominated the French in the third quarter, leading into the final quarter with the score 8-5. The French were not ready to relinquish the game and began their comeback, scoring two goals to close the gap. With the score standing at 8-7, the Israeli girls clung to hope and continued to put up a good fight.
20-year-old wing player Maria Bogachenko, who scored three of Israel’s goals, remarked, “The ball was in France’s hands in the last 30 seconds of the match. At that moment, I was on the bench with Alma [Yaacobi], praying to God.”
Alma Yaacobi, one of the youngest players on the national team at 18 years old, was the game’s top scorer with four goals. With this being her first appearance on the senior national team, Yaacobi stepped up for her teammates under immense pressure.
Yaacobi attested, “While I have played for age group national teams before, there is a difference in the levels, which felt like a shock. But that difference motivated me to push myself, play better and stronger, and not hold back. It was a very good experience for me.”
As the final seconds continued to tick down, one of the Israeli players stole the ball back and gained possession. Goalkeeper and Captain Ayelet Peres recollected her thoughts when the match against France ended in Israel’s favor.
“During those last few seconds, we had the ball. Then, the whistle sounded. We realized, at that moment, this was truly happening. The celebration in and out of the water was a great moment with the team,” recalled Peres.
Peres saved 9 out of the 16 shots in that game, including a fantastic save at the start of the third quarter. LEN featured her brilliant save as Day 1’s Play of the Day.
By surmounting the challenge to defeat France, Israel secured an advantageous position to crack into the top six. Israel proceeded to win against Slovakia and Serbia in the group stage to qualify for the quarterfinals. Though the Israeli women lost to the Greeks in the quarterfinals, they beat the Croatians to earn sixth place – a historic result. Israel punched its ticket to its first World Championships this summer in Fukuoka.
36-year-old veteran center back Shunit Strugo acknowledged the resources and support the national team has been given by the Israeli Water Polo Association and Israel’s Ministry of Culture and Sports.
“The Israeli Federation saw us as a potential sport for the future where the Olympics is a possibility for us,” said Strugo. “We have been provided with a sports psychologist, nutritionist, and gym coach. Dimitris has gathered more coaches in Israel to increase the staff. Now, we have a goalie coach and many assistant coaches.”
At the recent Berlin Cup, Israel successfully qualified for the Women’s Water Polo World Cup Final, or the “Super Final,” hosted in Long Beach, California. The “Super Final” will commence the Israel team’s busy summer schedule, with this tournament set from June 23 – 25. Afterward, the team will be in Fukuoka about three weeks later, competing to claim one of the two remaining slots open for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.
The final chance to qualify for the Olympics will be at the Doha World Championships in February 2024 – one month following the European Championships hosted by Israel for the first time.
The 2024 European Championships will be held in Netanya at the Wingate Institute. This facility has hosted two other major tournaments in the last two years – the FINA (now World Aquatics) U-20 Women’s Water Polo World Championships in 2021 and the LEN U-19 Women’s Water Polo European Championships in 2022.
While the team is excited for the European Championships to be on their home soil, they are also maintaining their focus on one competition at a time.
“We need to concentrate on the upcoming competitions, but we are very excited to be hosting the European Championships in Israel with our home crowd cheering for us,” resounded Strugo. “I’m sure this will put some extra stress on us, but hopefully, that will push and motivate us. It will be a very nice experience.”
Under the guidance of Mavrotas and with the players’ fierce spirit, the Israel national team could shock the world with its performances this summer into next year. The young women who experienced hostility over four years ago will prepare for the 2024 Europeans to show the world they are here to stay in water polo and continue making history.