Half years later and a couple of hundred kilometres away, Croatia and Hungary staged another epic water polo battle in front of a capacity crowd. Back in September the men’s European crown was at stake in Split, now the last available berth in the World Cup Super Final. In the rematch, the Hungarians stepped up and downed the hosts 13-10, silencing the fans in Zagreb.
On 10 September the Croatians and the Hungarians produced a brilliant match, offering twist and turns, and after a dramatic finish some ten thousand locals were roaring as the hosts managed to edge out their arch-rivals to win the European Water Polo Championships for the second time after 2010.
Well, that 2010 triumph happened in Zagreb, in the same pool where this World Cup European Qualifier took place – though back then, also in September, the outdoor pool was transformed into a giant venue where the Croats beat the Serbs in the semis and outclassed Italy in the final. This also demonstrated that they were traditionally strong at home soil, so making the cut this March tournament in the legendary indoor pool of Mladost, site of a series of fantastic triumphs of the local club in the previous decades, didn’t look a mission impossible.
All their task was to beat either Italy or Hungary (or both), as the USA enjoyed a guaranteed spot as the host the World Cup Super Final. The European Champions came up short, however, in the crucial matches. They were leading 12-7 against Italy in the third round, with one quarter remaining, only to produce a rarely-seen meltdown – the Italians geared up, while the Croats ran out of steam and lost the game 13-14, with a 1-7 crash in the fourth. Since the Magyars also lost to Italy by one, the rematch of the 2022 European final turned into another do-or-die clash between Hungary and Croatia.
A capacity crowd awaited the grand encounter, filling the stands completely. As a strange prelude to the game, the Hungarians fell to the US on the penultimate day of the tournament, suffering a historical six-goal defeat (9-15), something the Magyars have barely experienced (they had only one worse loss in the last 25 years, a 5-12 to Italy at the 2018 Europeans, and not many more ever in the past). It was such a lopsided game, that Croatia’s head coach Ivica Tucak left the scene at halftime, when the US were 9-3 up.
Torn apart, the Magyars looked everything but being ready for a big game against Croatia – but in less than 24 hours they went through a miraculous reincarnation. Their defence tightened up, goalie Marton Levai produced a series of outstanding saves – his colleagues could barely touch a ball against the US –, so in the middle of the second period maestro Tucak had to call an emergency time-out as they were trailing 1-5. Two fast goals brought the crowd to their feet, still, the Hungarians stood firm and held on for 5-7 at halftime.
And they didn’t crash under pressure, while Gergo Zalanki enjoyed an exceptional day – when the leftie got into that ‘zone’, it’s almost impossible to stop him. This earned Recco a Champions League title last season as Zalanki was as cold as ice in the dying seconds and saved the final against Novi Beograd (in Belgrade) to a shootout and also buried the winning penalty. Now he fired shots from all possible angles, forcing the substitution of the home side’s legendary goalie Marko Bijac, but the hosts couldn’t find the answers to his rockets. Zalanki finished the evening with 7 goals, a winning effort in anybody’s language.
Still, deep into the fourth, the Croats somehow climbed back to 10-10 by netting three connecting goals, triggering a Split-like eruption in the stands. Their rivals weren’t done, despite they had to swallow the second VAR denial of a goal scored in buzzer-time. They fought on, put away an extra, then another one – that was Zalanki’s seventh – while killing the 12th man-down between the two. At 10-12, with less than 90 seconds left, the hosts went for a 7 on 6, but the Hungarians made a steal and Krisztian Manhercz sent the ball to the empty net to seal a brilliant win and Hungary’s spot in the Super Final.
“Well, this is sport, you may have a day like this and then three bad matches, so it’s great to score seven goals, but I wouldn’t make a big fuss around this” Hungary’s hero Gergo Zalanki said after the game. And the leftie retained his iceman face too. “Putting things into perspective, beating Croatia in Zagreb is a great feat, still, I’d have rather won the European final in Split, so forgive me if I’m not overjoyed this time.”
Krisztian Manhercz, who overcame his demons by taking a penalty and converting it against Bijac – he had hit the bar from the 5m line at 8-9 at the European final in Split which ultimately cost the title for his side –, also kept his feet on the ground. “Of course, I went there and took responsibility” he said. “Fears for a miss in the past cannot stay with you – mistakes are part of the sport, and you always have the chance to do it better for next time. I decided to take the same shot, only to target the ball lower and it worked.”
Head coach Zsolt Varga, who had spent five splendid seasons in this pool as a Mladost player around the millennium, so was greeted and congratulated for long minutes after the game by die-hard local fans, didn’t go for comparisons with the Split final. “This game wasn’t about last September, it was about bouncing back from the USA game” Varga said. “The players deserve all credits for stepping up and playing on the expected level this time. Having ups and downs is pretty much part of the season at this stage, though the difference between our highs and lows are a bit larger I’d have expected. I’m still happy as the boys really showed a different face today, right from the first moments, and that is quite promising, though I know that we have to a work a lot, an awful lot to reach the level I want to see from Team Hungary.”
“We lost because of our bad start” Tucak fumed after the match. “We scored three goals on our first ten man-ups, hitting blocks, making shots without setting them up with patience. We didn’t go in and played as hard as I expected, but we came back and I congratulate my guys for the character they showed, as they played with desire, tried their best. I wouldn’t say we played brilliantly, we were a bit confused in front and at the other end Zalanki grilled us. He arrived only on Sunday, for the last two games, and being well-rested made the difference.”
“The game wasn’t almost started when we fall 1-5 back…” home player Marko Zuvela said. “We showed character, came back to 10-10 but it took a lot of energy to find the equaliser and that cost us the game as fatigue affected our concentration and they could score two easy goals and that decided the outcome.”
Who will win the #WaterPolo World Cup? 🏆— LEN – European Aquatics (@LENaquatics) March 15, 2023
The @WorldAquatics #WorldCup Division 1 standings are here. 5️⃣ European nations will make their way to the Super Final in Los Angeles 👏 #vaterpolo pic.twitter.com/t9aOYWJBdO
All in all, the Hungarians will go to Los Angeles (they were favoured by the three-way tie-breaker), in the company of Italy and the host USA, while from the other group Spain, Greece and Serbia advanced – interestingly, the hosts of Group B, Montenegro, also fell short.
The Super Final will be held on 30 June–2 July, two more teams are to join the party from the Division II intercontinental tournament, scheduled for April.