Greece was the first team to join Spain in the semi-finals in the men’s World League European qualifiers and soon came Montenegro after a breath-taking comeback against Croatia – they saved the game to a shootout 7.4sec before the end and then won by penalties. Their reward is a semi-final against the world champions as the Italians managed to beat the host Hungarians in an enormous battle, thanks to a brilliant last period where they netted 5 goals, after scoring only four in the first three.

FINA action returned to the pool after a painfully long 303-days wait – but finally it was aquatics at its best again. Indeed it restarted where it had been halted: in the men’s World League quarters though the current tournament reflects to the challenges the world has had to face ever since last March. 

Originally, these would have been quarter-finals played in four locations but only Serbia and Spain could face each other off – and Spain achieved a stunning win in Serbia. The others had to wait until now to come together to one venue, in Debrecen, and play in a bubble-tournament, in front of empty stands and amid strict sanitary measures. Still, all players and coaches were full with praises that at last national teams could restart their activities after the clubs could play throughout Europe.

It was labelled as a friendly match but the players did some serious job – Photo: Istvan Derencsenyi

The opening day kicked off with an entertaining game – it lacked the usual tension since Serbia and Spain met for only a kind of test as their quarter-final from 2020 was not annulled. However, they offered some outstanding water polo as they finished 8-8 in regular time (a traditional draw – they achieved that in their 2018 Euro final and their 2020 Euro quarter-final) and they added a thrilling 11-round penalty shootout where Spain ‘reinforced’ its 2020 victory.

The first ‘real’ clash was much less balanced than the opening exhibition match as Greece was way too dominant in every aspect of the game against France. The Greeks didn’t let the French to the game: after gaining a solid 3-7 lead by halftime they won the second part 0-6 and breathed to the semis.

A traditional Greek 'Laocoon group format', this time in the pool – it was much more straight-forward on the whole...

The arch-rivals’ encounter offered real thrills in the next match as Croatia and Montenegro produced an amazing clash. The first half saw only 5 goals but the second brought 15. Croatia had some great spell and seemed to have it with little more than two minutes remaining as they led 8-10 but the Montenegrins managed to score two great action goals, the second came 7.4 seconds from time, so the penalties decided the outcome. The first eight attempts were all netted when came Montenegro’s reserve goalie Slaven Kandic – he faced that single shot of the match but managed to make a great save on Javier Garcia’s penalty and Drasko Brugljan kept his ice-cold mentality to seal the win for Montenegro.

Marko Bijac was tremendous in the Croatian goal – but he couldn't stop the Montenegrins' comeback

The last game featuring world champion Italy and European champion Hungary also offered everything water polo fans wished for. It was a huge battle from the beginning to the end – the first three periods were more of a chess game with only nine goals, then came a great start from the Italians who scored three goals from as many possessions and that set up a crazy final period. It saw eight goals, but the surge did the damage as the Hungarians could never really recover from the shock, they managed to cut the gap to a single goal three times but ran out of time at the end.

Men (defences) at work: the Italians did a great job in front of their goal

This means that in the semis Greece meets Spain, and Italy faces Montenegro to clinch one of the three qualifying spots for the Super Final.